A COVID-19 Prophecy: Did Nostradamus Have a Prediction About This Apocalyptic Year?

By Kate BoveLast Updated Dec 9, 2020 10:04:57 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Godong/Universal Images Group/Getty Images; Radoslav Zilinsky/Moment/Getty Images

In early April of 2020, Rae Alexandra wrote an article for KQED titled "Perhaps Nostradamus Predicted Coronavirus After All…" — a headline that’s sure to give some readers pause. However, the journalist is quick to point out that memes circulating Facebook during the pandemic’s onset, which claimed the 16th-century French astrologer prophesied 2020’s novel coronavirus, were not backed by fact. For the uninitiated, Nostradamus was not just an astrologer and physician, but also a reputed seer.

Thanks to his 1555 book, The Prophecies, Nostradamus earned quite a reputation and has since been credited with predicting quite a few landmark events, from the French Revolution to 9/11. Like any seer worth their salt, he also predicted when the world will end. So, why not buy into the fact that he predicted COVID-19 as well? The Facebook post that seemingly started it all claimed that Nostradamus predicted the coronavirus in a 1551 passage about "a plague spreading from the east," though multiple fact-checkers have deemed this not only inaccurate, but also totally fabricated. PolitiFact noted that its fact-checkers couldn’t even find the passage the meme post allegedly quoted. So, the question remains: How could any part of this prophecy possibly ring true?

How Did Nostradamus Become Known as a Seer?

When Nostradamus was a teenager, he was sent home from the University of Avignon — not due to bad behavior or failing grades, but because of a bubonic plague outbreak. Instead, he became a student of the world, learning more about disciplines like medicine and astrology, before traveling around France and Italy to treat Black Death victims using all he’d learned. Unlike other plague doctors of his era, Nostradamus was fairly progressive; he didn’t subscribe to mercury potions or bloodletting with leeches, but, instead, emphasized better hygiene and prescribed Vitamin C-containing "rose pills," low-fat diets and getting some fresh air to his many patients.

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Photo Courtesy: ullstein bild/Getty Images

With a high cure rate to his name, Nostradamus became something of a celebrity for a time, but, after being charged with (light) heresy, he left his doctoring ways behind to explore ancient sites in Italy, Greece and Turkey. As the story goes, the former plague doctor made his first prediction, citing that a monk he met on his travels would become the pope — and reportedly that monk did turn out to be Pope Sixtus V. By 1554, he went from writing astrology almanacs and practicing medicine to penning Les Prophesies, a collection of predictions that would cement his long-lasting legacy.

According to History, the seer was wary of persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, even though he didn’t link his predictions with magic, and "devised a method of obscuring the prophecies’ meanings by using quatrains — rhymed four-line verses — and a mixture of other languages such as Greek, Italian, Latin and Provencal, a dialect of Southern France." While some folks still thought him to be tied to the devil — or, according to some of his peers, a hack — notable figures of the day, like Catherine de Medici, fawned over him and his visions. All of this to say, both doubt and admiration have always orbited Nostradamus, and, in some ways, his journey to seerdom began as a result of a pandemic.

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Nostradamus’ Most Famed Prophecies

It’s clear that Nostradamus isn’t a supernatural figure with powers or abilities — he was just very adept at bibliomancy, or the practice of divining the future by interpreting a passage from a sacred text, like the Bible. In fact, linguist, translator and Nostradamus aficionado Peter Lemesurier expanded upon this idea, and History summarized his notions, explaining that, "[Nostradamus] simply believed that history will repeat itself. …[He] purportedly selected extracts from older sources at random and then used astrological calculations to project its recurrence in the future."

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Photo Courtesy: Eugène Delacroix (Louvre Museum) via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so he wasn’t claiming to be Cassandra of Troy, but there’s still something kind of dubious about his astrology-informed bibliomancy. So, why all the hype? Well, Nostradamus has seemingly predicted several history-making moments.

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Here are excerpts from several well-known quatrains and the events they allegedly relate to:

  • The Death of Henry II: "He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage," Nostradamus wrote. And then Henry II was stabbed through his helmet — and through his eye — during a jousting match, which led to his untimely death.
  • The French Revolution: When the Third Estate stormed the Bastille and took control of Paris, it did seem to parallel the seer’s words, "From the enslaved populace, songs, / Chants and demands / While princes and lords are held captive in prisons."
  • The Discovery of Pasteurization: "Pastor will be celebrated almost as a God-like figure" — and, yes, Louis Pasteur’s last name does translate to "pastor."
  • The Rise of Adolf Hitler: "From the depths of the West of Europe, / A young child will be born of poor people, / He who by his tongue will seduce a great troop; / His fame will increase towards the realm of the East," Nostradamus wrote. In another quatrain, he also penned "The greater part of the battlefield will be against Hister," which some believe to be a misspelling of the fascist dictator’s name.
  • The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: "The dreadful war which prepared in the West, the following year the pestilence will come, so very horrible that young, nor old, nor animal (will survive)." The pandemic came on the heels of World War I — enough said.
  • Sept. 11, 2001: Nostradamus spoke of "two great rocks" and "tremors" in a place called "New City," though other parts of the quatrain don’t seem to connect with that tragic day.

The seer is also credited with predicting JFK’s assassination, the Great Fire of London and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, now, the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Is There Any Connection Between Nostradamus and the COVID-19 Pandemic?

If the memes were discredited by fact-checkers, why are we still wondering if Nostradamus predicted the novel coronavirus pandemic? Well, although KQED’s Rae Alexandra called many of the passages folks were citing "aggravatingly non-specific," the writer did stumble upon something a little more striking. The passage reads: "In the feeble lists, great calamity through America and Lombardy. The fire in the ship, plague and captivity; Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn warning."

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Photo Courtesy: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Without a doubt, America and Italy (perhaps what Lombardy is a stand-in for) suffered (and continue to suffer) greatly from the COVID-19 pandemic and rank among the countries with the highest death tolls the world over. And there’s that bit about "plague and captivity," which sounds a lot like the cruise ships full of COVID-19 victims at the pandemic’s onset. Alexandra also points out that "Mercury entered Sagittarius in December 2019, which is when the first cases of coronavirus occurred, and Saturn moved into Aquarius on March 21, right as New York City was going into lockdown."

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However, with wonky translations — of already wonky, purposefully disguised material — and rather vague predictions in general, it could all be a case of choosing what we want to see. Some folks might want Nostradamus to be right, for there to be rhyme and reason for tragic, life-altering events. But whether you believe in his predictions or not, it’s clear that Nostradamus did rightly assert that history repeats itself — and maybe it’s as simple as that.