It's the end of the world as we know it (but I feel fine)

It brings out the worst in all of us, the end of the world. As you read this, there is a chap in Sussex preparing for the final reckoning, getting ready to go up onto the Downs next Saturday night with his Bible to await the end of everything, which comes sometime on Sunday. In rural hideaways in Japan, whole families are conducting last-minute surveys of their bunker's stocks of dehydrated soup, dehydrated milk, dehydrated meat - everything except dehydrated water. The Internet is pulsing with messages from people desperately asking questions such as whether they should move out of New York before the weekend - as if Armageddon is going to be so particular.

One man lies behind this global Saturday night fever - the 16th-century apothecary, doctor and astrologer Michel de Nostredame. His prophecies have inspired terrified anticipation at various points for the past 400 years. But this weekend, two of them coincide.

The first is the notion that some Great King of Terror is about to descend upon the planet bringing war in his happy wake. The event is to occur - according to one of only a dozen of the French seer's hundreds of predictions for which he gave a date - in the seventh month of the year 1999.

The second is that some terrible event is to be expected on the day that the place of the eagle celebrates its great festival - which can only mean, in the febrile paranoia of the modern prophetic mind, the United States and the Fourth of July.

Bring the two together and the End of the World will come on Sunday.

It is easy, of course, to mock. Last weekend's newspapers were full of tongue-in-cheek articles which indulged both our primitive urge to be frightened by the future and our sceptical scorn for everything which cannot be scientifically proven - lots of fire and brimstone, plus jokes about partying like there's no tomorrow, which in the case of this Saturday night, there won't be. Ho, ho.

All of this has something to tell us about our time. For we are no longer scientific and modern, so much as "post" both those things. History has ended and the great meta-narratives which gave some sense of shape and meaning to human destiny - whether belonging to Christianity, Marxism or the Enlightenment's notions of moral progress - have lost their purchase. Yet something survives. It is the human need to impose order on chaos, to make shapes out of the events of mere existence.

Nostradamus - with his 1,141 prophecies, each rhymed in four lines, and divided into 10 books which are known as "Centuries", which have sold more copies than any book except the Bible - offers the perfect tool.

There is nothing new in this, of course. The elliptical prophecies of the French Renaissance sibyl constitute the perfect palimpsest on which each generation can inscribe its own future. His own contemporaries believed Nostradamus could successfully predict everything from the weather to the circumstances of the death of the King of France in a duel. The Emperor Napoleon saw in Nostradamus prophecies of his own glorious victories. Goebbels perceived evidence of Hitler's triumphs and the success of his thousand-year Reich. Others have discovered predictions of the Great Fire of London, the French and Russian revolutions, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the events of the Gulf War.

The problem with all this is that every bit of it depends as much upon the ingenuity of the reader as it does on Nostradamus' highly ambiguous text. The reference to the Gulf War, for example, is based on Century V, quatrain 33, which says that a great dictator must be brought to heel by "le noir l'ireux" ("the furious black"). It has been interpreted in the following manner: Saddam Hussein was defeated by the allied commander General Schwarzkopf, whose name in German means, literally, "blackhead", and whose nickname was Stormin' Norman.

On such tenuous bases are many dogmatic statements about Nostradamus's predictions made. Others are rooted in wishful thinking: modern Americans detect references to New York when the doctor from Provence was more likely, in his references to New City, to be talking of nearby Villeneuve- sur-Lot or Villanova d'Asti in northern Italy. Yet others are rooted in ignorance of Latinate 16th-century French: the best-known of the modern translations, by Erika Cheetham, is full of schoolgirl howlers stemming from over-literal use of the pocket English-French dictionary, compounded by her inability to read her own hand-writing when typing up her notes.

More than that, the rash of modern translations are almost all based on corrupt texts. Of which this week's predictions of horror are a prime example, according to Britain's leading Nostradamus expert, Peter Lemesurier. The key bit (Century X, quatrain 72) reads:

L'an mil neuf cens nonante neuf sept mois

Du ciel viendra un grand Roy d'effraieur

Resusciter le grand Roy d'Angolmois,

Avant apres Mars regner par bon heur.

Or, as the traditional translation puts it:

In the seventh month of 1999,

From the sky will come a great King of Terror.

He will resurrect the great King of Angolmois.

Before and afterwards war reigns happily.

Until now, rows have centred around whether Angolmois means the ruler of France or is an anagram from "Mongolians". Erika Cheetham read it as the coming of the Third Antichrist foreshadowing the advent of Christ's Second Coming and the End of the World. Other adepts insisted that it would be the return of Genghis Khan or, on even more fragile evidence, Attila the Hun.

The problem is that they were all working from post-1605 texts which left out an apostrophe. Go back to the original 1555, 1557 or 1568 versions and instead of "d'effraieur" the original says "deffraieur" - making him not a king of terror, but one who defrays, buys-off, appeases or is a spendthrift. "More than that, the phrase `du ciel' elsewhere in Les Propheties suggests not `from the sky' so much as `from heaven' - implying some kind of divine or overall authority," Lemesurier says. "And Mars, instead of referring to the God of War, could as easily refer to the month of March." All in all, he suggests, not altogether seriously, it could as likely refer to the return of Romano Prodi, the former Prime Minister of Italy and now the next President of the European Commission, as it does to Armageddon.

A further blow to the Doomsday scenario comes from Lemesurier's reading of Century I, Quatrain 58, which supposedly foreshadows some calamitous event for the Day of the Eagle. It could spell doom for the United States this 4 July, he concedes. But it could just as easily portend that, at some unspecified date in the future, Siamese twins will be born by Caesarean section in the Italian city of Aquileia.

There is something else. Nostradamus was working on the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind ours, so his "seventh month" would not begin until 14 July - which blows the two predictions apart rather than bringing them together. It is hardly the basis, even to the most paranoid Nostradamus- inflamed American mind, for selling all you have and heading for the hills.

None of this makes the scholarly Lemesurier popular with Nostradamus fans. "They tend to work backwards. Instead of using comparative readings of 16th-century language and events to see what Nostradamus might mean, they start with 20th-century events and seek them out in the quatrains," he says. "That is why Nostradamus appears always to have predicted whatever has just happened - the death of Diana, the chemical weapons of Saddam or the adultery of Bill Clinton."

What no one talks about are the many prophecies of Nostradamus which have never come true - such as the Muslim invasion of Europe that he was constantly predicting. But by ignoring the awkward bits which don't fit the modern world, and seeking out what does, you can make most things fit. Small wonder that the quatrains have become the cryptic crosswords of the New Age movement.

But belief, however wild, has consequences, as does its absence. In 1989, the Japanese guru Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, went to Lyon to consult France's leading expert on Nostradamus's books and to take microfilms and photocopies of the original prophetic texts. Over the next six years, hopeless misinterpretations of these, much like those cited above, featured in all the cult's books predicting the end of the world. In March 1995, in order to help bring it about, they then bombed the Tokyo subway with Sarin gas, killing and injuring many people. Today Nostradamus fever has seized Japan. According to one recent poll, 20 per cent of the population believe that before the end of July a war will break out which will destroy a third of the world's population.

We have nothing like that here, of course, but in our world where people avidly read magazine horoscopes they purport not to believe in, something lingers. Where there is nothing worthwhile to believe in, people will find something crazy. And those who find all belief preposterous will look for something easy to mock to confirm their view of the world too. Which is why the madness of Nostradamus continues to offer comfort to us all.

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