A Talk given at the Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on 8th August 2002
Whatever your conceptions and misconceptions of astrologers and astrology I am aware that I tread in the footsteps of Masters. Astrology has an extraordinarily long and colourful history. The study of the stars goes back almost as far as you care to remember. Certainly, we can presume that as soon as man could lift his head above the primordial swamps he must have wondered what those sparkly lights were in the sky at night. And since there was no television for his evening entertainment he began to see the shapes of animals in the patterns of stars. He would also have noted that these lights appeared to move and that if he waited long enough the same star would return to the same spot when, as before, the snow was falling, the plains were flooded or the trees full of blossom. And this happened again and again and again. Star-gazing was first and foremost a way of measuring time: when to plant, when to reap, when to cull the deer, when to expect the rains and the snows. But out of man's instinctual need to find something greater in the universe than himself, someone to blame when things went wrong and to praise when everything in the garden was wonderful, an explanation as to how all things came into being and functioned, great myths were created. The stars were gods and goddesses. They held sway over the affairs of men. And as time went by the star-gazers became more sophisticated, and the myths ever more complex. You only have to go to Egypt and visit the stunning temple of Dendera, built some 3000 years before Christ, to comprehend the mystical significance the constellations held for the Ancient Egyptians.
However, astrology as we know it today: the study of the planets in our solar system, their cycles and their influence, began in Babylon some four thousand years ago - around 2000 BC. The Babylonian sky-watchers were the first real astronomer/astrologers: they observed the stars and made precise calculations of the movements of the planets. And by the time Jesus Christ was born the science and art of astrology had developed to a high degree. Indeed the Magi were almost certainly astrologer/priests who did not suddenly see a star in the East and immediately mount camels in hot pursuit of it. Their calculations informed them of significant celestial phenomena and a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in Pisces - for this must surely have been the Star of Bethlehem - would have been very significant indeed. With only their wooden measuring instruments to go by the Ancient Babylonian astronomers were oblivious to Uranus, Neptune and Pluto - it would take another two millennia to discover this trio - they believed Jupiter and Saturn to be the two outermost bodies in the solar system, consequently they attributed great power to these planets. And while these ancient star-gazers would have known that Jupiter and Saturn formed a conjunction every 20 years or so, what was so impressive about this one was that it was taking place in the mystical sign of Pisces - something that happened only every nine hundred and sixty years - and then not just once, but three times in the one year. Thus, this conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was no common or garden event but one they believed presaged the birth of a wondrous king, no less the birth of the Messiah. This conjunction, by the way, happened in 7BC. And we are probably looking at a date of September 12th for the birth of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus was a Virgo.
Now, it is not my intention to give you a history lesson tonight but I did want to put astrology into some kind of perspective. To many people astrology is the province of the irrational few but the astrology practised today by astrologers like myself comes out of a great and ancient tradition. And while the whole issue of how astrology works - how lumps of rock careering around a star, our sun, can possibly have any effect on who we are and what happens to us - is the subject of a whole other lecture I do want to make the point that until comparatively recently - and we're talking about the end of the Seventeenth Century - astrology and astronomy were but two branches on a single stem. And also, rather crucially, that the exponents of astrology right from the time of the Ancient Babylonians, through to the Age of Reason and including such hallowed names as Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Keppler, were revered by one and all - they were the great intellectuals of their day, grappling with the laws of the universe and at the same time exploring and defining man's place in the grand scheme of things.
And I'm looking forward to the day when astrology will once again be held in a high place.
For our talk tonight I want to focus on one of the most famous astrologers of all time, Michel de Nostradame. In the sixteenth Century it was fashionable to Latinize your name, which is why we know him as Nostradamus. Today, as in the sixteenth century, his book of prophecies, The Centuries, is a best seller. I'm going to discuss some of those prophecies shortly, especially those that have meaning for us now in light of the War on Terror, but first a bit of background on the seer himself.
As with all great figures of history the man must be separated from the myth. And there are many apocryphal stories about Nostradamus. What we do know about him was that he was born on the 14th December 1503. He was a Capricorn, with a moon in Scorpio and a powerful stellium in Cancer - Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. And by the way, as far as Renaissance man was concerned, Jupiter and Saturn were still the outermost planets in the solar system and therefore the relationship between them was just as paramount as it was in 7BC. To be born at the time of a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction virtually guaranteed fame or infamy and certainly a life lived in interesting times. And still today Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions are considered to be harbingers of major national and international developments - Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated on a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan both suffered attempts on their lives under a conjunction of these two planets, Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married on a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction - in Libra incidentally, the sign of partnership - and a whole host of other important developments happened under the most recent conjunction in the year 2000 - not least the coming into power of President Assad of Syria. Of which we will hear more later.
Some biographers have maintained that Nostradamus came from the Jewish tribe of Issachar, a people who could 'read the moon and the stars' and interpret the heavens. Others report that he was the grandson of the famous physician and astrologer to the French Court, Jean de Remy. However, the reality is somewhat less illustrious. Michel was born into a family of Jewish grain dealers who converted to Christianity a couple of years before Nostradamus was born in order to evade being deported from France. (When the French throne reverted to Louis XII he decreed on September 26th 1501, that all Jews were to renounce their religion or leave Provence.)
Michel was an exceptionally clever little boy. He lived with and was educated by his paternal grandfather, Pierre, who was a much travelled man of great intellect. His maternal grandfather also taught him for a while. Thus, from an early age he was exposed to Hebrew, Latin, science, mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. By the time he entered university at Avignon his passion for the study of the stars had reached such a crescendo that he was nick-named Le petit astrologue. Nostradamus spent hour upon hour in the vast library at the university reading works on magic, alchemy and astrology. His love of such things did not go down well at home, however, and his parents fearing he would end his days prematurely on a woodpile courtesy of the Inquisition, insisted that he study medicine, which he did for some four years at the University of Montpellier.
As we astrologers know only too well, even when it appears we have taken a route entirely opposite to the one we believe to be our destiny it invariably turns out to be the right one. And so it was with Michel and medicine for he achieved his first measure of fame, not as an astronomer, nor as a prophet, but as a doctor. In the early fifteen-hundreds France, in keeping with much of Europe, suffered periodic bouts of the plague. Michel gained a reputation for treating and curing the plague, which he appears to have done with the aid of his own formulas - secret mixtures of herbs that he no doubt gleaned from his study of healing and magic in the library of Avignon University - and a precocious understanding of the importance of cleanliness, fresh air, running water, and a refusal to bleed patients, which was common practice in his day. Needless to say his success was not greeted with applause by other doctors, especially since he broke ranks by refusing to wear the requisite magic coat of seven colours donned by all Medieval doctors for protection.
Something else all astrologers understand - one's knowledge does not protect one from the slings and arrows of fate, even if we could find a magic coat of seven colours. And tragically, despite curing hundreds of people he was unable to save his own family. His wife, son and daughter all died from the plague. But in keeping with his stalwart Capricorn spirit, he lived to fight another day, marrying for the second time at the age of forty-four and producing six more children, three daughters and three sons.
It wasn't until 1550, at the age of forty-seven that Michel began in earnest to devote himself to the occult. In that year he launched into print with an almanac, which covered the weather, crops, animal husbandry and the odd supernatural occurrence. Not unlike the Old Moore's Almanac that is still in print today, which by great coincidence was the first publication I ever wrote for - an essential rite of passage, perhaps. At the same time Michel was writing a serious tome, Le Traite des Fardemens. He had also embarked on what was to become his most famous work of all, his prophecies, otherwise known as The Centuries.
The Centuries was intended to be a book of one thousand prophecies spanning roughly one and a half millennia - from 1555, the year they were published, until 3775. These one thousand predictions were divided into ten groups, each comprising one hundred four-line stanzas. Hence the title, The Centuries. The entire one thousand did not emerge at once, either, they came out in clumps: the full text, entitled Les Propheties de M. M. Nostradamus, was published some thirteen years later in 1568. However, there are not one thousand predictions: for some inexplicable reason Centuries VII contains only forty-two. Then again, nothing Nostradamus ever did really added up...
Nostradamus is kind enough to tell us the methods by which he made his predictions in the first two quatrains of Centuries 1.
|Estant afsis de nuict secret efstude||sitting alone at night in secret study.|
|Seul repose sur la selle d'aerain||it rests solitary on the brass tripod.|
|Flambe exigue fortant de solitude||A slight flame comes out of the emptiness|
|Fait psperer q n'eft a croire vain||making successful that which would have been in vain.|
|La verge en main au milieu de BRANCHES||The wand in the hand is placed, in the middle of the tripod.|
|De l'onde il moulle & le limb & le pied:||He sprinkles with water both the hem of the garment and his foot|
|Vn peur & voix fremissent par les manches:||Fear, a voice runs trembling through the sleeves (of robe)|
|Splendeur divine. Le divin pres s'assied.||Divine splendour; the God sits nearby|
Here we have a picture of Nostradamus seated alone at night with a candle and a tripod upon which a bowl of water is placed. Nostradamus, by gazing into the water until it became cloudy would then see visions of the future. The second quatrain tells us that he was clairaudient as well - fear, a voice runs trembling through the robe Why trembling through the robe I'm not sure, unless it is to give the impression of a vibration. The mention of water to wash the feet is also an allusion to the common practice, still employed by modern-day mediums and healers, of using water to cleanse the extremeties before opening up the psyche.
These two quatrains, like the remaining nine hundred and forty, are a mixture of French, Latin, doggerel, anagrams and acronyms. Take the word BRANCHES, which is written in capitals: this could represent the branches, or legs, of the tripod but it could also be an indirect reference to the prophetess at Branchus. Nostradanus was the king of the double entendre - he hid double and sometimes triple meanings everywhere in his text. But when Nostradamus uses capital letters he is showing us very definitely that this word needs to be examined closely to glean its meaning. Also the phrase, flambe exigue - a slight flame almost certainly has a double meaning, both the flame of the candle itself and the light of inspiration.
This is just speculation, of course, but it may be no coincidence that only a few years prior to the appearance of the first set of Centuries, a reprint of a book of prophecy by the fourth century Platonist, Iamblichus, was published, which detailed just such methods of divination. Then there are some other wilder theories about where he developed his predictive skills. And I cannot resist mentioning this.
Some of you may remember the furore caused by the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that was published in the mid-nineteen-eighties. This book hypothesized that Jesus Christ did not die on the cross at all but was secretly brought to the South of France by Mary Magdalene, his wife. Furthermore, he fathered a dynasty. The book claims that this is the great secret held by the mysterious Priory of Sion - that even today this dynasty is alive and well and living in France, waiting for the appropriate moment to assume power - a moment when the world is in a near-state of collapse. Which probably makes it any day now. This secret society, whose origins appear to date back to the time of the Knights Templars has had as its Grand Masters such esteemed figures as Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Issac Newton, Victor Hugo and Claude Debussy. So it is not quite so easy to dismiss the theory or the organization as a prawn short of a sea food salad!
Holy Blood, Holy Grail makes a claim that Nostradamus's great grand-father, Jean Remy, who lived close to the organization's headquarters in the South of France, was not just astrologer to Rene of Anjou, the King of France, but also a member of the Priory of Sion, of which the King was the then Grand Master. The theory goes that Michel was given the secrets of this organization by his grandfather, which included the prophecies for the future of mankind, and invited to commit them to posterity by means of a book. Thus, this is the principle reason why the prophecies are so abstruse and are not placed in chronological order. One does not give away the secrets of a secret society.
Whatever the case, considering the Inquisition, it was certainly safer, to make these predictions as fluid and open to interpretation as possible and in keeping with almost all prophecies, and as Nostradamus himself maintained, they were to be understood after the event, rather than before it!
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