IT IS WELL, at the start of a discussion, to declare an interest. So, I begin by admitting that my fascination with the year 2000 was aroused nearly 70 years ago. Like many mechanically-minded lads of the 20s and 30s, I was a keen reader of “The Meccano Magazine”. One issue of about 1930 looked forward to the distant future, and to what life would be like in 2000. I have forgotten the text, but a picture remains in my mind of tall, elegant buildings lining a wide street, along which glided, speedily but noiselessly, clean streamlined trains. The pictures and accompanying description appealed to the young Howard, and I dreamed how wonderful it would be to grow so phenomenally ancient as to be around at that splendid time.

Well, here I am, undoubtedly ancient, and hoping for at least a few more months, but, I trust, with a more realistic expectation of life in the coming year.

To avoid causing disappointment, I make clear at the outset what this talk will not be about:

  • my predictions, even expectations, for the next year, century or millennium,
  • a detailed analysis of all of the 900-plus quatrains of the Prophecies of Nostradamus,
  • the many predictions of psychics, cult members or other mystics.

Instead, I offer some random thoughts which have occurred to me as we approach 2000.

Obviously our fascination comes about because any year ending with a zero is seen as a turning point in our lives and history; the more zeroes, the more significant the turn, so we approach the year of the three zeroes with high expectations.

It is hard to imagine what our descendants, if any, will make of the year of the four zeroes (10,000).

Counting in tens is of course quite artificial, and arises from our having two hands with five fingers on each. Five-fingeredness seems almost universal among vertebrates (even the horse, which walks on only one toe per leg, starts life with five).

However, the palaeontologist S.J. Gould points out that this has not always been the case. In his essay “Eight Little Piggies”, he describes how Nature, when she first invented arms and legs for vertebrates, experimented with other numbers of digits, up to eight.

As Gould points out, if this had persisted, having six extra fingers poised over the keyboard would make the playing of a Bach fugue even harder than it is. But, for our present purpose, consider the effect on millenniary celebrations of counting in sixteens instead of tens.

Scale of 16 Scale of 10
1 = 1
10 = 161 = 16
100 = 162 = 256
1000 = 163 = 4096

So, thanks to Nature settling on five-fingeredness, we can celebrate a millennium four times more often than might have been the case.

Last Time Round

Many people are wondering at this time what our predecessors were thinking in the year 999? An historian expert in this period, Richard Landes, has given us a rather confused picture. He considers several problems, and feels the meagre resources available do not yield clear answers. Some problems are:

  • how many people in the 990s knew what year it was?
  • did the literate minority (mainly monks) have a different outlook from the illiterate majority?
  • how far do the written records, which are all we have, ignore this latter group?
  • were other calendars in use then, and so could there have been other years when people were especially fearful or hopeful?

Considering knowledge of the year, an impulse to being informed on this point was the fact that Easter is a movable feast. The main defining element of Christianity was the Resurrection, so that Easter, above all other festivals, was to be observed by all who valued their immortal souls.

Because of its movable nature, knowing when Easter occurred required one to know the year. So-called “Easter Tables” were first drawn up by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, so we can be sure that the year was widely known wherever monks and missionaries were active.

There is a common view that the approach of the end of the first millennium caused widespread panic. If the world was created only a few thousand years ago, it seemed not unlikely that it could end fairly soon. We are offered a picture of rich and poor mingling in vast outdoor congregations waiting for the end, and of the rich giving all their wealth to the Church to buy salvation. This access of riches is supposed to have financed the building of the cathedrals to which tourists flock today. Other authorities suggest that this picture is a fabrication of nineteenth century romantic historians.

One critic has pointed out that arabic numerals were not in use in tenth century Christendom, so the advent of AD1000 would have no obvious significance. This criticism is hardly valid — imagine yourself a monastic scribe of the time; you would welcome the change from DCCCCLXXXXVIIII to M!

Further confusion is possible when we note that other year-counting systems beside the familiar one were in use, even excluding those used outside Christendom.

One such, in vogue before and during the reign of Charlemagne, was called Anno Mundi (AM), Year of the World. This supposedly counted from the Creation, in what we would call 5199BCE. This fitted in with the chronology of the Book of Revelation, which speaks of seven Ages, each of one thousand years. The last Age would be a rather unpleasant one, ruled by Satan and the Anti-Christ, and would begin in 6000AM.

This date corresponded to 801AD, so that anxiety and panic had their opportunity a whole 200 years before the millennium. Fortunately for the world, Charlemagne had himself crowned Head of the Holy Roman Empire in Rome in 801, and this happy event left the forces of darkness gnashing their teeth in impotent fury.

Enter Nostradamus

Enough of AD1000. You will be agog to hear the words of the sixteenth century “prophet” Nostradamus. He was notoriously shy of mentioning dates and places, but note that he claimed in the preface to his “Prophecies” that they ran up to the year AD3797. So only one fifth of the period covered has passed up to the present. Can we therefore conclude that about four fifths of the events he describes have still to happen? If so, which could these be?

I quote a translation of comments by a German author who publishes copiously on “New Age” topics. Surprisingly, his views on Nostradamus are penetrating and verging on the skeptical:

Certainly he applied himself, with his prophetic annual almanacs, to using to his own advantage the weaknesses, small and large, of his contemporaries. For who would not be interested to read what could happen tomorrow or the day after, how one could acquire better fortune in love, health or business, and how one could achieve the healing of infirmities and the fulfilment of cosmetic wishes.

Naturally, Nostradamus was flattered that Catherine de Medici inclined her ear to him, and he was gradually able to slide into the role of a Rasputin at the French Court. And when one is placed in the role of a prophet, perhaps initially on the basis of a few good guesses, it is then not at all easy to renounce it, without great damage to reputation and income. A pressure is thus created to demonstrate ever more insights.

So, Herr Von Rohr. I may add that once Catherine de Medici, who was number one in France at the time, had “inclined her ear” to you, renunciation of your role could damage not only your reputation and income, but your health, and even life, as well.

Much has been said recently about the very rare quatrain in which Nostradamus mentions a definite date. Here is a translation of quatrain X, 72:

The year one thousand nine hundred ninety nine seventh month
From the sky will come a great King of Terror,
To revive the great King of Angolmois,
Before and after Mars to reign in food fortune.

Despite the apparent clarity of the beginning, even this quatrain slides into obscurity; where or what is Angolmois? And to what does the last line refer? There is no satisfactory answer to either question. Although this quatrain claims to see 440 years ahead, Nostradamus failed to spot that only 20 years into the future Pope Gregory would “steal” ten days in his reform of the calendar.

So we could stretch a point and allow up to 10 August for this “prophecy” to come true. Some of his “disciples” looked to the total eclipse of the sun over Europe on 11 August for fulfillment, but as we are still here we must conclude that this prophecy has failed.

Other quatrains are much less specific even than X,72, and successive interpreters have tied themselves into knots trying to unravel them. Unwisely, many of these interpretations relating to the near future have been published in book form, and, as they are overtaken by time their foolishness is plain to see.

For example, Hewitt and Lorie in 1991 “discovered” that Nostradamus had forecast the following:

  • the Pope would die in 1995 (he still lives)
  • Prince Charles would become King in 1992 (Her Majesty still reigns)
  • an earthquake in California would cause San Diego to slide into the sea (still there)

Hewitt and Lorie say nothing of 1999 and X,72.

Another “interpreter”, Nolan, found in quatrain I,22 a prophecy of hail and snow in midsummer 1999, and the start of another ice age. The northern summer just ending has been unusually warm in Europe and North America. In quatrain III, 13 Nolan found reference to the sinking of an ark. He worked hard at this one:

  • Believing that the last word of a quatrain had special significance, he picked on Nagera (means “will swim” in French, I think).
  • He changed letters into numbers according to the following scheme:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
  • Nolan had no success transforming Nagera into a number, but a friend suggested he reverse the word.
  • Aregan yields 195715
  • Subtract “key number” 4713, giving 191002
  • Discard zeros: 1912
  • Year Titanic sank. QED

Can anyone believe that torturing Nostradamus’s writings in this arbitrary way tells us anything about their meaning?

Coincidental Conjunction

Finally, the dreaded planetary conjunction of May, 2000. The old astrologers recognised seven wandering stars, or “planets”, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, with Sun and Moon. (Neptune, etc. are not included, as they are invisible to the naked eye, and do not enter into older astrological discussion.)

At 8h UST, on 8 May, 2000, all seven will be in the same part of the sky. This “conjunction” does not imply a true alignment; they will be spread across almost 26 degrees of arc.

Conjunctions of two planets are common, of three uncommon, and the more planets involved the rarer the event, since the movement of each planet about the sky is independent of the movement of any other. While astrologers view this event as having great significance for humanity, it is not important astronomically. Even when the planets are at their nearest to Earth, their gravitational effects (proportional to their mass times the inverse square of the distance) are minute, and their tidal effects (proportional to their mass times the inverse cube of distance) are quite negligible.

Note too that, because the orbits of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are outside that of Earth, and those of Mercury and Venus are inside, when all five appear in the same part of the sky, the three former are near their furthest from Earth.

The effect of this conjunction on earthly life will be nil; it has been compared with the action of a fly landing on a speeding ten ton truck. I shall NOT be selling all my possessions and taking to the hills on 8 May 2000.

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