ORACLES OF NOSTRADAMUS - Magic
BEFORE we enter upon the historical application of the quatrains which admit of interpretation, it will be well to devote a little attention to the views of magic entertained by Nostradamus, to learn from his own mouth what class of readers he proposed to address, and to gather, as far as we may be able, in what manner he proceeded to cultivate the spirit of prophecy and the divine gift with which he thought himself to be endowed. Were he even as certainly an impostor as Cagliostro, this inquiry would have an interest of its own attaching to it; but if we can for a moment suppose that he genuinely believed himself to be endowed with a faculty of divination, the investigation of that assumption on his part would present a considerable psychological interest merely as a human phenomenon. On the other hand, if he were a man truly gifted with forecast, I do not know that, in this age of scepticism as to things spiritual, anything more wholesome could be proposed to our contemplation than a prophetic record fulfilling itself before the eyes of disbelievers and gainsayers; who, wishing to scoff and desiring to suppress such things, find themselves utterly powerless to annul the harmony between the vision recorded three hundred years ago and the event of yesterday. Whether such things are or not, it will be for the reader, when he has gone through the book, to say. At present we will only busy ourselves with what Nostradamus
says of himself. He is a notability and worthy of criticism be the final verdict for or against him.
At the end of Century VI. occur four Latin lines headed--
LEGIS CANTIO CONTRA INEPTOS CRITICOS. [I. 51.]
Qui legent hosce versus maturè censunto,
Profanum vulgus et inscium ne attrectato,
Omnesque Astrologi, Blenni, Barbari procul sunto.
Qui aliter facit, is ritè sacer esto.
The sense of these lines is much clearer than the prosody, but that matters little.
AN INCANTATION IN ARREST OF INEPT CRITICS.
Let those who read these verses meditate them seriously! Let the profane and ignorant vulgar not handle them! Let astrologers, fools, and savages stand off! Who acts contrary to this, let him he cursed according to the rites of magic.
We now come to the magic formula.
Century I.--Quatrain I. [I. 52.]
Gathered at night in study deep I sate,
Alone, upon the tripod stool of brass,
Exiguous flame came out of solitude,
Promise of magic that may be believed.
Being seated at night and wrapt in secret study, entirely alone, I placed myself on the brazen tripod of prophecy. A still small flame came forth of solitude, helping me to realize successfully what it will not prove vain to have believed.
The reader will here refer to the "Preface à mon fils," p. 44.
"L'entendement cree intellectuellement ne peut voir occultement, sinon par la voix faicte au lymbe moyennant la exigue flame, en laquelle partie les causes futures se viendront à incliner."
This passage conveys in prose what the last and the following quatrain conveys in verse.
THE MAGICAL CALL BY WATER. [I. 53.]
Century I.--Quatrain 1.
The rod in hand set in the midst of the Branches,
He moistens with water both the fringe and foot;
Fear and a voice make me quake in my sleeves;
Splendour divine, the God is seated near.
To make this entirely clear is almost impossible. But what we can get at is very curious, showing as it does, if nothing else, that the borderland of the unseen world was actually contiguous with that of the world of Nostradamus. They even overlapped, in his estimation, so as to form an intermediate neutral territory like the marches in the North, where the inhabitants of each district could meet and communicate. We are positive that this is all illusive, superstitious, demoniacal. It may be so. But one effect it undeniably produces. It unites man more to the universe, and less to the world; it makes death less strange and less cold, and
furnishes to the soul, and the things of the soul, more nutriment than it can extract from modern life and culture.
The general meaning seems to be that he sat with a wand, branch, or divining-rod of laurel, probably forked like the winchel rod of the water-finders, one fork being held in each hand. This in some way had power to evoke his Genius (or génie familier, as Le Pelletier styles it). When he appeared, he moistened in the brazier that held water, himself, the fringe of his robe (limbe), and his foot. The rod, held as I have suggested, then becoming electrical, caused fear with the sound of a voice and a shuddering up to the elbows. Then shone forth the fatidical splendour of a divine light, and the Deity is present, seated near to him.
M. le Pelletier tells us that there was a pagan rite of the god Branchus that corresponded with this fatidical ceremony practised by Nostradamus. He even suggests that this very Branchus might have been the familiar spirit of our prophet. It must be admitted that in the texte-type, in the words "au milieu de BRANCHES," Branches is printed in capital letters, so that the probable reason for that peculiarity is that the God Branchus, as well as the branches d'un laurier, is shadowed forth. But to suppose that a pagan deity could ever be either the familiar or the guardian angel of a son of the Church of Rome makes such a Renaissance-jumble of the two religions that I think we had better not meddle with it.
As to the assertion that there was a pagan rite of Branchus, I doubt it much; and, if there were, certain it is that Nostradamus speaks here far too covertly for us to assume from his writing that he was discharging any rite special to Branchus. He seems to be following out the usual magical forms employed for establishing vaticinatory connection with the other world, or setting up the counter analogy between
mind and spirit, according to that beautiful esoteric verse in Ecclesiasticus (xlvii. 24), "All things are double, one against another; He hath made nothing imperfect." Were such things never to interlink, men might well say, as they do now in the wisdom of science, that spirit and intellect are not doubles, and that no knowledge can be reached save by physical experiment. In this case there will be a particular link missing if science be right. The sage, Estant assis de nuict secret estude, will earnestly desire such assumption may prove to be erroneous. He will readily formulate with St. Paul that the invisible things from creation may be known from the visible; but also that the visible things can never be understood but by the invisible. Recollect that the visible is not visible to the visible, but to the invisible alone. The eye is the machine of sight, but not sight; and who has seen the eye of the eye?
The Greek myth about Branchus, so far as I can see, is this, with sundry forms and variations. He was a youth of Miletus. The reputed son of Smicrus (Lempriere), or Macarcus Varro says, but begotten by Apollo. The mother dreamed that the sun entered her mouth, and, passing through her, the child at birth was named Branchus, βρόγχος, the throat. Afterwards he kissed Apollo in the woods, and became endowed with the gift of prophecy. He had a temple at Didyma, which Pausanias calls the Temple of Apollo; but Varro goes on to say that after the kiss of the god he prophesied, but quickly after disappeared, when a grand temple was jointly dedicated to him and to Apollo,--Philesius, from φιλεῖν, to kiss. His oracles at Didyma were inferior to none but Delphi. The name Didymean, double or twain, was from the double light of the sun and its reflection in the moonlight. Sun-touched and moon-struck madness and inspiration may in Branchus be said to meet,
as out of one throat come things good and evil. The name Didymean was changed to Branchidæ. Strabo (Book xlv.) relates that the priests of this grand temple betrayed its treasures to Xerxes, and accompanied him in his retreat to escape the punishment of their sacrilege. They had settled near to Sogdiana, when Alexander arrived there (Strabo, Book xi.); he destroyed them and their city. This Byronical madman, who could see no iniquity in the slaughter of thousands to gratify the lust of a crack-brained ambition, thought to promote morals by slaughtering the descendants of traitors, they, the descendants, being innocent of everything except being born. The Milesians had long ago rebuilt the temple of Branchus on such a scale that in magnitude it surpassed all others in Greece. It was, in fact, too big to be roofed in, being four or five stadia in compass. Those who wish to see more can consult Suidas, s. v., βραγχίδαι.
The gloss of M. le Pelletier on the quatrain is as follows: that Nostradamus, wand in hand, touches the branches of the tripod, like the priests of Branchus (this I have tried to expunge), and invokes his familiar spirit, which appears to him in the vapour floating above a basin of water, which he had consecrated beforehand according to prescribed magical rites, and in which he dips the fringe of his garment, and his feet. An involuntary shivering (peur) agitates his hand when about to write from the dictation (voix) of the spirit. The fatidical light shines, and the angel is seated at his side. Le Pelletier takes occasion here to remark that mediums at this day write under a spirit of dictation, to which they simply lend their arm as an instrument.
Garencières' interpretation is that of most of the old commentators, even down to the time of M. Bareste, 1840. The rod is a pen, in the middle of the branches means his fingers, the water is the ink, and wetting limb and foot is
covering the paper all but the four margins. It is hardly unfair to say that this is both nonsensical and ignorant, although not devoid of ingenuity. I think it will fit the circumstances far better to take it, as I have done, that the wand was a forked laurel branch that dipped forcibly, like the winchel rod, when Nostradamus held it over the water, that it strained, as the hazel-rod does, almost to breaking, and that at this invitation it is to be supposed that the spirit appears. The incantation being completed and successful, the operator must be supposed to set aside the winchel, and assume the pen, quaking with a solemn sense of the spiritual presence. This fear was, Garencières says, to prevent the puffing up of pride, as we read in Daniel, John, and the 4th of Esdras.
Readers who take no interest in this, and are consequently weary by this time of the length we have run into in the investigation, will leap over what follows to get to the next quatrain.
M. le Pelletier refers to Ficinus' translation of Jamblicus' "De Mysteriis Ægyptiorum," 1607. He gives the Latin and French. I will merely introduce here the English translation, as the book is of easy reference to those who wish to examine further for themselves the sources which Nostra, damus had consulted, and from which he drew his summary exposition.
"The sibyl at Delphi received the god in two forms,--either by a subtle and fiery spirit, which burst forth upon any one through the crevice of some cavern, or else sitting on a brazen seat of four or three feet in the inner shrine, dedicated to the god, and where she was exposed on two sides to the divine influx, whence she was irradiate with a divine light" (p. 66).
"Now, the prophetess of Branchus either sits upon a pillar, (r holds in her hand a rod bestowed by some deity, or moistens her feet or the hem of her garment with water, or inhales the vapour of water, and by these means is filled with divine illumination, and. having obtained the
deity, she prophesies. By these practices she adapts herself to the god, whom she receives from without" (p. 67).
"Porphyrius says that the art [or magic] is not to be despised which, out of certain vapours due to fire under favourable stellar influences, forms the images of gods spontaneously appearing in the air, in a certain degree like the gods themselves, and possessing a very similar efficacy" (p. 90.
"For amongst the demons there is one who is chief, and who exercises influence at the moment of birth, and apportions to each his demon (or familiar). After this there is present to each one his own guardian, that develops a cultus congruous to his nature, and teaches him both his name and the most suitable form of invocation (to bring him when required), and this method is most congenial to the demons" (p. 171).
These forms of Jamblicus are analogous to those employed by Nostradamus; but there the person prophesying wets the feet and fingers, whilst according to our version Of the quatrains it is the demon or spirit applies them to himself: Le Divin près s'assied. In Jamblicus the one who prophesies becomes possessed by entry of the spirit. Nostradamus describes an external and visible presence which corresponds to Porphyrius' account of deorum idola in aere.
CORPOREAL DEMONS. [I. 59.]
Century I.--Quatrain 42.
La dix Calendes d'Avril de faict gotique
Resuscité encor par gens malins:
Le feu estainct, assemblée diabolique
Cherchant les os du Damant et Pselin. 1
The 10th of the Calends of April Gothic computation have been again put in practice by sorcerers (gens malins). The lights put out, the diabolic assembly searching for the Demon [Damant for Démon] treated of by Michael Psellus.
The texte-type is most corrupt in this quatrain; for
[paragraph continues] Damant et Pselin read Démon e (or ex) Pselin, the demon as treated of by Psellus.
The scholium of M. le Pelletier on this is--The magical incantations, which were successful formerly when wrought on the night of Good Friday, were reintroduced into practice by sorcerers of skill on the 10th Calend of April according to the ancient computation (de faict gotique). In a note added he professes that the 10th Calend Old Style would be the last day of March by the Gregorian, and he thinks it probable, that Nostradamus here designates some particular year, when Good Friday fell on the 31st or' March. Garencières upon this notes that it falls on the 23rd of March, called Gothic, because adhered to by the northern nations long after the Gregorian had been adopted at Rome. I do not see how the 10th Calend could ever fall on the 31st, nor indeed what the 31st has to do with the matter. Those who arc more familiar with such calculations may perhaps explain. Like the witches' Sabbath, these diabolic meetings were accompanied by the lewdest rites, as will at once be seen by the following passage from Psellus, which I leave untranslated. It is from the Latin translation of Psellus by Marsilius Ficinus, and will be found in his collected works (ii. 884) in folio ed. 1641.
"'Euchetæ et gnosci, ut dæmonia toto concipiant pectore, nefanda sacrificia perpetrant Conveniunt die quo passus est Salvator, 1 vespere, statutur in locum, unà cum puellis sibi notis, et post quædam sacra extinctis luminibus, 2 mistim coëunt, sive cum sorore, sive cum filiâ, sive cum quâlibet" (Psellus as above, p. 894).
"There is a further kind of vaticination by a basin, by means of which rustics frequently predict. just as there is a mode of predicting by means
of the air and the leaves of trees, so there is a kind of predictive power in the basin, known and practised by the Assyrians, which has a great similarity to this incarnation or coupling of demons with matter. Thus those about to prophesy take a basin full of water, which attracts the spirits moving stealthily in the depths (dæmonibus congruentem in profunda repentibus.) Le Pelletier translates this, (appropié à l'usage des démons cachés au fond des eaux). The basin then, full of water, seems in sort to breathe (or move) as with sounds (s'il allait émettre des sons); it seems to me that the water was agitated with circular ripples, as from some sound emitted below. Now, this water diffused through the basin differs but little in kind from water out of the basin, but yet it much excels it from a virtue imparted to it by the charms [that have been droned over it], and which have rendered it more apt to receive the spirit of prophecy. For this description of spirit is tetchy and terrene, and much under the influence of composite spells. When the water begins to lend itself as the vehicle of sound, he [the spirit] also presently gives out a thin reedy note [of satisfaction], but devoid of meaning; and close upon that, whilst the water is undulating, certain weak and peeping sounds whisper forth predictions of the future. A spirit of this kind is vagrant everywhere, for he is endowed with the solar pass [so that our terrestrial atmosphere lies everywhere open to him], and that order of spirits, in the work appointed to it, speaks at all times with a subdued voice, that by its indistinct obscurity it may be less easy to seize the falsehoods that it utters" (Psellus as above, p. 885).
From the mode in which Psellus describes the matter in hand, it is very perceptible that he was no great conjuror, and was merely speaking upon hearsay and report. If lies were the business of the spirit, he would be no prophet. Again, if he wished to circulate lies, he must still make things clear enough to his votaries for them to circulate them and work mischief thereby. Are we to suppose that, like an abandoned human being, he had some sense of shame left still, and, like Lord John Russell, would only tell as few lies as possible? Psellus's demon is so foolish that he would soon have been without any one to consult his shrine. He could not have given a reason for his own conduct, in the past or present, and was the last being that any one would resort to to anticipate intelligence of the future. Still
the procedure might have been somewhat as Psellus describes it, although the reasons could not.
An historian of the fourth century, and a man of veracity, Marcellinus has given us curious details of how prophetical tripods were considered by the Romans in his day. It comes out quite naturally in the judicial proofs investigating a conspiracy against the life of Valens the Emperor; what we should call a state trial. The conspirators were put to the torture, and as an item in the indictment the figure of j little table becomes prominent, as to which the accused were questioned by the judges. At last one of them, Hillarius, broken by pain, revealed the secret in these words:
"Honoured judges, we constructed this unfortunate little table that you see here after the fashion of the tripod [or, more strictly, the cauldron 1] at Delphi, with dark incantations, out of branches of laurel; and with imprecations of secret song, and numerous ceremonies repeated over daily, we consecrated it by magic rites, till at last we put it in motion. When it reached this capacity of movement, as often as we wished to interrogate it by secret inquiry, we proceeded thus.
It was placed in the middle of a room (in medio domûs) purified throughout by Arabian perfumes; a round dish was simply laid upon it, formed of a composite material of many metals. On the phlange of its outer round were skilfully engraved the scriptile forms of the alphabet separated into as many exactly measured spaces. Over this basin (or dish) a man stood clothed in linen garments and shod with linen socks, his head bound round with a turban-like tuft of hair, and bearing a rod of vervain, the prospering plant. After we had favourably conciliated the deity, who is the giver of all presage, with duly formulated charms and ceremonial knowledge, he communicated a gentle movement to a ring that hung suspended over the basin. . . . This was tied up by an exceedingly fine Carpathian thread, which had been initiated with mystical observances. This ring, moving by little leaps or jumps, so as to alight upon the distinct intervals with the separate letters inscribed, each in its compartment to itself, gives out in heroic verse answers suitable to the inquiries made, comprehended perfectly in number and measure; such as are called Pythic, or those delivered by the oracles of the Branchidæ.
"To us inquiring who should succeed to the present empire, because
it had been already mentioned that it would be one entirely suitable [to our aim and purpose], the leaping ring had glanced upon the two syllables THEO. With the last addition of a letter [that is, D], a man present exclaimed, 'THEODORUM,' the fatal necessity of the portent indicating as much. Nothing further was sought upon this head; for it was agreed amongst us that this was the individual we wanted" (Ammianus Marcellinus, Return Gestarum, xxix. 1).
In this case the ambiguity of the oracle is due to the precipitance of the inquirers. The oracle was true as far as they allowed it to proceed, but had they waited to spell it out they would have learned that the name was not THEODorus, but THEODosius the Great, who was to be the successor to Valens.
This is an authentic passage of high interest. It shows considerable analogy with the table-turning of the moderns; it also gives insight into singular and elaborate processes of divination by magic as being frequently practised at Rome in the fourth century. Clearly the Pagans had no notion in that century that oracles had at all finally ceased on a Good Friday in the first century, or that Pan, the god of rumour, was dead. The sun still shone to them as the Apollo of prophecy, and they still sought presage of a spirit who was made free of the solar order (qui solarem ordinem est sortitus).
68:1 Romance tongue, sele for selle, tripod seat, tripode æneo, such as the priestess of Apollo or Pythia sat on to deliver oracles.
68:2 Latin, prosperare, to succeed, or realize an experience.
68:3 Qui for ce qui.
69:1 Latin, virga, branch or wand.
69:2 Latin, limbus, hem, border, fringe.
69:3 Latin, per, in, or through.
74:1 Ex Michaele Psello, de Dæmonibus. Works of Marsilius Ficinus, ii. 884, ed. 1641, folio.
75:1 This refers to some Good Friday evening on the 10th Calend of April Old Style, as set forth in the first line of this quatrain.
75:2 This is exhibited in the third line of the quatrain: Le feu estainct, assemblée diabolique.
77:1 Æneid, iii. 92 and vi. 347.