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Unlocking the Secrets of Symbolism in Nostradamus's Writings

People around the world have always searched for signs and omens that tell what the future brings, and they've looked just about everywhere. Since 1555 or so, people have looked to Nostradamus's writings to see if they could shed some light on events. But The Prophecies aren't a quick reference, and Nostradamus wasn't a simple writer. Divination is always steeped in symbols and meaning, but Nostradamus brought things to a whole new level.

Why symbols?

The many elements of Nostradamus's life and learning are all mixed into the quatrains, and everything that he put into the mix added something. He used many tools (astrology, numerology, symbology, and so on) to adds layers of meaning to The Prophecies.

All those layers can create confusion, and Nostradamus had a reason for it — in a word, safety. The Renaissance was a time when a quick word from the people in power could cost a person his life — a very real problem for anyone who seemed too much out of sync with the norm. And Nostradamus was certainly walking on the edge. Some of his quatrains could've been interpreted (and misinterpreted) as very dangerous stuff. So to protect himself, Nostradamus took great care with the wording of his predictions.

People have been developing complex symbol systems as a way of communicating since the dawn of time. Symbols are simply an alternative way of representing an idea or thought. And they aren't just pictures; words can stand in for another thing as well. Like an artist's sketch of your face, however, symbols can lose something in the translation, so interpreting them is an art, and it isn't exact.

Although some symbols change with time, others remain the same. The longer a symbol is used, the more likely its meaning stays the same. For example, most of the symbols that bring the Catholic Church to mind haven't changed over hundreds of years. You're likely to associate the rosary with the Catholic Church, for instance. Add in the meanings for the rosary — prayer, reverence, and holy actions — and the symbol is suddenly very useful for saying a lot with very few words.

Nostradamus worked with both mysticism and religion, and these two systems of thought probably use more symbols than just about any other system created by people. So you shouldn't be surprised that the prophecies are chock full of symbols. Every quatrain is thick with item upon item of deeply meaningful references to people, events, places, and ideas.

An orderly approach

The prophecies are an entanglement of symbols and ideas, but they aren't so bad if you take a deep breath and approach them with some semblance of order. Keep the following points in mind:

  • Don't assume that just because Nostradamus mentioned a tree in a quatrain that he was talking about an actual tree — or even the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Look at the other pieces of the quatrain and other possibilities before selecting a meaning.
  • Symbols used in one quatrain may or may not have the same importance in a different quatrain, and the neighborhood of the symbol is important. Take a good look at the entire picture presented by the quatrain before assigning meaning to a particular symbol. The symbol may take on a special meaning if the topic of the prophecy is sensitive or if Nostradamus added one layer of meaning over another.
  • Keep in mind the many influences of religion, people, and the Renaissance on Nostradamus, and check out any meaning of a quatrain's symbols in light of these different influences. Modern interpretations of symbols may not give you his intended meaning.

Tune into important topics

The first key to unlocking the meaning behind the symbolism in the prophecies is to know which topics were important to Nostradamus. The topics that made up the majority of the known (understood) prophecies — the topics that mattered most to Nostradamus — concerned France, Italy, the Catholic Church, and Napoleon. Nostradamus used imagery associated with each of these topics as well as astrological, medical, and mystical symbols.

Look for signs of the times

The second key to unlocking the meaning behind the symbolism of Nostradamus is to be aware of the culture of the time. His language of symbols reflected the world around him. Nostradamus may have used the shepherd's crook and papal hat of the pope, for example, to symbolize an individual pope or the entire line of Church rulers.

Explore universal themes

The third key to unlocking the meaning behind the symbolism is to remember that Nostradamus was concerned with certain universal ideas. Survival, struggle, a place to belong in the Universe, and even a place of rest for the soul are concepts that have been discussed in literature for as long as writing has been around — and they ran throughout Nostradamus's prophecies.

The conflicts that concern people can be broken down into three simple categories. Sometimes it's helpful to look at the symbols and see which category they may fit in. Doing so can give you a starting point for determining the symbol's associated meaning. Here are the three basic categories and some examples that fall under each category:

  • Person versus Person: Assassinations, feuds, and power struggles (includes the battle against self to discover identity and personal strengths)
  • Person versus Nature: Pestilence, flood, earthquake, and famine
  • Person versus God: Spiritual struggles and enlightenment
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