“Faust”: how Nostradamus came to German national poetry


WIf Goethe had foreseen what he would do with it, it might have been reconsidered. But when he worked on his earliest version of Faust in the 1770s, the young man had no idea that centuries later armies of charlatans would seize upon his authority.

So he innocently used the name “Nostradamus” in the opening monologue of his dramatic poem. Faust warns himself in the solitude of his study: “And this mysterious book of Nostradamus himself / Is it not enough of a guide for you?” Goethe later adapted these lines, somewhat altered, in the final version of “Faust”.

title page of the book "Read the prophecies of Nostradamus" with a portrait of Nostradamus (Michel de Nostre Dame, Nostre-Dame or Nostredame, 1503-1566), about 1560  House of Nostradamus.  Salon of Provence.  ©Jean Bernard / Leemage

Edition of Nostradamus in 1560

Who: Picture Alliance / Leemage

By the way, Nostradamus’s own book could theoretically be a recipe for jam. In addition to the “centuries” for which Nostradamus is famous today—rhyming pseudo-admonitions for the millennia to come—the 16th-century Frenchman also left behind a book of cosmetics, a recipe for quince jam, and a pseudo-decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics that was copied by another author.

But from where Did Goethe even know Nostradamus? (1503-1566), a physician and soothsayer who died a good 200 years ago? After all, the internet didn’t exist in the 18th century, where today hundreds of full-time and part-time translators mistranslate the seer’s prophecies until they at least match the events of the past – if not for the future. For example, it was stated that in 2022, Nostradamus prophesied that an important politician would die – some linked it to Putin. Peruvian tabloid Extra revealed, quoting Nostradamus: “Putin es el anticristo” (“Putin is the antichrist”).

The young Goethe probably first read the name Nostradamus from the Protestant theologian Gottfried Arnold. 1699-1715 this obsessive man published his three-volume book Unpartheyische Kirchen- und Heretzhistorie. in 1729 the edition was in the library of Goethe’s father. In it, Arnold writes of Michel de Nostredame, who, according to the fashion of the time, Latinized his family name: “He was not only particularly skilled in astrology, but also wrote a whole book full of prophecies which were later fulfilled.”

The famous prophet Michel de Nostre-Dame in a popular image in which he drew inspiration from the stars.  (popular Canivet print)

Nostradamus as he is often portrayed

Quelle: Picture Alliance / Mary Evans Pi

Arnold was a Pietist, a member of the Protestant reform movement. So he himself was almost a heretic and in his story he passionately defended all those who seek ways to know God outside the official church. According to their example, the young Goethe formed “his religion”, as he writes in “Poetry and Truth”: “New Platonism hides the foundation; hermeticism, mysticism, cabalism also contributed, so I created a world that looked strange enough.

Goethe probably came across the name Nostradamus more often in his studies of alchemical and occult writings, since the French diviner was quite well known in Germany in the 18th century. Daniel Christoph Morhof praised him in the astrology chapter of his widely read Polyhistorius. And in 1789 the luminary Johann Christoph Adelung had to pay timid tribute to the Frenchman in his History of Human Narrheit in 1789. in Volume 7, because his posthumous fame proved so enduring – unlike that of his contemporaries. who in the 16th century were doing business with prophecies.

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Along with France, England and Italy, Germany appears more often than average in Nostradamus’ ranks – the prophet did not foresee the rise of Russia or even America and China to world powers. These lands were completely beyond the horizon of the man who lived in Provence in the south of France. Adelung mentions many Germans who, during his lifetime, ordered horoscopes from the seer by letter. Even his cosmetic book was translated into German in 1573. translated by Jeremias Mertz, who studied under Nostradamus in Montpellier.

The seer’s fame continued to grow after his death in 1566. – especially with the help of many counterfeiters. Adelung calls them “ministering spirits, who, when some event occurred, immediately created a taste for Nostradamus, and then took . . .

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