You Can't Keep a Good Prophet Down | History | Smithsonian
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You Can't Keep a Good Prophet Down

What will be, will be. Or will it? As the millennium draws nigh, prophets want to tell us about it

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Many and various are the tools of the prophets — those who try to divine the future — from mainframe computers to a handful of pebbles to the constellations overhead. Some of them must have panned out some of the time, since they've endured for millennia. Some have been lost to us, like the ancient art of haruspicy, or reading the insides of slaughtered animals (livers were particularly informative).

For more than 3,000 years the Chinese have used the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as a basis of philosophy, science, statecraft and predictions. In about the ninth century A.D., gypsies, more properly called Rom, moved out of northern India and kept on moving. They specialized in fortune-telling, using crystal balls and tarot cards among other things. Oracles enjoyed a worldwide following of satisfied customers for centuries. The Greek oracle at Delphi may have been the most successful, running for a thousand years, from 700 B.C. to A.D. 300.

Before we learned what they really are, the stars were thought to portend things. Now we generally like to think of ourselves as scientific. Still, while sophisticates scoffed when they heard that Nancy Reagan checked in regularly with an astrologer, the First Lady wasn't alone.

In modern times, the most famous prophet was a French physician calling himself Nostradamus. In the mid-16th century, he wrote more than a thousand mysterious predictions. Our own Nostradamus was Jeane Dixon, Washington real estate agent, astrological columnist and darling of the supermarket tabloids.

Now, as the mystic date of 2000 approaches, many once-levelheaded people are expecting the next few years to be, at the very least, interesting. If they aren't — well, it's going to be a terrible letdown. It won't slow us up, though. We'll just dust ourselves off and start to work on 3000. You can't keep a good prophet down.

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