This is Hell, but the next Golden Age starts tomorrow. The continuing enchantment and danger of prophets and prophecy, 1500 to 2000

Dave Evans

In common with other of my academic edits presented here on Occult ebooks, the detailed citations have been removed to make it easier to read on-screen.

This essay explores themes in prophecy from 1500 to the present day. It covers the personal, public and social uses of prophecy in the early modern period and gives some more recent, and high profile examples of prophets, or what are today often called 'Gurus' instead.

Differentiation is made between micro- and macro- prophecy; which although opposite in scope have similar underlying processes. It seems that State and Church usually ignore individuals who use micro-prophecy for nothing more than the conduct of their own lives. However when a prophet starts to influence a wider public via macro-prophecy they often run into trouble with the ruling authorities.

This is not just an early modern phenomenon. Belief in the extraordinary seems to remain in many aspects of modern culture. A 1996 Gallup poll found nearly half of the Americans surveyed believed in extrasensory perception, the reality of UFOs and the survival of Elvis Presley, perhaps an example of a modern-day Saint cult. Prophets and visionaries seem common to all religions, over all time, although the frequency varies. There seems an almost cyclic period between 'reason' and faith, enlightenment and religion, but with an ever-present danger of official sanction for any prophet who challenges societal norms.

Prophet is such an equivocal term that it must be seen as a similar problematic label to that of 'Witch' or 'Heretic'. 'Prophet' is largely a social construction, dependent upon religion, date, geography and politics. A common motif for a prophet seems to be having suffered a serious illness, often in childhood, which stops, and the recovered person has new, supernatural, powers. This is a pattern central to many shamanic stories, too.

There seem at least eight sources of, or variants within, prophecy:

  • Personal prophets and diviners, including self-divination
  • False prophets: possible confidence tricksters.
  • Religious prophecy purely as propaganda to boost church attendance
  • Visionaries: Seers of local or national events such as wars, plagues etc
  • Commentators on heresy: e.g. prophets within one religious group
  • The possessed
  • Witches, who sometimes claimed prophetic powers
  • The insane

This essay does not deal specifically with prophecy in insanity or witchcraft, as these alone are areas worthy of an entire long essay each. There is also a separation between whether something works, or whether THE BELIEF that something works is enough for effects to manifest. This is similar to witches' power deriving from either their actually having- or being believed to have- special powers. Use of prophecy to be forewarned of an event can lead to taking steps to prevent such an event, and so when it doesn't happen the precautionary behaviours are reinforced and justified by having believed in, and acted upon the advice of, prophecy; leading to increasing likelihood that prophets will be trusted in future. For instance, a prophesied earthquake, which would have threatened early modern Venice, was 'prevented' by devout prayers and some (unspecified) good works by the local government, who took the credit for preventing the disaster.

This reinforcement of belief will occur even if the precautions had no causal relevance to prevention of a predicted event; which may anyway have been a complete fabrication on the part of the seer. Thus it is extremely difficult to prove the reason for the NON-OCCURRENCE of an event, which is illustrated by a Persian proverb from around the 12th Century:

The great sage, Nasrudin, was seen to be spreading breadcrumbs outside his house door every morning. Eventually, a burning curiosity drove a member of the neighbouring community to approach him and ask,
"What are you doing?"
"Scaring away the tigers" replied the sage.
"But there aren't any tigers around here!" the neighbour said frustratedly.
At which the sage smiled and nodded wisely, saying, "effective, isn't it?".

Given that much of early modern Europe village politics centred around women in disagreement then any speculatively portentious comment such as 'you're having problems or a dispute with a female neighbour' would be virtually guaranteed a positive reception. So would such things as warnings of health problems, difficulties with harvest or livestock, the likelihood of wars, plague and suffering. This is much the same technique as today: It is possible to give a 'prophesy' of such vague generalisations that they could apply to anyone, but make it seem entirely personal.

For example (this section borrowed with consent of Francis Breakspear);
"you are going through some changes" (who isn't?)
"you have got some money worries" (who hasn't?)
"there is an important older/younger... man/woman in your life at the moment" (Tailored to the individual; i.e. for a young woman this could be put as an "important older man", i.e. father).

It is thus simple to offer the illusion of prophetic abilities on an interpersonal level. By extrapolating any local problems to a larger level it is easy to politicise the causes as due to endemic sin, the Devil or the evil actions of a scapegoat, be they the local witch, other religious heretics in the region, or an entire race, such as the Turks or the Spanish.

A convenient division can be made between micro- and macro-prophecy. The everyday personal behaviour of early modern men and women seemed largely reliant on folkloric prophecy; e.g. the number of cries of a crow would predict the day's local weather. Similar portents, often based on very limited ritualised observances of animals and similarly acausal reasoning would dictate such mundane decisions as one's timing and route of a journey; or indeed whether to travel or not. This is micro-prophecy, as is individuals visiting diviners to discover personal information, of the stereotypical 'you're going to meet a tall dark stranger' nature. Ghosts or spirits could also be prophetic, often in personal matters, such as the location of lost family treasure.

On a personal level, in 1981 I was told, spontaneously, by a supposed 'medium' (whom I had never met, and who knew nothing of my interests) that I would write a book about Aleister Crowley before I was "past 42". At the time of writing this essay I was producing an MA dissertation about Crowley, and was in line to work towards a PhD; also about him. I was then 39. A three-year writing spell for the doctorate dissertation, which could justifiably be called 'a book', would take me to exactly the stated age, and that is what I am doing at the moment (2002). So this prediction may 'come true'.

This does not imply a verified prophecy, however. Equivocal, irrational or careless acceptance of prophecy as accurate, precise or even as causal is intellectually dangerous. Even in 2001, which we would perhaps consider the ultimate scientific and super-rational date, there are still many unknowns. Modern science, for all of its strengths, still cannot predict exactly where a sheet of paper will fall if dropped from head height. Postscript- my MA was published on Occult ebooks as an electronic book [now paperback - Ed], so it did kind of come true.

I was also amused to note that the 1999 solar eclipse in Cornwall was known about for years before via astronomical calculations, but even the day before the event the degree of cloud cover, which ultimately prevented me from seeing it, was unpredictable! Early modern concerns such as what the weather will be the day after tomorrow, if a plague or war will ravage your village, whom you are to marry or if God is happy with your conduct are equally incompatible with scientific analysis or prediction.

'My' medium also gave me four highly personal specific predictions, which have not (yet?) come true. Two of these were age-linked predictions that now cannot possibly happen, unless two persons now dead are brought back to life. Simply because someone predicts an event which subsequently occurs does not necessarily mean they are a 'real' prophet. One 'hit' (however seemingly spectacular and unlikely by pure guesswork, as in the Crowley book before a specified age) among several gross errors makes the prophetic process somewhat limited as an advance notice. In 1981 I received five predictions with two subsequently proved wrong and one possibly correct. Assessment of the likelihood of the two remaining events is thus no more advanced than if I had not received the prophecies, and any predictions about other significant life-events, which have already occurred, were entirely absent.

A detailed exploration of the statistics involved in divination suggests that only rather short-term prophecies stand any likelihood of objectively acceptable accuracy. Chance seems to play a large part, both in whether what is predicted will actually happen, and (in all historical periods) how well the predictions are received by the public and State with regard for the prophet's liberty and future survival prospects.

Although large-scale religious prophets are now perhaps less scarce than in the Sixteenth- and Seventeenth centuries, the everyday use of such micro-prophetic tools as astrology, palmistry and card readings in the 'rational' West still seems to be very widespread, and so we must ask whether we are so far away psychologically from 1500?

Even today, we create irrational causal links. Assessments of objectively simple causality are often hopelessly skewed by individual cognitive biases; even in highly-trained 'rational' observers. Research findings, using modern trained 'objectively-observing' empirical scientists as research subjects, showed profoundly irrational errors of logic, presumption and inference of causality when 'solving' objectively simple problems.

We could safely assume 16th Century villagers or clerics would be NO MORE objective than this, especially when confronted with the unusual or 'supernatural'. It is likely these kind of attributional processes are common to both 21st and 16th centuries, with often "one event …(being)… enough to make a rule" and so it is lazy and academically dangerous to assume an elevated air of rationality over the early modern mind. We simply do not have such superiority.

Humans look for patterns, which is why 'prophets' can be so successful. 80% of their statements may be utterly wrong, but people selectively discount mistakes and remember 'hits'. Rather like beachcombing; if you find something attractive, that is what you remember, forgetting the discarded twigs and seagull corpses. One tends not to excitedly remark `here's another stone just like all the others!'

There is a psychological imperative within 'the audience', be they an individual or much larger group, for the seer to be right; even if this involves convoluted re-interpretation; almost a re-moulding of the prophecy to fit the desired answer. For example, the daughter of Adam Kruse successfully prophesied many plagues to ensue from 1580 onwards. This is not unlikely, considering that plague had been alternately endemic and epidemic in Europe for at least 250 years previously. She also predicted serious earthquakes; which did not happen.

There is also a 'grey area' where prophecy, coincidence, lucky guess, expressed wish, and possible act of maleficium are often indistinguishable. During a heated row, the alleged witch Mary Smith called her neighbour Cicely Bayle a "great fat-tailed sow" but said that her weight would soon decrease. Cicely was visited that night in her sleep by a supernatural cat, fell ill and then "grew exceeding leane".

Expectancy effects may also be important. The placebo in medicine demonstrates these. Patients expect a certain, and positive, result from taking a pill; which unbeknownst to them contains no active drug. Recovery happens too often to be mere chance. The expectation of becoming well again is often a contributory factor to becoming well, in the absence of any therapeutic substance in the placebo that is administered.

Similarly, a prophecy can 'cause' an event. This is perhaps simply by subconsciously encouraging the hearer to perform tasks or behave in ways that make the prophesied event more likely to happen. This can be illustrated by a prophecy of accident, which might make the hearer become careful to the point of paranoia. This exaggerated care may paradoxically make them clumsier than normal, thus causing more accidents to happen. Thus a prophecy can be 'true', but also the cause.

Having described micro-prophecy, I will now examine macro-prophecy. As will be seen, there are similarities of both the process and psychology involved. Macro-prophecy relates to larger audiences, and/or wider scope events being prophesied; i.e. local or national plagues or war, rather than personal health, romance or fortune issues, although prophets could make either or both kinds of prediction; to their community as a whole, and/or to individuals within it.

In 1517, the Augustinian monk Andrea Baura gave a pro-Lutheran sermon in the Catholic heartland of Venice, an address that was filled with prophecy about the negative future of the Pope. This provocative act inspired Papal threats of imprisonment and a ban on Italian publication of Baura's forthcoming book. Prophetic sermons were given by numerous wandering ascetic hermit-monks in Italy in the early sixteenth century, but this was not a new phenomenon, being already common by 1450. Public performance allowed prophecies to be heard by the whole range of society, and this Italian example was not unusual in tone; being prophesies of general doom, apocalypse and the immanence of Christ's return to Earth.

Baura's act is unusual, however, in that it was performed in an area hostile to his own faith. It is far more usual for theologically appropriate religious prophecy styles to emerge, and be performed, in 'friendly' religious areas. For example Catholic Spanish prophets saw visions of Saints and the Virgin Mary; who in one case promised that donors for a new Church would be looked kindly upon by God. Lutheran areas, however, found Angelic forms being seen by their prophets.

In areas where the dominant religion changed back and forth with the flow of civil war, so did styles of vision and prophecy. Similarly to witch trial pamphlets, there seems to be some standardisation of the stories told in pamphlets about prophecy. This is a formula where the end is happy, but for the Godly only, and of very Christian tone throughout.

Religious prophecy often smacks of being a political and social tool also, based on a standard template. Many take the form of statements on the theme of 'God told me that you must … renounce sin/repent/cease your civil disorder or the horrible events of plague/war/famine/earthquake will happen to this village/town/city/country'. These kinds of prophecy often come from commentators on heresy within one religious group, such as David Frese, a lay citizen of 1629 Lubeck, with visions that encouraged the saving of Church buildings from demolition. There were over 200 similar prophets in Lutheran Germany and Scandinavia; all having the central theme of encouraging their fellow citizens to repent.

There seem to be prophets who were simply doing the duties of a preacher; but this was being done in other places than within Church buildings. They were also used as a political tool. Christian James of Padstow could be seen in much the same light as a 'spin doctor' of 20th Century politics. James's prophecy, in the form of a heavily circulated pamphlet, is told in the third person, in rhyme, and has no additional content or message to that which could equally easily be found in a sermon or Bible.

There are many other unlikely instances of beautiful, poetic reported speech from probably illiterate and uneducated prophets. This seems suspiciously, or at least remarkably, of a similar language and style that clerical scribes of the time used. At worst this gives the notion of major Church backstage manipulation of text, or at best, the scribes, while writing the pamphlets, performed considerable stylistic editing and paraphrasing. This calls into question the veracity and usefulness of any such account.

The Church had a mixed view of prophets. Too ready an official acceptance of any individual prophet might undermine the authority of the clergy, who were supposed to be the only route to God. However when such prophets spouted highly Christian sentiments which suited the Church they were tolerated, encouraged and possibly even coached by their ministers in what to say, and how to present it. They would have been especially useful if they spoke in the vernacular tongue rather than high church language, making their message accessible to a larger audience of common folk. However it was a fine balance; too extreme a prophet may be declaimed as a heretic or a witch, especially so with female prophets.

Often prophecy (or a witch trial) was the only opportunity for a woman to legally speak in public. Many prophets sailed close to the edge of legality and safety. In 1696 three Quaker women prophets were tried as witches. Lady Eleanor Davies successfully prophesied several important deaths, and may have been involved in maleficium to cause one of these (that of her husband). In the malleable societal norms of her time she was alternately ignored, imprisoned and then celebrated as a 'must-have' guest at functions.

The female prophets during the English Civil war numbered over three hundred. Some of this has been lazily ascribed to effects of the menopause, mental illness and such things. However many of these female prophets had careers of over 20 years, and at least two were in business for 50 years. Mental illness and the menopause would seem unlikely for this duration. The economic split in society also prevented poor men having a public voice, so in the same way as with women, claiming divine prophecy (or possession) was a socially safer way to express opinions on local and national matters, and for them to be heard at all.

Possession was another grey area, with the possessed often uttering prophetic statements. This was often seen as being somewhere between witchcraft and Godliness, depending on what the possessing entity said, to whom, and in relation to the tenets of the prevailing religion of the area.

Sanctity and witchcraft can be seen on a continuum defined as much by social labeling by the observer and State than by any spiritual categories. Since possession was not illegal, there are often only lurid pamphlet records, and few court cases (and these only where the possession was supposed to be due to witchcraft). A possessed person might often be exorcised and then on their 'recovery' produce some prophesy which fitted nicely with whichever strand of Christianity that had 'cured' them. Hence the locally prevalent God is credited with the 'cure', and there is a reinforcement of the controlling religion's power. It is in this way that 'Demonic' possession often actually produced alleged visions of God and Angels; which on first reading seems illogical.

Again, the often-illiterate possessee allegedly produced some very learned theological commentary afterwards- either a sign of (at least) co-authorship with a cleric or perhaps a divine spark truly entering their bodies.

The future apocalypse was seen as God's punishment for the sins of the people, and there is nothing better for Church business than predicting 'the end of days'. The consequent impending judgment of one's life and sins causes fear and thus boosts Church attendance of, and donations by, sinners and devout alike. However over time this approach waned; in Italy and elsewhere sackcloth and ashes, once regarded with reverence, became a sight for derision even as little as 60 years later; with their wearers being arrested for vagrancy and/or false prophesising- i.e. daring to presume that they knew God's word.

This is also a Protestant view; Scot saying that: "prophesie is the gift of God, and no worldlie thing", and declaring that the time of prophecy is over. Thus anyone claiming such abilities open to prosecution in Protestant England under secular and Church laws.

The Bible is filled with prophecy. Revelations says:

"And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter "

In April 1986 the Russian nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded, causing a radioactive cloud that polluted the countryside for miles around, with WATERCOURSES and the wind eventually spreading the radiation over most of North-Western Europe. Much of the Chernobyl area is still contaminated and this disaster killed thousands, and is still killing people and animals due to genetic illnesses and cancers.

This may seem a digression from Revelations, but the translation of the Russian word Chernobyl is 'wormwood'. At best, this is merely a chilling coincidence in a document written some 1800 years prior to the event. It would have been more useful for human survival if a date had been appended to the biblical verse.

Scot, again, is the voice of scepticism; regarding prophets as 'cousenors'; i.e. frauds and confidence-tricksters. It is certainly the case that there have been frauds in this field, and English law still has legislation to deal with fraudulent mediums. There are also examples of 'prophecy' that has been written after an event, and then touted as 'newly-discovered' prophetical writings. Subsequent prophecies in these texts often followed an ecclesiastical agenda, of what the Church wanted to happen, and the 'proof' of the first prophecy in the list having happened was used to add capital to the likelihood of the others coming true, thus being a fraudulent social tool for change.

'Frantick' Hackett is an example of a 'compound' prophet; being seen at various times as mad, a fraud or trickster, a true visionary and ultimately a political danger. In his early days he was most likely a 'cousenor', liberating people from their money, and women from their virtue. There are signs that he secretly performed some malefic image magic against the Queen and claimed many powers of witches, such as clairvoyance and ability to control the weather; yet he also acted as an exorcist. Over a ten-year period he garnered a following, and eventually he gathered enough support to go to London and have seditious pamphlets printed illegally.

He publicly proclaimed the evil nature of the Queen, in an attempt to incite revolt. As soon as he publicly railed against the Crown he was very quickly arrested, tried and executed; with his sanity being stated as being in no doubt whatsoever by the authorities. Whether Hackett was prophet, mad, con man, witch or a mixture of these largely depends on where you are viewing from, and whose words you are reading; a "fluidity of …. public identity" dependent on perspective.

Contrast this with the life of John Dee (see separate article on occult ebooks site) who was at the same time conversing with Angels, using divination, magic, astrology and openly writing books about the experience. Yet Dee survived far better because he was in the service of Queen Elizabeth, not against her. It was even possible to be labeled as several things simultaneously; Anna Trapnel was considered to be a divine prophet by Londoners, but charged as a witch by the Cornish.

Modern-day parallels with Hackett might be found in the 1990's story of David Koresh and his followers at Waco in Texas. Koresh was initially a 'harmless eccentric religious prophet and visionary' who was subsequently reframed as a socially dangerous armed Communist revolutionary and ruthlessly dispatched from both public and earthly life by the US government. There is another parallel which seems to relate to many prophets over time. Hackett, Koresh and many others were not averse to using their religious charisma to lead their female converts to the bedroom; often while their followers were sworn to holy celibacy.

In England there was a striking case of rapid conversion of official attitude with Helen Duncan in the 1940s. Duncan was a Spiritualist medium, performing at séances, producing ectoplasm, and supposed voices of the dead. After a long and celebrated career with no official intervention, she was later under covert investigation by the police as a possible fraudulent medium. However at one meeting, during World War 2, where an undercover detective was present, Duncan produced an alleged communication from a sailor who had been killed in a British troop ship that had just been sunk in the Pacific.

At that time the War Ministry had not released this news, as it was a very bad loss of life, and was considered to be bad for public morale. Duncan was arrested and tried, ironically for both fraud and witchcraft; also conspiracy. Found guilty, with appeal rights denied she was imprisoned for 9 months. Although released from prison, Duncan remained under scrutiny and official harassment, and in 1956 the police raided one of her séances. She was roughly roused from a deep trance; which is considered to be potentially fatal by Spiritualists. She was taken ill and never recovered. Her death, only 5 weeks after the raid, is thus considered by believers as tantamount to execution, and there is a current public campaign to clear her name :

Prophecy had some utility as a straightforward political tool. John Dee, himself a magician and prophet, used prevailing prophecies (from others) that foresaw great ruin for an un-named European power in around 1588 to 'spin' the interpretations of this to mean, specifically, Spain. This was done as an aid to his espionage work for the English Crown. The destruction of the Armada in that year served to add veracity to those particular prophecies (which had actually been extremely vague) and the weight of the prophecy industry in general.

When people believe the world has no future, they will do anything; especially if encouraged to do so by a charismatic prophet. This is especially true with the prospect of a new Golden Age after the coming apocalypse, whether it be the faithful Puritan extremists who emigrated to the unknown risk of the New World of America from the 1630s onwards, or those in more modern times who follow apocalyptic prophets such as the Reverend Jim Jones.

Jones, originally a standard Christian preacher in America, started to have apocalyptic visions, a mix of fundamentalist Christianity and Socialism. Jones gathered a following of eager donors of both money (over $2 million US) and sexual favours. He and his group decamped to a Utopian, but heavily armed, commune in the Guyanan jungle, the People's Temple Mission, to prepare for the end of the world. The US State department, alerted by worried relatives of Jones' disciples, started investigations. The investigators were unwelcome. In 1979, after a short gun battle with a team of US Senators, Guyanan soldiers and journalists, most of the population of 'Jonestown', over 900 adults, children and their animals were found dead; killed by a group ritual ingestion of cyanide, performed at the supplication of Jones.

Incredibly, this event had been planned, and even rehearsed some weeks before; with the followers given a drink that they were told would kill them within 45 minutes. They all took it. After an hour Jones announced that he was testing their faith. He said they would not die, as they had swallowed only fruit juice, but that one day a real death would be necessary. Incredibly, only a very few people fled the colony after this 'test'. The remainder stayed, and later died; as a modern testament to the ultimate power of a charismatic prophet over those in an 'end of days' mindset where anything is possible, nothing is forbidden and a Golden Age beckons for the truly faithful.

This may sound like horror fiction, but it really happened. Sadly, space does not allow me to examine prophecy in the theatre and literature; which is another important topic area.

In conclusion, prophecy ranges from the micro- to the macro-, and covers personal, public and social uses; throughout time and over all continents.

There seems to be considerable continuity of utilisation, method and effect from early modern times to the present. Recent high-profile prophets only serve to emphasise that we still inhabit a largely credulous world where science does not totally rule, and prophets can still operate. It is not just a 'superstitious medieval' phenomenon. The State and (although to a lesser extent in Protestant communities in 2001) the Church have important functions in controlling the level to which prophets influence groups of individuals; often exercising this control by force.

'Prophet' is such an equivocal term that it must be seen as similar to that of 'Witch'; a social construction, dependent upon religion, date, geography, politics and social state (i.e. at war, famine, disease etc). The distinction as to whether something works, or whether the belief that something works is important, but the historical and societal effect is often the same, regardless of this.

Dave Evans