Why We've Turned to Nostradamus and Divination in the Age of Coronavirus

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Last year, less than a month into shelter in place, I decided to read the prophecies of Nostradamus. Within hours, I had found a passage that looked an awful lot like a COVID-19 prediction.

In the feeble lists, great calamity through America and Lombardy. The fire in the ship, plague and captivity; Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn warning.

I thought a few other people might be interested to see it, so I wrote a quick story about it for KQED Arts & Culture.

Nine months later, that quick story is now the most-read thing I've ever written in my entire life. As one of the most popular stories across all of KQED last year, it's rapidly approaching a million views. And as the story continues to be read by thousands of new readers week over week, it's impossible not to wonder why so many people still care so much about cryptic verses written by a weird dude from the 16th Century.

The truth is, it's not just Nostradamus we're obsessing over right now. Since COVID started, revisiting prophetic texts has become an increasingly common pastime. In India, people are re-reading the writings of Potuluri Veerabrahmam, a Hindu saint and seer from the 17th century. Closer to home, Sylvia Browne's 2008 book End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About the End of the World saw a sudden boom in sales last year thanks to a coronavirus prediction within the text. ("In around 2020," Browne wrote, "a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments.")

When it comes to spiritual matters, even before coronavirus, America was open-minded as hell. A 2018 Pew Study found that 98 million of us believe in astrology, and a whopping 134 million believe in psychics. In 2019, psychic services—everything from palm, aura and tarot reading, to numerology and animal psychics—was a $2 billion industry.

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That was all pre-pandemic. And belief in spiritual matters tends to increase during times of crisis. It's why agnostics pray their way through airplane turbulence, it's why so many grieving people visit mediums, and it's why those dealing with hardship are often the ones with the strongest faith.

History is awash with leaps of faith in the midst of dark times. In the 15th Century, because the military believed she was a messenger of God, a teenaged Joan of Arc was permitted to lead the French army into battle after a series of crushing defeats. In the early 1900s, Grigori Rasputin held notorious influence over the Russian royal family because the tsar and his wife believed he could heal their son of hemophilia. Even in the 1970s, salt-of-the-Earth detectives consulted with psychics during their hunt for serial killers like John Wayne Gacy.

The upheaval caused by COVID-19 has impacted every facet of American life. So it's not surprising that, as we wrestle with the whys of it all, some of us are more inclined than usual to seek comfort, answers and a greater sense of preparedness from the realms of the spiritual and supernatural. After all, according to neuroscientists, "the human brain is built in such a way as to facilitate spiritual kinds of experiences."

Tanya Carroll Richardson, an author and professional intuitive who offered readings over the phone even before the pandemic, says she was fully booked in 2020.

"Most people come to me when they are struggling in some way," Richardson says. "Seeing a challenge from a deeper, broader spiritual perspective doesn’t take the pain or frustration away, but it can add new meaning, comfort, and insight. It can help us pivot in positive ways. I did notice an increase in interest in spirituality in 2020, and it was nourishing and healing for me to help support people during a difficult year."

Richardson isn't alone in finding her own comfort through her spiritual work with clients. In the midst of massive job losses and economic uncertainty, many who previously enjoyed tarot and astrology as a pastime have turned to either monetizing their skills for the first time, or transforming their part-time interest into a full-time job.

When the pandemic hit, Jasmine Wolfe was already working part-time in numerology, astrology and tarot, but her job security came from a part-time position in childcare. In March 2020, when attendance suddenly dwindled, Wolfe decided to give up her day job. She says taking the plunge has paid off.

"I have absolutely seen an increase in business since lockdown last year," the Sacramento resident explains. "It's not surprising that so many people are called to divinatory practices at this time when things are so uncertain. Wanting to know what the future holds is something that has preoccupied humans for millennia."

In addition to providing one-on-one readings, Wolfe now also offers courses, mentorships and coaching in numerology, astrology, tarot and witchcraft. "Tarot [provides] clarity and guidance," she explains, "but I think astrology is the better tool for divination. It dates back to the oldest civilizations in Egypt, Babylonia, China. I think a lot of people have been drawn to following it this past year."

During times of crisis, one of the most comforting things about prophecies and predictions is the sense they give us that nothing is accidental. That even the most traumatic, chaotic events are, in fact, all part of a larger plan. If some weird guy with a beard saw coronavirus coming 466 years ago, we tell ourselves, not only was it unavoidable, but it must be happening for a reason.

And if that notion gets you through this tough period, then it's a notion that's cruel to argue with.