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He predicted doom and gloom

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He predicted doom and gloom. But could Nostradamus have predicted that he'd be a best-selling author in fall 2001?

In the Salt Lake Valley this past week, as in other cities and online, people are snapping up the Renaissance seer's books in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attack — hoping, apparently, to get a leg up on what the future holds. According to reports circulating the Internet — reports that are apparently at least in part a hoax — Nostradamus predicted the World Trade Center attack nearly five centuries ago.

"We're sold out" of Nostradamus books, said Sunny Simkins, a bookseller at Barnes and Noble in Sugar House. "I've had five people call (wanting Nostradamus books) in the past 10 minutes." The store had only about 15 of the books in stock, but sold them all since Tuesday's attack, she said, and could have sold many more. "We're going to order more," she said.

"They're just flying out of here," said Eddie Steel, a bookseller at Borders Books in Murray. "Normally we would sell one every three weeks or a month."

On Amazon.com, interpretations of the prophecies account for three of its Top 10 best sellers, including No. 2. In the top slot is a World Trade Center tome.

Searches for Michel Nostradamus have flooded the Internet. Yahoo! even added a special category on the 16th-century physician and astrologer.

It seems the seer's recent popularity is linked to a single quatrain he penned about 450 years ago. It goes:

"At forty-five degrees (latitude), the sky will burn,

Fire approaches the great new city,

Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up,

When they want to have verification from the Normans (the Northern Bloc)."

Author John Hogue offers three explanations to the passage in his 1997 book, "Nostradamus, The Complete Prophecies."

Perhaps the "new city" is near Belgrade — 45 degrees north latitude — and being destroyed by nuclear terrorism. Or maybe the blaze in the sky can be connected to the greenhouse effect causing a series of droughts.

Or maybe, Hogue writes, "The sky ignites into flames on the latitude near New York City. Such an attack is quite conceivable after the year 2003."

Renditions of that interpretation surged through the Information Superhighway since Tuesday, inspiring news reports in France, Singapore, Belfast, Sydney and New Delhi. But the globally exchanged e-mails tinkered with Nostradamus' original quatrain and added another, which folklore buffs say is false.

One e-mail sent to the Deseret News reads:

"In the year of the new century and nine months,

From the sky will come a great King of Terror . . .

The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.

Fire approaches the great new city . . .

In the city of York there will be a great collapse,

Two twin brothers torn apart by chaos . . .

While the fortress falls the great leader will succumb(,)

The third big war will begin when the big city is burning."

"Pure bunk," said David Emery of urbanlegends.about.com.

The first red flag comes in the attribution. The e-mail concludes with the words, "Nostradamus, 1654." Nostradamus died in 1566.

Such rumors surface with most modern disasters, said Emery, who has a bachelor of philosophy degree from Portland State University and collects and writes about contemporary folklore on the Internet.

"Often we're looking for answers that the facts simply can't address. Why did this happen? Why did it happen now? Why did it happen to us? People are enraptured with these alleged Nostradamus prophecies because they seem to provide an answer, however mystical and mysterious it might be," Emery said in an e-mail interview.

Leaning on prophecy to explain the unexplained may comfort some folks, no matter how apocalyptic its nature.

"Among people in Utah, at least, that's a topic that's palatable because you have a religion based on prophecy," he said in reference to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "It's not so much fear of death. It's fear of not knowing what's going on. Rumor is almost a supply-and-demand market."

And, as Emery notes, sometimes this practice isn't only about "putting the scare in people." Sometimes rumors touch us, bring us together.

"People are also circulating stories of inspiration, reassurance and solidarity," he said.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com; jarvik@desnews.com