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A digitally edited portrait of John Dee

6 greatest prophets from history

Sceptics will say that it's impossible to predict the future but these six successful soothsayers have been showcasing their skills for centuries.

Image: | Above: A digitally edited portrait of John Dee, a famous English magician, mathematician and polymath
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From the French doctor who became the official fortune teller for the royal family to the man who allegedly terrified Hitler, meet the mysterious figures whose gaze could seemingly penetrate the fourth dimension.

1. Nostradamus

The most celebrated oracle of all time didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Nostradamus was thrown out of medical school after it was discovered that he’d been concocting and selling herbal remedies on the side. Undaunted, he decided to practice as a physician anyway, even helping to combat an outbreak of plague.

The 16th-century Frenchman found fame when prophecies he published in a book called Les Prophéties came to the attention of Catherine de’ Medici, the French queen, who invited him to create horoscopes for her family. His prophecies, written in cryptic poetic verses, have been puzzled over ever since, and he’s been credited with predicting everything from the Great Fire of London to the rise of Hitler.

Fittingly, his last recorded statement was a prediction of his own demise, with a gout-stricken Nostradamus telling his secretary, ‘You will not find me alive at sunrise.’ He was true to his word.

2. Baba Vanga

Vangeliya Pandeva Gushterova, better known as Baba Vanga, is often spoken of as a 20th-century Nostradamus, though, unlike the French seer, she didn’t write her visions down. Instead, her prophecies have been passed along by those who knew the Bulgarian mystic, adding to the aura of mystery which surrounds her.

Also bolstering her notoriety is the alleged origin story of her powers. The tale goes that she was caught up in a tornado which threw her across a field, causing an injury which eventually robbed her of her sight but bestowed the ability to see into the future.

Her powers first came to notice during World War II, and in the decades that followed she was visited by both ordinary folks and prominent figures, including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Though she died in 1996, her visions of the future – said to cover events like the sinking of the Kursk submarine and the presidency of Barack Obama – still beguile us now.

3. John Dee

Magician, mathematician, polymath and owner of perhaps the largest private library in England, John Dee was one of the most fascinating and paradoxical figures of the 16th century.

On the one hand, he was an esoteric occultist, whose fixation with unlocking the mysteries of the universe led him to attempt to communicate with angels.

On the other, he was a pragmatic political figure who provided advice and guidance to Elizabeth I, even setting the date for her coronation and advocating for the expansion of overseas territories. In fact, historians believe it was Dee who came up with the term ‘British Empire’.

His magical life inspired many flamboyant myths and legends relating to his apparent ability to provide eerily accurate predictions (it’s said he foresaw success against the Spanish Armada).

It’s even been speculated that he inspired William Shakespeare to partly base the character of Prospero in The Tempest on his remarkable life.

4. Mother Shipton

The precise truth behind the legends of Mother Shipton is hard to untangle, given that she was born in the late 15th century. What we do know is that her real name was Ursula Southeil, and she made all manner of prophecies, from local occurrences like the dramatic collapse of a church to major events like Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Just as fascinating are the fairytale-like elements of her biography – how she had a nose of ‘incredible and unproportionable length’ among other shockingly odd features and was once caught clinging to the wall of her home like a wild animal.

Such was her notoriety that she was even incorporated into propaganda circulated during the English Civil War, with both Parliamentarian and Royalist sides appropriating her alleged visions for their own ends. Her legacy lives on in the form of Mother Shipton’s Cave, a tourist attraction in North Yorkshire.

5. The Brahan Seer

Did the Brahan Seer even exist at all? This shadowy figure, real name Kenneth MacKenzie and sometimes dubbed the Scottish Nostradamus, is said to have lived in the 17th century. According to legend, he would peer through a hagstone – a stone with a natural hole – to see what was to come and his powers led him into the employ of a Scottish nobleman.

As with Mother Shipton, the Brahan Seer predicted smaller events – such as the attempted poisoning of a local man by his wife – and epic milestones like the Battle of Culloden. Many even believe he looked far enough into the future to predict the discovery of oil in the North Sea.

The Seer is said to have been murdered by his aristocratic employer’s wife after sharing his vision of adultery. However, the lack of solid evidence about the Seer’s life means there’s every chance he was a figure of folklore rather than history.

6. Wolf Messing

One oracle who certainly existed was Wolf Messing, a Polish stage hypnotist who apparently wowed some of the most iconic figures of the 20th century with his powers. We say ‘apparently’ because the events of his life have been widely embellished and it’s almost impossible to separate fact from (highly entertaining) fiction.

There’s the story of the time he persuaded a train inspector that his newspaper was a ticket, rather like Doctor Who’s psychic paper. And there was even an alleged meeting with Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud when he dazzled the great men by reading Freud’s thoughts. It’s even said that Hitler placed a bounty on his head after Messing predicted he would lose World War II.

While the reality of Messing’s abilities will never be known, his life story still makes for incredible reading today.