Knowing what’s going to happen next has been one of the great unmet desires of human history. We don’t like uncertainty, yet we are forced to deal with it every day, every hour and second. Today, economists and political pundits are still struggling to make sense of an unpredictable world. So prophets – those who can see the future – have been hugely prized, even if they read the future in the entrails of a slaughtered goat.
Cult leaders too offer certainty. Some thinkers would argue that all our great modern religions have their cultish origins – a small group of committed followers with a charismatic and persuasive leader. Cults tend to make the headlines today when they come to a tragic, bloody end, and there are more than enough damaged, vulnerable people looking for answers to keep would-be cult founders going for a while yet.
Here are seven of the most preposterous prophets and the craziest cult leaders.
1 – Nostradamus
Nostradamus if almost certainly the most famous prophet in history and hundreds of years after his death his visions are still discussed and his prophecies still sit on the shelves of book shops.
His real name was Michel de Nostredame and he was born in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south-west of France. He studied as an apothecary – a sort of herbalist – and was chucked off his university medical course for slandering doctors.
He had some reputed success in treating the plague, but led a fairly humdrum life until 1550, when he wrote his first almanac after a visit to Italy. Almanacs are still produced today, as annual guides to the year ahead, but back in the 16th century they went beyond weather forecasts and economic data to include divinations of the future. Nostradamus had a hit with his first volume, so decided to make it an annual event and his collection came to include 6,338 prophesies.
He started to read horoscopes, although he had none of the astrologer’s skills, and became a hit with the French nobility.
His next move is what guarantees his immortality. Les Propheties, was a collection of his prophesies divided into quatrains or four line poems. Now, claiming to see the future was a dangerous game when religious unorthodoxy could see you burning in the market place quicker than you could say, ‘I was only guessing’. So Nostradamus didn’t date any of his prophecies, which is one way to increase your hit rate, and used riddles, foreign languages and puns to further disguise what he was saying, which is one way to appear in receipt of secret knowledge. When the French royal family took a fancy to his work, he was made, and when he died he left a fortune worth hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money – he would have known that, of course.
The Prophecies are what you’ll find in modern bookshops. There were hundreds of predictions, most of which scholars now believe were filched from classical works.
Perhaps it’s unfair to call Nostradamus crazy; it’s his followers who have turned him into the biggest name in seeing. Everything from the French Revolution to the September 11 attacks have, apparently, been predicted (in 16th century French) by Michel.
The problem is, well, they weren’t. The prophecies are so numerous and so vague that the phrase, ‘just as Nostradamus said’ can be applied to almost any great event with enough spin put on his words.
For example, the closest even the most enthusiastic Nostradamus fans could come after the World Trade Centre attacks, was this verse:
Five and forty degrees, the sky shall burn:
To the great new city shall the fire draw nigh.
With vehemence the flames shall spread and churn
When with the Normans they conclusions try.
Immediately, Nostradamus fans said he’d written the latitude of New York. He hadn’t. He came close if you include a decimal point which hadn’t even been invented when he wrote. What the Normans were doing in New York no-one seemed that bothered by.
What is most likely, is that Nostradamus was doing what he always did. Finding an event in history, writing a vague, poetic account of it and saying it would happen in the future. So, the 1139 Norman capture of Naples, which is on latitude 45, and which coincided with an eruption of Vesuvius, nicely fits the verse.
Why not have a go yourself. Plenty of people have, and any great disaster is accompanied by words from the greatest ever prophet. The purported Nostradamus verse which received most coverage after 9/11 turned out to have been written by a student who was illustrating how such vague and meaningless prophecies could be written easily.
2 – Ezekiel
Calling figures in the Bible crazy is going to win you some enemies, but Ezekiel is considered pretty out there even by biblical scholars.
Knowing much about someone’s life at such a distance is fraught with difficulty. What we do know is that he was exiled to Babylon, where he says he was visited by God and started to prophesy the future. He saw the destruction of Jerusalem, which duly happened. When he was around 50, he started to have strange visions of a New Jerusalem.
Ezekiel is celebrated by the three great ‘religions of the book’, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and has a particular significance to Mormons.
Ezekiel’s behaviour was strange. One of the reasons was that he was giving physical manifestation to his visions. So, when the prophet decided to lie on his side left side for 390 days, before turning over and lying on his right side for 40 days, it was a message from God symbolising the time the houses of Israel and Judah would have to suffer for their sins.
He also prophesied that the Jewish people would suffer from eating ‘unclean’ food while in exile. But he didn’t just write it down, he baked his own bread over human faeces.
Another sign was his hair cutting. This was not just a close shave, but a close shave followed by some extraordinary rituals. The hair comes off and is then weighed and divided into three, one third to be burned, one third to be ‘smite about it with a knife’, and the last third to be scattered to the wind.
But Ezekiel has a long non-religious life too, because some people believe he saw UFOs. The chief cheerleader for these biblical ETs was Erich von Daniken, who spent years and made millions trying to convince the world we’d been visited by intelligent super aliens.
Ezekiel’s visions included some visitors from the sky which some have decided were spaceships. “Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were round; and they sparkled like burnished bronze,” has been enough to inspire one man, a NASA engineer no less, Josef F. Blumrich to write about “Ezekiel’s Spaceships”.
3 – David Koresh
The story of the Branch Davidians is bloody and tragic and still hemmed around with conspiracy theories about how the US Government handled the Siege of Waco.
David Koresh was born Vernon Howell. He changed his name to David after the biblical king, and Koresh after the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.
He had a terrible start in life, but seemed to find some sort of peace in religion. However, his Christian journey took a turn for the worse when he believed the Bible was telling him that he should marry his pastor’s daughter. His pastor didn’t agree with God and chucked him out.
The Branch Davidians who he came to lead, weren’t Koresh’s creation. He found them ready and waiting for him in Waco. A couple of years later, David was claiming the gift of prophecy, and had probably slept with the 77-year-old sect leader. But David’s beliefs didn’t go down well with everyone and he was kicked out of the Davidians’ compound at gun point.
He set up his own splinter group, and started to recruit more followers, convincing them he was going to set up a New Jerusalem.
When the leader of the original Davidians went nuts and killed a rival with an axe, David and his crew were able to return to Waco. What went on under his rule is still hotly disputed – there are allegations of child abuse, drugs, orgies and bigamy.
When the government got involved things got really bad. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms raided the Mount Carmel Centre in Waco looking for guns, and four ATF men and six residents ended up dead. Then the FBI got involved and a 51 day siege was begun. When the Feds decided to storm the buildings, a fire started and 76 people, including 17 children were, killed. Koresh had been shot by a disillusioned follower.
4 – “Reverend” Jim Jones
The Jonestown massacre, or mass suicide, still has a powerful pull on our culture. The phrase, ‘don’t drink the Kool Aid’ is a reminder of the 918 who as the settlement in the Guyana jungle crumbled, many by drinking poisoned fruit drink in an act of ‘revolutionary suicide’.
The Peoples Temple, which Jones came to lead, was not in fact a straight forward religious organisation, but a political one too, essentially communist. Jones himself can lay claim to some genuine achievements in leading the desegregation of Indianapolis, where he founded the Temple.
Jim was an odd kid, and many of his neighbours believed the mock funerals he held for dead pets were suspiciously regular. He grew up wanting to be a preacher, but fell out with local church leaders, many of whom didn’t like his integrationist ideals. He lived his beliefs too, marrying and adopting a ‘Rainbow Family’ of children from many races.
Starting out on his own, and targeting African Americans, he soon had his own church, financed in part by a door-to-door monkey selling business.
Jones’ Peoples Temple was initially idealistic – promising a better world, running soup kitchens, homes for the mentally ill and helping their followers find work despite the prejudice then running wild in 1956 Indianapolis.
The church was the subject of threats, and Jones’ ‘healing’ practices were also under scrutiny, so he upped sticks for California, believing he’d found an area that wouldn’t be hit by the nuclear apocalypse he feared was coming. With him went 65 families. He was a hit again in California, winning the support of many politicians for his radical social work.
But the power seems to have gone to his head. He started to demand not only loyalty, but also money from his followers, some of whom signed their children over to him. Soon everyone had to call him Father, then Christ, and finally God. A healthy interest in drugs didn’t help.
Fearing exposure in the press and a government plot, Jones moved again, to the remote jungles of Guyana. Anyone expecting a paradise on earth was soon disillusioned by the prison camp-like atmosphere and conditions in Jones’ new settlement.
Congressman Leo Ryan was trying to do the right thing when he went to South America to investigate, but it’s likely his visit tipped Jones over the edge. The Congressman and his delegation were attacked, and Ryan was killed, and Jones ordered his followers to commit ‘revolutionary suicide’ – in fact, the poisoned drink was grape Flavor Aid rather than the Kool Aid that’s passed into the language.
Recordings of the deaths of the 909 members of the Temple who followed his instructions feature their leader telling them that a planned exodus to the USSR was now off and that troops were on the way to torture and kill them. He urged them to die with dignity.
Jones was found with a gunshot wound to the head and a massive amount of barbiturates in his bloodstream.
5 – The Hernandez Brothers
Most cult leaders are crazy, but at least they are honestly crazy, the Hernandez Brothers were crooks who thought they were on to the ultimate scam.
Santos and Cayetano Hernandez were a pair of small time losers and petty criminals on the lookout for the next score when they came up with the idea of becoming gods.
They found the scene for their atrocities in the tiny town of Yerba Buena in the north of Mexico. Most of the 50-strong population were illiterate and uneducated and all of them were dirt poor. The Hernandez boys marched into town one day in 1962 and announced they were prophets from the gods of the Incas.
Sadly, it worked, even though the Incas were natives Peru. They should have said they were Aztecs or even Mayans, but no-one in Yerba Buena knew any better.
With promises of treasure and power, the Hernandez brothers were on to a good thing, and lived the high life on the backs of their followers, from whom they demanded money and sexual slavery.
After a while though, one of their followers started to wonder when the Inca gods they were promised were actually going to appear. No problem, they found a prostitute called Magdalena Solis, and with the help of some smoke bombs, had her and her brother appear as one of the Inca gods. Tragically, Magdalena was truly twisted – she believed the boys cooked-up tale and started to act as if she was a goddess.
Two followers who wanted to leave were lynched on Magdalena’s orders, and then started to institute vicious ‘blood rituals’ in which suspect cult members were tortured and allowed to bleed to death. Magdalena and the brothers then led the drinking of the victim’s blood. The cruelty of these rituals started to get even worse, and four locals suffered this terrible death.
It went on for six weeks and might have gone on longer, had a local teenager not chanced upon one of the rituals. He was so terrified that he ran a full 25km before stopping. When he told his story no-one believed him, but one police officer went with him to see where he claimed ‘vampires’ were playing. The pair were never seen again, and the police closed in.
Both Hernandez brothers were killed. Santos by the cops, Cayetano by a jealous sect member. Many of the sect’s members were also shot, but Magdalena, and her fellow ‘god’ – in fact, her brother and pimp, Eleazar – were sentenced to 50 years for two murders.
So convinced were many of the cult members of their god’s power, that they refused to testify against them.
6 – Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles
If anyone ever asks you to join a cult, ask them if it’s a doomsday cult, and if they say yes, make your peace with whatever gods you have to hand. Marshall and Bonnie founded the Heaven’s Gate cult in the 1970s, when the cult came to an end in 1997, 39 of its members were dead – killing themselves in what they believed was an act that would land them on a space ship in the tail of Hale’s Comet.
Marshall had his first moment of madness as he was recovering from a heart attack in hospital. He had a near-death experience and came out of it believing that he and his nurse, that’s Bonnie, were “the Two” – the witnesses of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation.
Their first action on coming to this conclusion was harmless enough. They set up a book shop. When that failed they set off on lecture tours, mixing the then popular fringes of science fiction with bits and bobs of Christianity and other religions. Marshall and Bonnie first claimed to be aliens, then possessed by extra-terrestrials. Some of the men, including to give him his due Marshall, were medically castrated in their quest for purity. The group made money by working as web designers.
Marshall eventually came to believe he was descended from Jesus, and started to teach his followers that the planet was about to be ‘recycled’. Convinced followers thought of their bodies as ‘vehicles’ for souls that were about to be manifested on a higher level. To do this, they had to leave their ‘vehicles’ by killing themselves.
When the Hale-Bopp Comet approached our planet in 1997, Marshall had a perfect evacuation story, and rented a mansion in southern California. Around March 20, 1997, 39 of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their step to the Next Level via a cocktail of vodka, arsenic, cyanide, pineapple juice and phenobarbital. Among the dead was the brother of the actress who had played Uhura in Star Trek.
7 – Shoko Asahara
Many cult leaders are deadly to the poor unfortunates who follow them, Shoko Asahara and his Aum Shinrikyo religion carried out a gas attack on the Tokyo subway – all as a diversion – and are still listed as a terrorist group. And it all started as a yoga class.
Born blind in one eye, Shoko followed the path that is traditional to sufferers of that disability in Japan, traditional medicine. He first came to the notice of the authorities when he was fined for selling drugs without a licence.
At around the same time, in the early 1980s, he began the religious interests that would have such deadly consequences. He liked Chinese Taoism, extreme yoga and Christianity, and by 1984 he asked for official recognition of a new religious group, Aum Shinrikyo, which he eventually got in 1989.
Like many cult leaders he took a pick and mix approach to spirituality, and like the worst of them also believed himself to be Christ. He was obsessed with conspiracies and the coming nuclear Armageddon.
The Aum group had sprung out of Shoko’s yoga and meditation classes, but grew and grew, publishing its own magazines and taking its visual style from Japanese Manga comics. It was very successful, particularly with students from elite universities – in fact, its mix of healing and spirituality based on telling followers they were better than everyone else made it one of the fastest growing religious groups in Japanese history.
However, there were dark secrets too. Shoko’s followers were given LSD and electro shock treatments to help manifest their true natures.
When an anti-cult lawyer started to circle, he and his family went missing and have never been found. Aum had its own hospitals, which charged members a fortune for dodgy treatments and probably killed at least one member.
Thinking you’re better than everyone is one thing, but Aum started to believe it should make this point with military hardware. Shoko bought Russian weapons and is believed to have been trying to build a nuclear bomb.
In 1993, they started to make the nerve gas sarin, and used it to kill opponents. In 1994, they killed eight people in an attack in Matsumoto, Nagano. When the brother of a cult defector went missing he’d left a note blaming the cult and the police started to take the threat of Aum seriously.
The sarin attack of March 20, 1995, was a diversion, but it killed 13 passengers and injured around 1,000 more.
The police finally moved in and found a mountain of conventional weapons (including a helicopter) as well as chemical and biological agents. They could have made enough sarin to kill 4 million people and were also making their own illegal drugs. An attempted cyanide attack on Tokyo’s main railway station could have killed 20,000.
Shoko Asahara was eventually found in one of the cult’s remote hide outs, tried and sentenced to death.
Aum lives on under a new name, Aleph, and Shoko is still awaiting execution in a Japanese jail.