Oracles of history

At the turn of the millennium, Kathleen Krull's "They Saw the Future" gives kids a look at futures past.

Published June 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The future is upon us. No more than usual, of course. It just seems that way because of a conjunction of accidents having to do with the year of birth of a visionary figure and the number of fingers on our hands. If we had nine fingers, the second millennium would have burst forth at the height of the Renaissance, 44 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue -- arguably a more appropriate era. However, since we count off the years on our 10 digits, we have the honor of living at what is known as the dawn of the future. It's a once-in-two-dozen-lifetimes chance to see how few predictions actually come true.

Amid the endless parade of top-10 lists and published forebodings that mark the millennium, Kathleen Krull's "They Saw the Future" stands out. This large-format book for 10-to-14-year-olds is a uniquely forward-looking history, illustrated with handsome collage paintings. In 12 chapters devoted to "oracles, psychics, scientists, great thinkers, and pretty good guessers," it explores the human longing to understand and thereby control the future.

Is such a thing possible? Well, maybe, depending on the technique. While Krull expresses orthodox admiration for Leonardo da Vinci's inventions, which were far ahead of their time, she refrains from committing herself to the musings of less universally respected seers, such as 20th century Americans Edgar Cayce and Jeane Dixon. She mentions some of their failed predictions and leaves it at that.

Krull organizes the book chronologically, beginning with the Oracle at Delphi, the collective name for a series of ancient priestesses called Pythia, whose mysterious pronouncements influenced the Greek-dominated world for 1,000 years. When supplicants arrived with valuable gifts and questions, the Pythia would chew laurel leaves, breathe fumes that rose from earthquake chasms nearby and fall into a trance. The god Apollo would then use her as a mouthpiece -- or so she and her auditors believed. Male priests transcribed and interpreted her utterances for the questioners.

The oracle's success, writes Krull, was due partly to its vagueness. "As one observer said, the oracle 'neither reveals or conceals, but hints' ... These were statements about the will of the gods that you had to interpret ... The Pythia never apologized. Any disasters were due to misinterpretation -- your own fault." But the oracle also relied on a familiar turn-of-the-21st century source of power: "The biggest clue to the oracle's success is, simply, information. The area quickly became a magnet for current news." With so many travelers passing through, the priests and priestesses learned, for example, where to send aspiring conquerors in search of vulnerable areas.

Hildegard of Bingen, the focus of Chapter 4, is the first individual seer whose story is taken on by Krull (Chapters 2 and 3 cover the Roman sibyls and the Mayan astrologers, with their astonishingly sophisticated understanding of mathematics and astronomy). Born to a noble German family in 1098 -- that's not long after 2000 in a civilization of people with eight fingers -- Hildegarde became a nun, one of the few careers open to female intellectuals. In the convent, she became a painter, composer and healer. She interpreted her visions -- which modern scientists believe were visual hallucinations that accompany migraines -- as "ways to treat medical conditions, solutions to scientific and theological problems, guidelines for human conduct, and images of an ideal future where women were honored."

Hildegard's male counterpart in the next chapter, Leonardo da Vinci, was born in 1452 -- or 2006 if you only have nine fingers. Unlike most of the people whose stories Krull tells, he didn't so much predict the future as invent it. His notebooks contain designs for everything from the snorkel to the helicopter, from the bicycle to the machine gun, from the flush toilet to the steam engine. But since he kept most of his inventions secret, the world had to wait hundreds of years for others to reinvent and manufacture them.

Nostradamus, the hero of Chapter 6, may be the most famous of all prognosticators. A secret Jew in Catholic France, he studied Islamic medical texts, from which he learned unusually safe and effective ways to treat bubonic plague. His career as a physician, however, ended in accusations of heresy. Fleeing, he undertook a new and, one would think, more dangerous career as an oracle. Using astrology, meditation and other techniques that Krull leaves obscure, he summoned up visions of the future and shaped them into verse. He's credited with naming correct dates for the great fire of London, the French Revolution, the birth of Louis Pasteur and the rise of Adolf Hitler. When he wrote, "A very great plague will come with a great scab. Relief near but the remedies far away," was he referring to AIDS? Is "the nine set apart ... their fate determined on departure" a reference to the Challenger shuttle explosion? I doubt it, but 10-year-olds may prefer to believe.

Chapters on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells explore a different kind of vision of the future. These men of letters weren't making predictions, exactly -- they were writing fiction. In fact, they're credited with inventing the genre of science fiction. It wasn't their fault that some of their inventions have been coming true. Or was it? Wells imagined the radio, VCRs, TVs, superhighways, nuclear war. Verne described submarine travel and manned flight to the moon. Scientists and explorers such as Adm. Richard Byrd and Wernher von Braun were fans. Perhaps, suggests Krull, the authors indirectly affected the future through their writings.

Wells' greatest contribution to juvenile literature may be the time machine. This useful concept shows up, trailing paradoxes, in children's favorites from the Danny Dunne series to Saturday morning cartoons. E. Nesbit, author of such inspired Edwardian children's classics as "The Railway Children," was a close friend of Wells (until he tried to run away with her husband's illegitimate daughter Rosamund, whom Nesbit was raising). It's no coincidence that Nesbit's fantasy novel "The Story of the Amulet" uses a time-travel device. The protagonists, four English schoolchildren and their baby brother, find an ancient, magical amulet that takes them, for the most part, to the past. One chapter, however, envisions a glorious future, with clean cities, justice, economic equality and sensible clothing for boys and girls. In the socialist utopian London of the future, the children meet a little boy named Wells, "after the great reformer -- surely you've heard of him? He lived in the dark ages, and he saw that what you ought to do is find out what you want and then try to get it ... We've got a great many of the things he thought of ..."

Unlike Nesbit and Wells, Krull satisfies herself with the past; she makes no attempt to see the future herself. Who will be the seers of the next millennium? What will they predict and will any of their visions come true? Who knows? But one prediction seems safe enough -- that people won't soon lose their fascination with knowing the future, no matter what the year or how many fingers they use to calculate it.

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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