In the wake of the end of the world, Mayan-style, let's look back at the history of humanity's fascination with portents and prophecies.

The most famous of the Western prophets is undoubtedly Nostradamus, who based many of his prophecies on biblical end-of-world omens, such as locust plagues and floods.

But in 1557, at the same time that Nostradamus was making his predictions, another scholar, Conrad Lycosthenes, published a comprehensive anthology of the history of strange, wonderful and terrifying events and creatures from Adam and Eve until his own time. It’s possible that both men borrowed ideas from each other’s publications.

Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (Chronicle of portents and prophecies)* was published in Basel in 1557. It is full of wonderful woodcut illustrations of mysterious signs and portents, monsters and natural phenomena.

They include sightings of Halley’s comet, plagues of locusts, disfigured animals, meteor showers, sea monsters, fires, floods and famines.

Fotoware Image
Arabian comet from Lycosthenes' Portents (1557) Image: Emma Grey
© Australian Museum

The most famous image is of a comet seen over Arabia in 1479 which resembles a space rocket. This illustration is still popular among UFO enthusiasts, ensuring that Lycosthenes’ name, although not as well-known as Nostradamus, hasn’t completely faded into obscurity.

*= Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon. Quae praeter naturae ordinem, motum, et operationem, et in superioribus & his inferioribus mundi regionibus ... acciderunt. By Conrad Lycosthenes (Conrad Wolffhart, 1518-61).Basel: Henricus Petri, 1557. 
Australian Museum Research LIbrary, Rare Book collection.