Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


Prophecy is a genre of speech or writing in which special insight or divine revelation enables a person to witness and foretell the future.

In style or content, prophecy often speaks in symbols that require interpretation and re-interpretation, as with the Oracle at Delphi in Ancient Greece.

Prophecy rarely works in advance, at least specifically. Almost never does a prophet directly predict and thus affect future events in a way that everyone can perceive or anticipate beforehand.

 Prophets may be cautious about predicting the future too specifically; for instance, efforts to identify the date of the "day of judgment" always fail and result in more or less embarrassment for the supposed prophet (though some "true believers" believe more than ever).

Regardless, an audience may respect prophecy as a broad description of a familiar narrative of the future based on perceived trends. After a spectacular event occurs, a prophet's words may be remembered and re-interpreted to fit.

For instance, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, prophecies of Nostradamus were rediscovered (and in some cases re-arranged) to fit the phenomenon—but why couldn't anybody read that supposed prophecy and stop the attacks before they happened?

Another real-world effect of prophecy is that people will fit events to their expectations based on prophecy. Thus prophecy and the real world may be seen to reinforce each other. In special cases individuals or groups will form special behaviors around these expectations, e. g. apocalyptic cults or sects from Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists to ISIS.

Symbols and narratives closely relate to each other. Symbols nearly always signify within a context, system, or story-line / narrative, in which each object appears in relation to other objects and thus become symbols.

An example in our readings from apocalyptic scripture is that symbols from various books of the Bible are read to fit into the larger story that the apocalypse or end-times tells.

E.g., popular texts like The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and The Bible Code (1997) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006) . . .  "It all adds up!"


Examples of prophets:

Judaism (Old Testament of Bible): Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Elijah

New Testament Christianity: John the Baptist, St. John of Potmos (Revelation); Islam recognizes Christ as a great prophet

later Christianity: Nostradamus

Islam: Muhammad (a.k.a. "the Prophet"); Islam recognizes Jesus Christ as a great prophet

Ancient Greece: Oracle at Delphi; Teiresias; Cassandra

American culture: Joseph Smith, Edgar Cayce, Jeanne Dixon, Martin Luther King (e.g. "I Have a Dream")

American Indians: Deganawida or Dekanawida, the Great Peacemaker of the Iroquois Confederation; Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux; Wovoka, Northern Paiute prophet of the "Ghost Dance"; other Native American prophets include Smohalla, Tavibo, and John Slocum.


Literary attractions of prophecy—recall that the classical tradition of literature's purpose is pleasure + knowledge

If prophecy's rewards are questionable-to-limited in terms of predicting the future, what pleasures or rewards does it offer?

Prophecy can reinforce one's worldview: the wicked shall be punished; the status quo is on a short leash.

Prophecy is culturally resilient. There's always demand for knowledge of the future. Most errors or misfires are quickly forgotten. If you're invested in a prophet, a few hits can outweigh many misses. ("confirmation bias")

Prophecy is adaptable. Even when a specific prophecy fails, it may be re-applied to another event.

People enjoy deciphering mysteries. Prophetic codes and symbols can be re-interpreted over and again.

Knowledge-pleasure in sense of superiority, knowing something that others should want to know but you’ve found the secret. (If the prophecy and you are wrong, the consequences aren’t usually serious.)

In scientific terms, prophecy is almost always “unfalsifiable.” Even if it’s wrong, you can’t prove it’s wrong. For instance, a millennialist can say, “The Lord may return tomorrow.” He can’t prove that this is true, but neither can you prove that it’s false.