Updated: July 23, 2020 9:10:50 am
In the early months of 1066 CE, a brilliant comet was seen circling the earth. It happened to occur almost at the same time as that when Edward the Confessor, the very popular king of England, died, and the Crown passed over to Harold Godwinson. Not being the natural heir of Edward, the accession of Harold failed to get the approval of the Papacy. A few months later, when an artistic depiction of the coronation of Harold was made in the famed 70 metres long Bayeux Tapestry, it interestingly showed the members of the congregation gazing with unease at the comet in the sky, in anticipation of the doom to come.
Sure enough, England was indeed met with doom soon after, as the Battle of Hastings, fought in the month of October in 1066 led to the overthrow of Harold by William, the Duke of Normandy, and thereby caused the end of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty. The conquest by William ushered England into a long phase of widespread destruction and servitude. Yet, amidst all of this, what came to be seen as divine prophecy of the event was the comet seen earlier that year.
Contemporary chronicler Eilmer of Malmesbury prophesied from the sight of the comet in the fearful words: “You’ve come, have you? – You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.”
Interestingly, in 2020, as the world battles one of the worst pandemics of the century, yet another brilliant comet has made its appearance. Officially designated as C/2020 F3, Comet NEOWISE, is believed to be the brightest comet in a generation, the last one of such kind having visited the earth 23 years back in 1997. Though scientific research has revealed much about the frozen solar system bodies that melt and turn into glowing bodies as they approach the sun, for much of human history, comets were in fact viewed with fear and awe.
The fourth century BCE Greek philosopher, Aristotle had his own take on the visitations: “So when comets appear frequently and in considerable numbers, the years are notoriously dry and windy.” He went on to emphasise that comets could be used to forecast draught, earthquakes, and prodigious rains. Later philosophers went on to connect diseases, wars, treachery, civil discord, and a lot more to the sighting of comets. It’s only from the 16th century on that we find comets being observed from a scientific lens.
Harbingers of bad luck
The ancient Babylonians, Greeks and Romans laid the foundation of the first ideas on comets and their capacity as portents of ill luck. “Without a doubt, the most ancient theory of comets was that of Aristotle,” writes historian of science, Sara J. Schechner, in her book ‘Comets, popular culture and the birth of modern cosmology.’ Aristotle’s understanding of the physical nature of comets, was deeply rooted in his interpretation of the astronomical bodies having ominous significance.
“He reasoned that comets must be fiery meteors because they heralded severe winds, drought, tidal waves, storms, earthquakes, and stones falling from the sky… These exhalations parched the air and disintegrated moist vapours, causing drought and windy weather. Severe winds heaved enormous stones into the air, churned the ocean, and heaped up tidal waves, whereas windy exhalations trapped within the earth rumbled below ground until they were vented in violent earthquakes,” writes Schechner. Aristotle then backed up his theory with evidence of instances in the past centuries when the visitation of a comet was followed by some form of natural disaster.
Roman poet Marcus Manilius, who lived in the first century CE and wrote the poem ‘Astronomica’, went further and commented that comets were the harbingers of war, pestilence, destruction and treachery. He insisted that God sent comets as “tokens of impending doom”.
“The connection between comets and the downfall of princes may have originated with Babylonian astronomers, who practised astrology as a vital part of statecraft,” writes Schechner. But the view of comets heralding political disruptions continued well into the medieval period in Europe.
In 1456, when a great comet appeared, Christian Europe was terrorised. We know today that what appeared then was nothing but the return of the Halley’s comet. At that point, however, the Papacy was convinced that it was a bad omen, and was fearful of what it meant for the future of Constantinople, which had by then fallen to the Ottomans. Accordingly, Pope Callixtus inserted a heartfelt plea in the Ave Maria: “From the devil, the Turk and the comet, Good Lord, deliver us.”
Astronomer Carl Sagan and scientist Ann Druyan, in their book “Comet”, recollected the battle between the Venetians and Turks: “A later historian described the battle in these words: ‘The Franciscans, unarmed, crucifix in hand, were in the front rank, invoking the papal exorcism against the comet.” Constantinople though, was never recovered by the Christians.
The awe expressed towards comets extended beyond the borders of Europe. In Africa, the comet meant different things to different tribes. “To the Masai of East Africa, a comet meant famine; to the Zulu of South Africa, war; to the Eghap of Nigeria, pestilence; to the Djaga of Zaire, specifically smallpox; and to their neighbours, the Luba, the death of a leader,” write Sagan and Druyan.
“The conquest and plunder of Mexico, and the annihilation of the Aztec civilisation, were in some significant measure due to a fatalistic dread of comets,” they explain further about the experience of comets in southern America.
Ancient Indian Puranic literature as well as chronicles from the Mughal era too have frequent references to comets. In most instances, they are followed by some sort of magnificent event. “A severe earthquake occurred in February 1705 in Gujarat. A few days later there was widespread rainfall of red colour. At the same time, a comet appeared and was visible for 15 days. This was taken to pressage the death of Aurangzeb,” writes scientist and civil engineer R N Iyenger describing how the traveler Nicolai Manucci observed the comet in his 17th-18th century account of Mughal India.
It is important to note though, that the myth of comets played an important role in political propaganda. “Consequently, political aspirations were often expressed in astrological language,” writes Schechner. As the playwright William Shakespeare noted in a couple of his plays, “when beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
Things began to change from the 18th century. The English astronomer, Edmund Halley, used Newton’s theory of motion to produce ‘A synopsis of the astronomy of comets’. He reached the conclusion that the three comets that had been sighted in 1531, 1607 and 1682 were actually the same object. He concluded that comets were objects that orbited the sun and dashed across the earth every 76 years. Accordingly, he predicted that the next comet would appear in 1758 or 59. Though he did not live to see it, the comet did appear in December 1758 and was named after him.
Later, more scientific research revealed that the Halley’s comet had been visiting Earth from much earlier, with the earliest sighting being as early as the 5th century BCE.
Even after Halley’s analysis though, comets continued to be viewed with caution. In 1910, when the Halley’s comet was approaching earth, French astronomer Camille Flammarion detected cyanide in its tail, which caused a lot of panic. The New York Times quoted him saying that the gas would “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” His views, however, were largely shunned by scientists.
Last time a Halley’s comet visited the earth was in 1986, and by then it received a lot of scientific attention. Sophisticated technology and high-powered telescopes were used to study them minutely.
Lately, comet sightings generate a lot of public interest. Comet NEOWISE too is being talked about with much eagerness. It is expected to come closest to Earth on July 22-23, when it would be possible to view it with naked eyes or using binoculars after sunset.
‘Comets, popular culture and the birth of modern cosmology’ by Sara J. Schechner
‘Comet’ by Carl Sagan and scientist Ann Druyan
‘On Some Comet Observations in Ancient India’ by R N Iyengar
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