Comets


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Comets

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Since ancient times people have searched the heavens for information on the present andfuture. The primary product of such searching has been astrology and its cataloging of the regular movements of stars and planets. However, speculation has also flowed around less regular events—meteors, eclipses, and comets. Because they occurred less often and were spectacular displays when they did, they were seen as particularly important as signs of blessing and woe. Meteors were generally thought to presage happy events, as were stellar events such as super novas. There was some foreboding over eclipses and even dread with a brilliant comet.

Throughout the early years of Christendom, comets were seen as indicative of catastrophes, even the downfall of empires, a belief that gained the approbation of a number of leading thinkers throughout the centuries. Illustrative of this belief is one folktale that Pope Calixtus III (r. 1455–1458) excommunicated a comet as an instrument of the devil. He was possibly aware of the coincidental 1066 appearance of Halley’s Comet with the Battle of Hastings, in which William the Conqueror seized the British throne from King Harold. The comet was said to portend war and the death of kings. As late as 1836, Halley’s Comet was blamed for the deaths at the Alamo.

By the twentieth century, the science of astronomy began to assert itself. Although discovery of the poisonous nature of the gases in the tails of comets initially increased paranoia, astronomers eventually succeeded in reducing comets to the mundane in the eyes of most people. The public education was not altogether successful, however. In the late twentieth century, religious connotations associated with comets began to take shape with the appearance of Comet Kohoutek in 1973 (a comet notable as the first in several decades that would be seen by a majority of humankind). The comet proved less than spectacular, and the predictions that had been made about changes to the Earth did not come to pass.

In the spring of 1997, while most people were enjoying the show that Comet Hale-Bopp was putting on, a small group in Rancho Santa Fe, California, was watching it for quite different reasons. The Heaven’s Gate group celebrated what was to be the occasion of transcending their human existence. When catastrophe did not overtake the Earth, in March of that year, thirty-nine members committed suicide.

Religious and apocalyptic speculation concerning comets has continued to the present, although it has been pushed to the fringe of popular culture.

Sources:

Chambers, G. F. The Story of the Comets: Simply Tod for General Readers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909.
Kronk, G. W. Comets: A Descriptive Catalog. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishing, 1984.
Moore, P., and J. Mason. The Return of Halley’s Comet. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.
Schechner Genuth, Sara. Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
White, Andrew D. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York: Appleton and Co., 1897. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1960.
Enlarge picture
A detail of the title page from a publication dealing with a comet from 1618. Reproduced by permission of Fortean Picture Library.

Comets

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

A comet (from the Greek word kometes, meaning “longhaired”) is a celestial body composed of ice, rock, and frozen gases that has been quaintly described as a dirty snowball. Almost all comets observed from Earth are part of our solar system, following long elliptical orbits that bring them from outside the orbit of Pluto, close to the Sun, and then back beyond Pluto. Many become involved with gravitational forces in the planetary system, so that they subsequently follow paths that keep them considerably inside Pluto’s orbit—some even become trapped inside Jupiter’s orbit. The so-called tail of a comet is produced when the comet passes close enough to the Sun for sunlight to heat it up, causing gas and dust particles to escape from the nucleus and form a glowing tail.

As extraordinary heavenly phenomena that did not appear to follow the same regular patterns as the stars or the planets, comets were traditionally regarded as signs of unusually important events. In Western countries in particular, they were regarded as omens of disaster—such as plagues, famines, and war. In China, they were also traditionally regarded as omens—either good or evil. To modern people who rarely look at the night sky—much less ever having seen a comet—this explanation appears unreasonable. To understand ancients’ response to comets, one must empathize with them and understand that they saw celestial events as messages from the gods. Furthermore, our generation has not had the opportunity to view any truly spectacular comets—fiery visitors that in times past lit up the night sky with a spectacle of brilliance exceeding the glow of a full Moon. With these considerations in mind, it is easier to understand the response of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré to a comet that appeared over Europe in 1528: “It appeared to be of great length and the color of blood. At its summit was visible the figure of a bent arm, holding in its hand a great sword as if ready to strike. On either side of the tail were seen a great number of axes, knives, and bloodstained swords, among which were hideous human faces with beards and bristling hair.” The comet was horrible and produced such great terror among the common people that many died of fear and many others fell sick, as noted in David Ritchie’s book Comets: The Swords of Heaven.

Many meteors are constituted from the residue of comets. This residual matter is drawn into Earth’s gravitational field, burns up as it passes through the atmosphere, and occasionally creates a visible flash that we call a falling or shooting star. Less frequently, enough mass is left after the journey through the atmosphere for a meteor to actually strike the surface of Earth. In this situation, the meteor becomes a meteorite.

Despite the importance that earlier generations of astrologers attributed to comets, modern astrologers have tended to ignore them. However, ephemeredes of such well-known comets as Halley’s exist, so it is possible to place at least these in horoscopes and study their influence. It is also relevant to note that Chiron—a large planetoid orbiting between Saturn and Uranus that has been given an extraordinary amount of attention by contemporary astrologers—is a comet. It is thus entirely possible that comet studies will find a place in modern astrology in the not-too-distant future.

Sources:

Brandt, John C. Comets: Readings from Scientific American. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1981.
Krupp, E. C. Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Ritchie, David. Comets: The Swords of Heaven. New York: Plume, 1985.
References in classic literature ?
Then there was a wild yelp of agony and the poodle went sailing up the aisle; the yelps continued, and so did the dog; he crossed the house in front of the altar; he flew down the other aisle; he crossed before the doors; he clamored up the home-stretch; his anguish grew with his progress, till presently he was but a woolly comet moving in its orbit with the gleam and the speed of light.
So spake the grieslie terrour, and in shape, So speaking and so threatning, grew ten fold More dreadful and deform: on th' other side Incenc't with indignation SATAN stood Unterrifi'd, and like a Comet burn'd, That fires the length of OPHIUCUS huge In th' Artick Sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes Pestilence and Warr.
Their apprehensions arise from several changes they dread in the celestial bodies: for instance, that the earth, by the continual approaches of the sun towards it, must, in course of time, be absorbed, or swallowed up; that the face of the sun, will, by degrees, be encrusted with its own effluvia, and give no more light to the world; that the earth very narrowly escaped a brush from the tail of the last comet, which would have infallibly reduced it to ashes; and that the next, which they have calculated for one-and-thirty years hence, will probably destroy us.
At last a steady twilight brooded over the earth, a twilight only broken now and then when a comet glared across the darkling sky.
Melancholy in a capitalist, like the appearance of a comet, presages some misfortune to the world.
Then Sherlock Holmes cocked his eye at me, leaning back on the cushions with a pleased and yet critical face, like a connoisseur who has just taken his first sip of a comet vintage.
The crowd of blacks, when they saw the balloon over their heads, like a huge comet with a train of dazzling light, were seized with a terror that may be readily imagined.
I have also made a book which will contain six hundred pages, on the wonderful comet of 1465, which sent one man mad.
Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 18l2- the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.
Things will grow and ripen as if it were a comet year," said Will.
A young fellow from the office of the Evening Comet was, perhaps, the most successful, as, from the lengthy description which had been telegraphed to him from Liverpool, he was fortunate enough to accost the only person who had been seen speaking to the murdered man upon the voyage.
It was Kitty Comet, the prettiest of all the pussies, and Comet evidently had a mission to perform, for a pink bow adorned her neck, and a bit of paper was pinned to it bearing the words, "For Miss Rose, from Frank.