Tokens of Impending Doom

An image of Halley’s Comet taken in 1986. Credit: NASA

First of all, the title is part of a quotation from Manilus, one of the most respected astrologers of his time. This is a rather different kind of article.  It’s a short introductory piece on the nature, history and reputation of what must be the best-known comet

The long history of this object and the events associated with its arrival are less well known. It is the latter I wish to address, after providing some essential history, including how the comet got its name. The comet we know as Haley’s Comet has been visiting us for 200,00o years, It’s a once in a lifetime celestial spectacle which last occurred in 1986 and the next predicted perihelion will be July 28, 2061 .

It was Edmund Halley, a close friend and colleague of Isaac Newton who calculated that the comet that was to bear his name was the same comet that repeatedly returns to the vicinity of the earth in a predictable pattern of time. Halley was indebted to Newton’s physics and it is perhaps one the greatest ironies that Newton practised astrology, while Hally considered it nonsense and was greatly puzzled how his brilliant and learned friend could succumb to such an ‘irrational’ pursuit. Halley once confronted Newton, asking him how he could believe in such things. Newton famously answered; “because I have studied it sir and you have not.”

Edmond Halley

Halley published his findings, “A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets” in 1705, cataloguing what he had discovered from researching historical records of 24 comets from 1337 and 1698. Three of those observations were strikingly similar in relation to orbit and other parameters. Halley proposed that the same comet appeared to be returning to Earth again and again.

Based on the appearance of the comet in 1531, 1607 and 1682, he was able to predict that the comet could return to Earth in 1758.  He wrote ““If it should return, according to our predictions,” he vowed, “impartial posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.” Halley died long before that in 1742, nevertheless it was natural that the comet would bear his name. The comet returned on Christmas day in 1757.

We know that observations of the comet had been made by Babylonian astronomers in the third century BC, It had been recorded by the Chinese and later the Japanese and throughout the European Middle Ages. It was of varying brightness. One report stated that the comet appeared to be half the size of the Moon and just as bright. Ancient Greek texts reveal the earliest recorded sighting of Halley’s comet, 2,500 years ago

1607-skeletons with comet

I will focus on three events that coincided with a visit from the famous Comet in which the world was radically changed in one way or another. Halley’s Comet has been plummeting through the solar system for approximately 200,000 years. Comets had always had a sinister reputation according to ancient astronomers and astrologers alike. Halley has lived up to the reputation as a harbinger of massive changes in established order, including its coincidence with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, described by Josephus a devastating attack by Ghengis Khan, the fateful and successful invasion of  England by William the Conqueror. Halley is in fact included in the Bayeux tapestry.


Babylonian tablet recording Halley’s comet

Ian Redpath writes: “A comet looks like a portent, and it is not surprising that people always regarded them as such. Writing 2000 years ago, the Roman astrologer Marcus Manilius summed up the prevailing opinion: ‘Heaven in pity is sending upon Earth tokens of impending doom’. Included in his list of cometary ills were blighted crops, plague, wars, insurrection, and even family feuds. In short, anything could be blamed on comets, and usually was.” (A Brief History of Halley’s Comet)

Josephus provides us with a vivid image of the comet and what ensued: “like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war” (The Wars of the Jews J. BJ 6.288)  The comet was Halley’s and the writer’s sense of horror is unmitigated.

Roman soldiers brought back a Menorah and other holy relics from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

This event and other associated with a visit from the comet is of incalculable importance. It was the end of the temple elements of Judaism which has not been restored to this day. The Roman victory was massive, leaving the Jewish population in a state of humiliation and disarray.

Alireza Salzberg writes “Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple. The story of the founding of Yavneh represents the birth of rabbinic Judaism, a way of life focused on Torah and Jewish law, rather than Temple worship or political sovereignty.” (Judaism After the Temple) The singular event of the temple’s destruction and desecration radically altered the path of Judaism for the next two millennia.

Turning to the Battle of Hastings: “at that time a star appeared in the north-west, its three-forked tail stretched far into the southern sky remaining visible for fifteen days; and it was portended, as many said, a change in some kingdom”.(attributed to William of Jumiege).

Halley’s Comet appeared above England 24 April 1066. It was immediately interpreted as signifying an event of considerable significance. It was believed that it was a divine symbol, a warning that the kingdom was in great danger. The main elements of the Norman invasion are well known. But it is sometimes forgotten that this was the most brutal battle ever fought on English soil. Needless to say, with a Norman king on the throne, the country would never be the same again, for better or worse.

Comet lore is such that they are regarded as sufficient omens unto themselves. Most of the usual astrological considerations take a back seat. While it is true that not all visitations of Halley’s comet presaged disaster and mass destruction, there have been more than enough to assure it’s sinister reputation.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 32 : des hommes observent la comète de Halley

But spurring on the Norman invasion of the British Isles wasn’t sufficient for Halley’s Comet Its return in 1222 augered far worse violence.  Genghis Khan considered the comet as his own personal star. The trajectory of the comet was westward and this inspired Genghis to travel west, instigating an invasion of southeastern Europe. Millions of Europeans were butchered, their towns and cities sacked. The comet always seems to favour the aggressor. It is hardly surprising that the visit of a comet (they did not yet know it was the same one) struck terror and foreboding in populations.

There are of course dozens of other examples which lend substantial support to the ancient idea that comets are signs of devastation of all kinds. However, not least is the awe-inspiring 200,00 years of predictable returns which speaks of cycles longer than we usually consider of something that had appeared to be ephemeral. Further, the date roughly coincides with the emergence of modern human beings, making it something of a shadowy companion to humanity itself.

Prise_d’Alamût_(1256) Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Division orientale. Supplément persan 1113, fol. 177v

When Halley’s Comet returned in 191o, it brought forth fear of an apocalypse because Earth would pass through a small part of the tail. The spectroscopic studies of comet tails conducted by Sir William Huggins revealed that among the many organic molecules found in comets was lethal cyanide gas. Speculation became hysteria in some cases, convinced that the humanity stood a very good chance of being asphyxiated by cyanide molecules. Newspapers fueled the panic, people sealed off their chimneys and doorways. There were many suicides, strange new remedies were offered for sale and oxygen sold for high prices.

Apparently, many people also confessed to crimes they had committed because they believed they would soon be deceased in any case.

Of course, every year has its share of disasters and political strife at least somewhere in the world. Nevertheless, 1910 is mostly remembered as the calm before the storm of WWI  or the sinking of the Titanic. Although the details were entirely spurious, it is fair to say that the Comet was a sign of the events in the terrestrial world – that it somehow mirrored mundane events, rather than being the cause of them, I will concede that some of the other instances may require some reflection.

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