Comets (and reactions to them) through the ages

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007

The first recorded comet apparition was in 240 B.C., when Chinese astronomers reported a “broom star” that “appeared in the east and then was seen in the north” in a text called Shih chi. Since then, the historical record is full of people appealing to the heavens for signs and finding them in roving balls of ice. And can you blame them? Go back and look at pictures of Hale-Bopp. It’s awe-inspiring, this unexpected dazzling thing rising and setting with the night sky, burning brightly and then fading away. If there were supernatural guardian angels, that’s where I’d look for them.

Halley’s visit in 12 B.C., for example, is thought by some astronomers to be the celestial phenomenon behind the Star of Bethlehem. But since there have been so many arbitrary miseries befalling people through the ages, the meaning of comet sightings was often divined as an ill omen. Comets have been blamed for the fall of Jerusalem (66; advance warning); Vesuvius’ eruption and subsequent burial of Pompeii and Herculaneum (79); the Turks’ success in conquering Constantinople (1453); and, of course, the “Great Dying,” or plague outbreak in London (1665). The Middle Ages took a characteristically fearful and pessimistic view of comets, interpreting them mostly as angry salvos aimed at sinners by a vengeful God. The Great Comet of 1680 inspired a handbill bearing a warning that “Herewith is represented the fearful celestial phenomenon and other events . . . by which Almighty God terrified dear Hungary, and at the same time admonished Christendom to penance . . .”

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As late as the 19th century, comets were blamed for the fall of the Alamo, a fire in New York City and a series of very terrestrially inspired wars in Latin America. Halley’s comet’s roundabout through the solar system in 1910 sparked mass hysteria and a fertile market for “comet pills,” sold to counter the widely dreaded effects of the tail’s poisonous gas.

Then there is the most natural reading: Apocalypse. Almost all comet sightings since antiquity have spelled the end of the world in someone’s eyes. Popularizing the idea in America was an Adventist millenarian offshoot called the Millerites, who had decided that the Second Coming would be heralded by a comet arriving no later than March 22, 1844, exactly 153 years before Hale-Bopp’s visit. One night in October, Millerites all over the country famously awaited their comet on hills and rooftops, only to discover their calculations were off. They called it the “Great Disappointment.” After a dry spell, a modern revival of doomsday comets began when Kohoutek’s 75,000-year orbit made a close approach in 1973. Since then, West, Hyakatuke, Hale-Bopp and, just last January, McNaught, the brightest in 40 years, all inspired eschatological predictions by various religious groups and readers of Nostradamus worldwide. If only the Millerites were around today.

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