Comets in Ancient Cultures
By Noah Goldman
U. Maryland, College Park Scholars
Comets have inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different cultures and societies around the world and throughout time.
They have been branded with such titles as "the Harbinger of Doom" and "the Menace of the Universe." They have been regarded
both as omens of disaster and messengers of the gods. Why is it that comets are some of the most feared and venerated objects
in the night sky? Why did so many cultures cringe at the sight of a comet?
When people living in ancient cultures looked up, comets were the most remarkable objects in the night sky. Comets were
unlike any other object in the night sky. Whereas most celestial bodies travel across the skies at regular, predictable intervals, so
regular that constellations could be mapped and predicted, comets' movements have always seemed very erratic and unpredictable.
This led people in many cultures to believe that the gods dictated their motions and were sending them as a message. What were
the gods trying to say? Some cultures read the message by the images that they saw upon looking at the comet. For example, to
some cultures the tail of the comet gave it the appearance of the head of a woman, with long flowing hair behind her. This
sorrowful symbol of mourning was understood to mean the gods that had sent the comet to earth were displeased. Others
thought that the elongated comet looked like a fiery sword blazing across the night sky, a traditional sign of war and death. Such a
message from the gods could only mean that their wrath would soon be unleashed onto the people of the land. Such ideas struck
fear into those who saw comets dart across the sky. The likeness of the comet, though, was not the only thing that inspired fear.
Ancient cultural legends also played a hand in inspiring a terrible dread of these celestial nomads. The Roman prophecies, the
"Sibylline Oracles," spoke of a "great conflagration from the sky, falling to earth," while the most ancient known mythology, the
Babylonian "Epic of Gilgamesh," described fire, brimstone, and flood with the arrival of a comet. Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, a Jew
living in Spain, wrote of God taking two stars from Khima and throwing them at the earth in order to begin the great flood. Yakut
legend in ancient Mongolia called comets "the daughter of the devil," and warned of destruction, storm and frost, whenever she
approaches the earth. Stories associating comets with such terrible imagery are at the base of so many cultures on Earth, and fuel a
dread that followed comet sightings throughout history.
Comets' influence on cultures is not limited simply to tales of myth and legend, though. Comets throughout history have been
blamed for some of history's darkest times. In Switzerland, Halley's Comet was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, red rain, and
even the births of two-headed animals. The Romans recorded that a fiery comet marked the assassination of Julius Caesar, and
another was blamed for the extreme bloodshed during the battle between Pompey and Caesar. In England, Halley's Comet was
blamed for bringing the Black Death. The Incas, in South America, even record a comet having foreshadowed Francisco Pizarro's
arrival just days before he brutally conquered them. Comets and disaster became so intertwined that Pope Calixtus III even
excommunicated Halley's Comet as an instrument of the devil, and a meteorite, from a comet, became enshrined as one of the
most venerated objects in all of Islam. Were it not for a Chinese affinity for meticulous record keeping, a true understanding of
comets may never have been reached.
Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese astronomers kept extensive records on the appearances, paths, and disappearances of
hundreds of comets. Extensive comet atlases have been found dating back to the Han Dynasty, which describe comets as
"long-tailed pheasant stars" or "broom stars" and associate the different cometary forms with different disasters. Although the
Chinese also regarded comets as "vile stars," their extensive records allowed later astronomers to determine the true nature of
Although most human beings no longer cringe at the sight of a comet, they still inspire fear everywhere around the globe, from
Hollywood to doomsday cults. The United States even set up the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program specifically to
guard us from these "divine" dangers. However, although they were once regarded as omens of disaster, and messengers of the
god(s), today a scientific approach has helped allay such concerns. It is science and reason that has led the fight against this fear
since the days of the ancients. It is science and reason that has emboldened the human spirit enough to venture out and journey
to a comet. It is science and reason that will unlock the secrets that they hold.
Figure 1. Types of cometary forms, illustrations from Johannes Hevelius'
Cometographia (Danzig, 1668)
(Scan of original and caption from Don Yeomans' Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore)
(View full size)
Figure 2. Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus
Lubienietski's Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668)
(scan of original and caption from Don Yeomans' Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and
(View full size)
Figure 3. German broadside showing comets of 1680, 1682 (Halley), and 1683. The
illustration shows a view of Augsburg, Germany with the comets of 1680, 1682, and 1683 in the sky. Three horsemen of the
Apocalypse are in the foreground. The scene is bordered by a clock face, the numerals of which are made of bones, weapons, and
instruments of torture. Each of the four corners outside the dial contains an allegorical figure with an appropriate biblical text.
(Scan of original and caption from Don Yeomans' Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore;
original provided by Adler Planetarium, Chicago)
(View full size)
Figure 4. The Mawangdui silk, a 'textbook' of cometary forms and the various disasters
associated with them, was compiled sometime around 300 B.C., but the knowledge it encompasses is believed to date as far back
as 1500 B.C.
(View full size)
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"Comet History in a Capsule," Challenger Center for Space Science Education. 2002. 6/2/03.
Cumberlidge, Anne-Marie. "Comets in History," The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to Comets. Keele University. 1997. 6/03/03.
Houlding, Deborah. "Comets in History," Skycript. 6/3603
Kaisler, Denise. "Comet Misconceptions."
Kobres, Bob. "Comets and the Bronze Age Collapse," CHRONOLOGY AND CATASTROPHISM WORKSHOP. Society for
Interdisciplinary Studies 1992, number 1, pp.6-10
http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/bronze.html (Reproduced by author)
Yeomans, Donald K. Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
New York. 1991
Noah Goldman first started working with Deep Impact as a student intern from the College Park Scholars program, a
freshman-sophomore living-learning community at the University of Maryland. Noah has continued to work with the project
working mostly on analysis but also writing articles for the website.