September 23, 2011—When we hear the prediction of a comet, many of us set an alarm to wake up at oh-dark-thirty, go outside with a telescope, and peer at blurry blobs on the horizon. I did that several times, for Halley’s, Ikeya-Zhang, and Hale-Bopp. The best I could recognize with binoculars was a tiny, glowing cotton ball. But life went on as usual each time, because our culture no longer associates doom with a chunk of icy dust passing through our solar system.
For thousands of years, a comet was believed to presage death, disease, famine, and war. It was considered by many cultures to be a sign of divine favor or judgment.
|1607 Halley's Comet (though it wasn't yet named for Halley): |
Note the skeletons (death), the crown, the sword, and
the warriors connected with the comet.
Further, notice the totally and partially eclipsed suns.
Now that is some DOOM, I tell you!
A noon-time comet was reported in England, Germany, and Italy on May 29 and 30, 1630. It was said to resemble a second sun and to shine so brightly that there was a double shadow.
The comet of 1630 was described by Abbot Assi of Milan as a blazing star, with a "savage face," and of a “horifica specie,” (“horrific kind”). He said that it preceded “de peste quae fuit anno 1630” (“the pestilence which was the year 1630”).
Sure enough, in England and much of Europe, plague and famine followed the comet sighting.
Mary Barrett, age 19, and William Dyer, 21, who didn’t marry until 1633, lived in London at the time of the comet, and they almost certainly witnessed it. In the bubonic plague which struck Europe and England that year, they came through unscathed, though surely they lost friends and relatives when a third of London's citizens died. Perhaps they fled the city for some months, like other people who had the financial means to do so.
In New England, about 300 of the 1000 settlers in Massachusetts Bay Colony died of fever, scurvy, and accident, and their winter of 1630-31 was called The Starving Time. Considering that they’d emigrated to America to found a New Jerusalem, the colonists must have wondered how they had displeased God, to be visited so harshly.
Stars and comets also were believed to mark special dates connected with world events, like births or deaths of kings. Some think it was Halley’s Comet that shown in the sky over Bethlehem in 12 BC.
|The 1066 Halley's comet, depicted in Bayeux Tapestry. The |
English believed it prophesied doom.
Halley’s Comet, said to be four times the size of Jupiter, showed itself in 1066, a year of cataclysm in England, as Edward the Confessor died and Harold was anointed king in violation of his oath of fealty to William “The Conqueror,” Duke of Normandy. William won the crown for himself later that year.
The first comet to appear in the heavens of New England, of which there is any account, blazed forth from Orion from the ninth to the twenty-second of December, 1652. It was large, and people shuddered when they looked at its beautiful tail of fire.The people connected their appearance with some famine, plague or disaster, either as its direct cause or precursor; and the learned men of the times taught the people to fear their approach. When it is considered that some persons are still disturbed at their coming in this very end of the nineteenth century, it is readily understood why the people of the days when superstition was fostered trembled at their appearance. They seemed to be the perfection of instruments to accomplish the burning of the world.
The clergy of New England sought to make the most of this belief and fear, either hypocritically, to simply increase the membership of their churches, or because they shared the common belief and honesty endeavored to have souls prepared for the great change that might come immediately, and without further warning. At these periods many were brought into the fold, and the ordinances and services of the church were more carefully observed. –The Essex [Massachusetts] Antiquarian magazine, 1898, edited by Sydney Perley
More great anecdotes about mid-17th century
England and New England, supported by research,
can be found in the nonfiction book
The DYERS of London, Boston, & Newport,
by Christy K Robinson.
It's the third in a series about Mary Dyer, Anne
Hutchinson, Sir Henry Vane, Roger Williams,
and John Winthrop.
Other momentous events, not necessarily negative, were associated with comets. When the noon-day comet appeared in May 1630, it was believed to mark the birth of Charles II, the son of the English King Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria.
After the English Civil War of the 1640s, the execution of Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate, Charles II had been restored to the monarchy in London two days before Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for civil disobedience to the church-state authority.
The April 1661 coronation publicity lauded him as a sort of messiah unifying the war-torn kingdom, and mentioned the 1630 birth comet as proof of him being God's choice for anointed king.
|Charles II coronation procession, April 21, 1661. |
It looks very messianic with the white gate and clouds.
The poet Waller referred to the comet in his coronation poem, “On St. James’s Park,” in the lines,
His thoughts rise higher, when he does reflect
On what the world may from that star expect,
Which at his birth appeared, to let us see
Day, for his sake, could with the night agree!
A Prince on whom such diff’rent lights did smile,
Born the divided world to reconcile!
The next comet to appear was in 1661, the Ikeya-Zhang. You can read an account from 1799 that described the connection between comets and practically every other disaster known to man, HERE.
The PAN-STARRS comet and the new Pope
UPDATE March 13, 2013—Until relatively recently in world history, people of all cultures connected the appearance of comets with great events like the birth of a king, the onset of a new era, or a prophecy for good or ill.
|Jorge Borgoglio, Pope Francis I |
as of March 13, 2013
And now, at the same time as the election of new Pope Francis I, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, spiritual ruler of more than a billion Catholics, we are treated to the comet PAN-STARRS. Ten generations ago, this coincidence would have rocked the world of our ancestors! What we now consider a naturally-occurring event was then considered the hand of God declaring the execution of his will.