Saturday, November 15, 2014

Comets: Harbinger of Death and Destruction

Fourth century comet woodcut from Stanilaus Lubienietski's Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668). Image credit: NASA/JPL
Ancient civilizations once believed comets were harbingers of bad omen and ill fortunes.  It was believed that when a comet was seen before a battle, chances are your troops will be defeated. 

Comets were blamed in a lot of misfortunes that happened in our history. The Romans for example, have recorded that a comet was seen before the assassination of Juluis Ceasar. It was also blamed for the eruption of Vesuvius that led to the destruction of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. As the Roman astrologer Marcus Manilius wrote, "Heaven in pity is sending upon Earth tokens of impending doom."  Included in Manilius list of cometary ills were blighted crops, plague, wars, insurrection, and even family feuds.

In England, the Halley’s Comet was seen in the sky and at the Battle of Hastings a few months later, the Normans emerged as victors and from that time on the comet was said to have been a sign that favored William the Conqueror. The comet seen in 1665 was blamed to cause the Black Death. That is why Pope Calixtus III excommunicated Halley's Comet as an instrument of the devil.

The Bayeux Tapestry show men staring at Halley’s Comet (c1066). It is the first known picture of  Halley's Comet.
In ancient Mongolia, they called comets as "the daughter of the devil," and warned of destruction, storm and frost, whenever she approaches the earth.

The Mawangdui silk was compiled sometime around 300 BCE and it shows different forms of comets and the various disasters associated with them. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
The ancient Chinese called comets as vile stars, long-tailed pheasant stars or broom stars,  and associated them as warnings of an impending disaster or a sign that a dynasty will fall, but unlike its Western counterparts, Chinese astronomers kept extensive records on the appearances, paths, and disappearances of hundreds of comets since the Han Dynasty. These records have helped later astronomers to get a better understanding of comets.