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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 4
ON COMETS, COMET-LIKE LUMINOUS APPARITIONS AND METEORS
Copyright © 1967 & 1982 by Ilse Fuhr and Otto Harrassowitz VerlagSee also Note (1).
1. General Remarks
The individual of today rarely knows comets from personal experience and usually is at a loss to explain why in times past such appearances should have spread fear and terror - all too frequently the reports of such heavenly bodies in ancient texts are rejected as exaggerated products of the imagination. Predominantly, the so-called "hair" or "tail" stars(2) were viewed as harbingers of misfortune and wars, of plague and famine. Varied indeed are the names by which they were known to the peoples of antiquity: they range from "circling star" or "great star" to the "ray" and "torch" to the Biblical "Angel of the Lord". The Greeks first gave them the name "comet" (the "hairy one") by which they are still referred to today.
Not always was a comet a harbinger of misfortune: for the victor of a battle it must have become a symbol of luck if it was visible in the sky during that time. Mithridates VI, the Great, king of the Pontic Empire, had a comet depicted on his coins (as did, incidentally, Caesar on the coins that were minted during his time) because in the year of his birth, 134 B.C., and again in the year 118 B.C., a comet appeared. According to ancient accounts both celestial apparitions covered one fourth of the sky with their tails.(3) A comet was represented as a star with a distinctly elongated ray structure; this practice is observable as extending from an early dynastic cylinder seal (Fig. 1) - this being perhaps the first example, though one which until now was not identified as such - to an Attic memorial relief (Fig. 2) and culminating in the famous Bayeux tapestry (Fig. 3),(4) at which point it became a fixed component of artistic representations.
[*!* Image] Fig. 1. An early dynastic seal in the British Museum (BM 8953). Between 3000 and 2340 B.C. Sketch after O. Weber, "Altorientalische Siegelbilder" in Der alte Orient 17/18, Vols. I & II (Leipzig, 1920), fig. 84; D. J. Wiseman, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum (London, 1962), pl. 20, e ("star on pole").
Fig. 2. Stele of Antiphanes, found in Athens. In the National Museum of Athens. Sketch according to A. Conze, Die attischen Grabreliefs, Vol. I (Berlin, 1893), pl. XIII (text pp. 10-11). Painted marble with engraved inscriptions.
Fig. 3. A depiction of Halley's Comet from the year 1066 on the Bayeux tapestry, according to Der Wandteppich von Bayeux (Phaidon, 1957), pl. 35.
Fig. 3A. Cometary renditions according to Bürgel. See Note 1. Comet Coggia (1874). Comet Holmes at various distances. The great comet of 1861: Horn (Nucleus), Coma, spike. Comet 1882. Comet Sawerthal of 1888. Parting of the tail of the comet of 1811. Comet of 1744 with six streamered tail. Comet Donati 1858.
Fig 3B. Clay relief in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad (no. 9574); duplicate in the Louvre (A. O. 12 442). Beginning of the second millennium B.C. H. Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Penguin Books, 1954), pl.58c; A. Parrot, Sumer (Munich, 1961), pl. 4/224.
Burgel presents a small compilation of cometary appearances, a few of which are reproduced in Fig. 3A. The parted comet of the year 1811 does not deviate significantly from the form of the ancient oriental symbol shown in Fig. 3B.
The comets Holmes, Coggia, and Sawerthal show that disc-shaped or spherical "nuclei" (the "nails" of the terracotta relief) are quite possible.
The comet "Arend-Roland", which appeared in November 1956 and remained visible to the unaided eye until the beginning of May 1957, was too insignificant to leave a stronger impression on mankind, even though one could distinctly perceive the formation of its anti-tail. The last great, indescribably beautiful comet visible to all was Donati's Comet of the year 1858. Its tail was gently curved and had formed, in addition, a weak perfectly rectilinear companion tail. In October 1858 it split and formed a bright head which, in the space of four to eight days, became enveloped by concentric shells resembling onion skins.
The nucleus of a comet, as long as it is still distant, resembles a veiled star. Approaching the Sun, it becomes very bright and on its sunward side a luminous fountain (left horn) materializes which assumes enormous dimensions and is called the "coma". Once this peculiar emanation has reached a certain peak, it curves around and apparently falls back towards the nucleus (right horn); in actuality, however, it stretches behind the nucleus into space and comes into view as a gigantic tail turned away from the Sun; it can cover up to 60 degrees of the sky. For months the great comet, a fiery celestial apparition, attracted the gaze of mankind, and everyone could observe - with the naked eye - the great changes which this star underwent.
The most famous of all comets, Halley's Comet, can be documented as having been first observed by the Chinese in the year 239 B.C. Well accounted for (according to Polanski) are appearances of the year 12 B.C., and the years A.D. 66, 141, 451, 530, 684, 760, 837, 898, 1066, 1145, 1222, 1301, 1378, 1465, 1531, 1606, 1682, 1759, 1835 and, of course, 1910. The appearance in 1066 must have been especially brilliant, since it is mentioned in numerous texts and is visually handed down to us in the embroidery of the already-mentioned Bayeux tapestry. In the year 1531, this comet remained in the sky, visible to everyone, from July until far into September. At its return in 1835, the comet's nucleus began to condense more and more during the first days of October, becoming steadily brighter. Suddenly a gigantic mass welled out from the sunward side and spread across the sky in the form of an enormous fan which surged back and forth for several days like a giant pendulum. Then this emanation bent into a tail more than twenty degrees in length. Even though Halley's Comet had by the year 1910 forfeited much of its earlier grandeur and beauty, its head and coma were still visible an hour and a half after sunrise. During the days of May of 1910, it came unusually close to the planet Venus.(5)
An exceptionally interesting tabulation is found in Polanski,(6) unfortunately without reference to the relevant source material. The number of comets visible to the naked eye is compiled in this table; it is presented here as evidence of the numerical frequency of these celestial bodies. With such a great number of comets actually reported, it would be more than a little surprising if they had not also been depicted visually in one particular shape or another; it is only that we do not suspect the presence of these tailed stars in the sky and do not recognize them as such.
In general, the question as to what a comet actually is seems not to have been raised until the sixth century B.C. Aristotle's theory of "an atmospheric phenomenon" returned the knowledge, so falteringly acquired since Pythagoras, to the level of dark and muddled conjecture for many centuries. Besides, an almost unbridled divination by comets which caused the out-of-hand rejection of any serious scientific inquiry into the reported observations of such appearances, especially those from ancient times, deterred the learned of our time. A portion of such reports, moreover, was suspect on a priori grounds because of astrological speculations, partly quite nonsensical, connected with them. Thus, that astronomical observations actually were made can be properly concluded simply from the fact that, after all, they were talked about.
2. Descriptions of Comets and Meteors from Antiquity
Confronting the modern insights of science are a number of reports from ancient times, several of which are cited here. The Iliad IV, 75 ff. is considered the most beautiful classical portrayal of a cometary appearance - already Dio Cassius (LXXVIII, 30, 1) interpreted the miraculous sign as a comet:(7)
An important reference to such a celestial appearance, a "Great Star" (kakkabu rabû),(8) is preserved in a Babylonian prophecy:
"This," Jastrow writes, "is not from the series Enuma Anu Enlil. This is according to a commemorative tablet 'When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Elam'."(9)
Nebuchadnezzar I won a victory over Elam around the year 1100 B.C. and, for the assistance received, he wrote a letter guaranteeing freedom to the prince Lakti-Sihu (Rawlinson V, pl. 55-57); in this letter his victory is linked to the appearance of a "meteor";(10) "kakkabu rabû", or "Great Star" in this text means, according to Jastrow, "the fire that whirls upward from among the combatants".
Almost identical words were used by the Egyptian sage, Ipuwer, when he says: "Behold, the fire has ascended on high. Its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land."(11)
In the Great Victory Hymn of Thutmose III (XVIIIth Dynasty),(12) several imitations of which are to be found in the inscriptions of later rulers, it is said:
"I have caused them to see thy [Amun's] majesty like a circling star which scatters its flame in fire and gives forth its dew. . ." - a formulation reminiscent of the hurrying Athene in The Iliad.
On a stele from Gebel Barkal the following is written concerning the same pharaoh intervening in the battle: "who . . . rushing as a crocodile (rushes) like a (falling) star (i.e., a meteor) between the two bows (of heaven) when it crosses the sky. . . "(13)
And in the "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor," on a Middle Kingdom papyrus, the snake, which itself is depicted as a comet-like apparition (with a beard and golden skin - "and the earth shook as it approached, and the trees broke" - ), told of a star falling from heaven on account of which everything was burnt up.(14)
In the nearly contemporary Ugaritic myths (Ba'al texts), is written the following concerning the goddess Anat:(15)
a line which in our understanding clearly refers to a luminous apparition.
In the dream account of the Gilgamesh Epic, a similar celestial event is reported. In Tablet V, line 28, we read what Gilgamesh says to his mother:
Meissner,(17) instead of a "citadel" [of heaven] speaks of a "knot" (i.e., probably a meteor); Gressmann(18) understands this term (kisir sa Anim) to mean "an army", and Speiser(19) translates: "Like the essence of Anu it (one of the stars?) descends upon me" and adds, p.74, n.14, that the word "essence" could just as well be used in connection with deities as with celestial objects ("missiles", "heavenly projectiles"). A. L. Oppenheim(20) chooses for kisir sa Anim the term "force of the Sky-God" and designates kisir as an expression not yet identified.
Similarly, a dream is the subject of the text on a stele of the last Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus (555-539 B.C.), which, due to its significance, is here presented verbatim [Col. VI] . It reads as follows:
In Col. VI, 4 and 32, as well as in Col. VII, 3, the "Great Star" (kakkabu rabû) is mentioned; in Col. VI, 3, this "Great Star" moves into conjunction with the Moon, an event which receives a calming interpretation.
In Col. VI, 32, the "Great Star" is described as "rising in the middle of the sky (high up in the sky)" next to the Moon and Jupiter, and in Col. VII, 3, the "Great Star" is mentioned as established in the sky, together with other stars as witness.
The simultaneous mention of Jupiter and the "Great Star" does not permit an identification. A conjunction of the Moon with a meteor (kakkabu rabû) is scarcely imaginable, especially since a lengthy observation cannot be conducted with a meteor in order to "study" this configuration (see note 21 in Oppenheim, ANET, pp. 309-10, n. 5). And rarely - one in a thousand cases - does a meteor "fall" towards the celestial pole (the same goes for meteorites). This conjunction, which seems to strike terror into the king, is twice the subject of discussion in the dream tale of Nabonidus no. 8; therefore it must have been an event which was observed in the sky for a prolonged period of time, and was even anticipated. For this reason the interpretation of "kakkabu rabû" as "meteor" cannot be applied in this instance. But when in this text another "Great Star" ascends in the sky together with other stars and enters into conjunction with the Moon and is referred to as standing next to Jupiter (= Marduk), the question arises: who or what then was meant by the term "kakkabu rabû"? W. von Soden(23) interprets it as a "meteor", but such a celestial body which quickly disappears again can hardly be meant here, as was already shown; an afterglow in the atmosphere after a meteor has passed through it lasts at best a few hours after the fiery object itself has long since disappeared, and such a bright cloud of gas can hardly be implied with the term "kakkabu rabu".
The astrological texts of Neo-Babylonian times, which cannot be separated from astronomical observations,(24) speak quite frequently of such a "Great Star".(25) The detail and the immediacy with which the "Great Star" is referred to in Nabonidus' dream account is equally striking as the fact that the dream was chiseled into a stele which was erected publicly for everyone to see. Both texts speak of a "dream". However, in order to be able to dream of such a configuration, the basis for this must have been similar observations of a kakkabu rabû, which was visible in the sky for an extended period of time, or which might have even reappeared periodically. According to ancient as well as modern observations, a comet can be followed with the naked eye for months, even up to a year, and during this time it might well enter into conjunction with the Moon and be mentioned as next to Jupiter.
In a few cases, according to Jastrow,(26) it is the planet Jupiter which is meant by this "Great Star"; however, this in no way applies to the Nabonidus text. Also, a similar event is reported from the Hittite Empire.(27) At the entry of Mursilis II into the Arzawa Land, a fiery apparition seen by both armies began to glow and moved forward until it finally crashed into the city of Arzawa.
A Gnostic Vision contains these mysterious sentences: "Instead of the sun, elongated flames were in uproar . . . Lucifer (lightbearer [Venus or Lucifer] ) directed the battle and ascended the back of a lion . . ."(28) Evidently, here too an actual observation of a cosmic luminous appearance, which culminated in the constellation of Leo, is the basis for this.
E. Sellin found a terracotta tablet in Megiddo which represented a letter in cuneiform as written by one Guli-Abdi to one Istarwasur. After several introductory words it reads: "Furthermore, when the finger of Asirat becomes visible, then it should be fixed in one's mind and acted upon."(29) Thomsen interprets this to be "some sort of omen".
One of the most remarkable cosmic events has been preserved for us by St. Augustine:(30)
So much for St. Augustine and the reports of antiquity. The evidence cited here shows that observations of unusual celestial appearances have indeed been recorded and described in so early an age and, by the same token, the possibility that this could pertain to comets (or to one comet) has until now too infrequently been taken into consideration.(31) It still remains to follow two frequently crossing tracks in order to come as close as possible to the solution of the question: to whom might the omega-shaped symbol have belonged and what did it represent?
. . . to be continued.
NOTES1. The following introductory works are of general interest:
Eugen Rene Polanski, Der Halley 'sche Komet (Brünn n.d.).2. Before the battle of Salamis, according to Pliny, Natural History II, 90, a "horned" comet was seen; Diodorus XV,50, reports a "beam" comet prior to the battle of Leukra. Distinctions are made between torch-, sword-, lamp-, sabre-, discus-, and horsemane comets. The sickle-comet Typhon is referred to in countless mythic tales; this comet must have changed its shape since Pliny refers to it as a "spiral-shaped fiery knot" in Natural History II, 91.
3. W. Cundel, "Kometen", col. 1179. Later a similar heavenly body appears to have changed the luck of Mithridates: during the siege of Rhodes in the year 88, it was supposedly Isis herself who threw fire upon the siege machines. Nilsson, Geschichte der Griechischen Religion II,124. Cf. p. 175. Justinus (XXXVII, 2), as cited by G. Windengren, Die Religionen Irans (Stuttgart, 1965), pp. 236 ff., reports of this comet-star that it "radiated light on two occasions (at the birth and regnal ascendence of Mithridates Eupator) so intensively for seventy days that the entire sky seemed to be going up in flames; partly because it had covered a fourth of the sky due to its size and partly because it had surpassed the great radiance of the Sun with its brilliance. And between its ascent and descent a period of four hours passed." The interpretation of this phenomenon was as follows: "The 70-day candescence of the comet-star indicates the 70-year reign of the king while the circumstance that the size of the comet covers a quarter of the sky implies that Mithridates shall rule over one fourth of this world; that even the sun was dimmed indicates that the Roman Empire was to lose some of its preeminence." Such an astrological interpretation is possible here as well as in other cases only if and when it is based on actual astronomical observations.
4. Der Wandteppich von Bayeux (Phaidon,1957), pl. ill. 35.
5. In the year 1770, a collision between Lexell's comet and the planet Jupiter occurred; the latter perturbed the comet like a ping-pong ball and moved it from its old orbital path into a new one, which differed from the previous one in every respect. J. Plassmann, Die Kometen, p. 32.
6. Polanski, Der Halley'sche Komet, pp. 32-33. [Cf. N V. E. Nordenmark, Stjärnorna (Stockholm, 1923), p. 654. - RCV]
7. Gundel in Realencyclopadie XXXI, col. 1145. - Homer compares the especially outstanding heroes with a star, Sirius; deities, by comparison, he presents as comets. Only Athene, the most exalted goddess of the Greek pantheon, was not assigned a single star, something which the Greeks never failed to do even with minor gods.
8. Comets seem to have been viewed as terrifying portents. A. Jeremias, Handbuch der Altorientalischen Geisteskultur (Berlin, 1929), p. 480.
9. Morris Jastrow, Jr., Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens II/2 (1912), pp. 690-691.
10. Walther Hinz, Das Reich Elam (Stuttgart, 1964), p. 113.
11. Alan H. Gardiner, Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage (Leipzig, 1909), (Papyrus Leiden 344; recto 6,14), p. 52; Fr. w. von Bissing, Altägyptische Lebensweisheit (Zurich, 1955), p. 133.
12. Jarnes H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago, 1906),11, p. 264, par. 658.
13. Wolfgang Helck, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie (Heft 17-22), (Berlin, 1961), p. 6, col. 1229. It can be assumed from both comparisons that actual observations were employed because of their extraordinary nature.
14. Adolf Erman, Die Literatur der Aypter (Leipzig, 1923), pp. 59-60.
15. J. Aistleitner, Die mythologischen und kultischen Texte aus Ras Shamra (Budapest, 1959), p. 40 (Ba'al Text in 11 A B, IV-V, 17-18). Due to a different punctuation, the translation of H. L. Ginsberg in J . B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 1955), p. 133 has a different meaning: ". . . Amru is like a star in front, the Maiden 'Anath follows . . ."
16. E. A. Speiser, "Akkadian Myths and Epics" in Pritchard, ANET, p. 76. In place of "liegeman" (Ki-sir) Schott/von Soden, Das Gilgamesch-Epos (Stuttgart, 1958), p. 27 has "citadel" but he prints the word in italics to indicate the uncertainty of meaning.
17. Bruno Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien II (Academy of Berlin, 1906), pp. 265,192. It is a remarkable fact that Pliny, Nat. Hist. 11, 91 chose the same expression "knot" when he refers to the comet Typhon as a "spiral-shaped, rolled-up fiery knot" (W. Gundel, "Naive Ansichten uber Wesen, Herkunft und Wirkung der Kometen" in Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde VII/1 , p. 81). Gundel in Realencyclopädie XXI, col. 1178.
18. Hugo Gressmann, Altorientalische Texte zum alten Testament (Berlin-Leipzig, 1926), p. 155, line 225.
19. Speiser in Pritchard, ANET, p. 76.
20. A . Leo Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, vol. 46, part 3 (Philadelphia, 1956), p. 215.
21. Cf. Oppenheim, Dreams. . . p. 250 (par. 8, no. 13). Cf. also pp. 188,189,191 & 203. Oppenheim also translates this passage, with minor deviations, in ANET, p. 310. In footnote 5 of his translation in ANET, p. 308, Oppenheim remarks that yet another dream is reported of this configuration (Yale Babylonian Collection) published by A. T. Clay in Yale Oriental Series Babylonian Texts I (New Haven, 1915), no. 39 and the translation p.55. This appearance is dated to the seventh year of Nabonidus; in this text the planet Jupiter = Marduk is not mentioned.
22. Stephen Langdon, Königsinschriften (Leipzig, 1912), pp. 279 ff. In the stele inscription Nabonidus no. 8 (VAB 4), p. 53, Langdon speaks of a meteor which approaches the Moon, or of the Moon which approaches a meteor.
23. Wolfram von Soden, Akkadisches Handwörterbuch, vol. 5, 1963, p. 421.
24. Jastrow, Religion . . . II, 2, pp. 696 ff.
25. Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien II, p. 414. Ernst F. Weidner, Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie I (Leipzig, 1915), p. 1.
26. Jastrow, p. 690, n. 6 and p. 696, n. 1.
27. Albrecht Goetze, Kleinasien. Literaturgeschichte des Alten Orients. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, sec. 111, part 1, vol. 3 (1, Munich, 1933;11 Munich, 1957) 137/138 (Cuneiform Texts from Boghazköi III 4 II 15 ff.; Cuneiform Records from Boghazköi XIV 15, II 3 ff.). In the 2nd edition (Munich 1957), this text is not mentioned in such detail; in the annals of Mursilis we read (Cuneiform Texts from Boghazköi 4, II
15): 15: But as I marched, as I reached the mountains of LawasaA. Goetze, "Die Annalen des Musilis", Mittedungen der Vorderasiatischen (after 1922- Aegyptischen) Gesellschaft (Berlin-Leipzig), 38, vol. Vl (Leipzig, 1933). (Hethitische Texte. F. Sommer, ed., p. 47). The supernatural aspect of such an appearance is proven by the use of the expression "para handandatar", "shown by God," a concept which, according to Goetze, corresponds most closely to the mana conception known from ethnography and religious reports (Goetze, p. 138 and n. 2), and which can represent a manifestation of the deity.
28. Johann Geffcken, Eine gnostische Vision (V. Buch der Oracula Sibyllina, V. 511 ff.), Minutes of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (Berlin, 1899), II , p. 689.
29. P. Thomsen, Palästina und seine Kultur in fünf Jahrtausenden (Leipzig, 1909), p. 60. A more precise source for this text can unfortunately not be provided.
30. Aurelius Augustinus, The City of God (De Civitates Dei), XXI, 8 transl. by G. Walsh and G. Monahan (New York, 1952), vol. 111, pp. 359 ff.
31. A comet which approached the Earth moving for a time - for the sake of argument in synchronous orbit with the Earth between latitudes 33° north and 33° south, would move back and forth in a flat figure eight with the two halves meeting at zero (this was demonstrated by the orbit of the synchronous satellite Syncom II), in other words, during a period of 24 hours it would be seen by an Earth-based observer as appearing once behind him and once in front of him in the sky (cf. Exodus 13:21!).