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KRONOS Vol XI, No. 10
ON THE NATURE OF COMETARY SYMBOLISM
DAVID TALBOTT AND EV COCHRANE
In our previous paper (KRONOS X:1), we proposed a unique mythological connection between a former "sun" god and a prehistoric comet. The old god we recognized as Saturn, the central, polar sun of earliest remembered times; and the comet we identified as Velikovsky's comet Venus, an active participant in the events of Saturn's epoch.
Numerous myths and closely related symbols, we suggested, appear to associate a comet-like Venus with the band of the "enclosed sun" [*!* Image], the ancient image of Saturn. Though conventional schools have yet to reckon with, or even acknowledge, any such association, it is possible to reconstruct the history and behavior of the prehistoric comet down to many remarkable details, including its specific relationship to the Saturnian band.
Drawing upon wide-ranging and colorful images, the myths tell of a comet-like body issuing in serpentine fashion from the sun god, then - after a period of celestial upheaval - wrapping itself around the god to form an enclosure. Mythically, the body of the celestial "serpent" is so closely associated with the circular dwelling of the Saturn-sun as to suggest a crucial symbolic identity: the "tail" of the Venus-comet and the band of the enclosed sun are, if not mythologically synonymous, at least inseparably connected.
THE GREAT COMET
It is well known that early man had many strange beliefs about comets, associating their appearance with the death of kings, the end of world ages, and universal conflagrations.(1) But since none of these beliefs accord with the modern experience of comets, one is left with three ways of explaining the disparity:
In this and later installments, we will present evidence for a single, prototypal comet: the unique behavior of one spectacular, fear inspiring, and world-threatening comet can fully account for the strange and recurring ideas about comets in the ancient world. To over-simplify a many-faceted story, the myths of the "Great Comet" reveal these particulars:
In the course of this series we will want to examine many additional aspects of the story, including the universal association of the Great Comet with the planet Venus. But here our aim is simply to consider the ancient symbolism involved, so as to establish a framework for future discussion.
THE ORIGINS OF COMETARY SYMBOLISM
Is it possible to identify, with any confidence, the mythical language of a comet? Or must the researcher depend entirely on his own imagination as he makes his way through the maze of ancient legends?
Of course, the bridge to pre-astronomical myth and symbol is that provided by early astronomers and historians - those who first began to "objectively" record and comment upon various natural phenomena, including comets. It is well established that in these early attempts at natural science and natural history, the chroniclers borrowed their terminology from an earlier myth-making epoch, then proceeded to "demythologize" the conceptual traditions.(2)
The early astronomical language of the comet is therefore an obvious key to pre-astronomical symbolism. To maintain a link with commonly accepted terminology, therefore, our present analysis will draw only upon such natural comet-glyphs as were recognized by early astronomers, classical writers, or later chroniclers. These acknowledged cometary symbols include:
The implications of this comet language must be fully appreciated: in pre-astronomical traditions a "Great Comet" would have been the "Great Beard", Great Flame", or "Great Dragon", etc. But what would happen if a cometary explanation of such themes was allowed? The problem is that these very images are too frequent and too active for translators to consider them as cometary motifs. In world mythology there is no limit to the magical and celestial beards, flames, and dragons. Once one has conceded the possibility of a cometary explanation, where would it end? Would not the comet then loom as a mythical image of vast influence, entirely out of proportion to historical "reality"? We ask this rhetorical question only to stress our approach's potential conflict with conventional interpretations and their unspoken assumptions about "the way the ancient sky looked".
To the above-cited comet symbols one can compare the following Egyptian hieroglyphs:
To state the obvious, Egyptologists do not think of comets when they see these images, so we are treading ground far removed from generally accepted suppositions. In fact, the glyphs listed above have apparently never been associated as a group in any formal analysis since the beginnings of modern Egyptology more than a hundred and fifty years ago. They are presented together here simply because they represent those words or concepts specifically connected with comets in later languages.
The immediate question, then, is whether the celestial-mythical contexts of the above symbols may permit a cometary interpretation, perhaps even suggest a unified story, despite the differences in the hieroglyphic objects themselves.
THE ENIGMATIC "CURL"
Perhaps a world-threatening comet would have entered the historical record in two ways: first, through entirely literal pictures recording the comet's abstract form; and second, through certain mythically based symbols adapting the abstract form to various natural interpretations (i.e., as "beards", "torches", etc.).
If there is a purely abstract form behind the above symbols, it is surely that of an elementary spiral, or "curl". And it happens that, in the Egyptian hieroglyphs (as around the world), just such an image looms as a glaring anomaly for the specialists. The Egyptian curl [*!* image] is prominently displayed upon the hieroglyphic Eye of Heaven and upon the celestial crown. The very same curl appears also in the hieroglyphs for"dignity" and "strength", but also for"soul" or "form" as well as several other concepts, all of them related to the celebrated attributes of the sun god. In fact, as strange as it may seem, no other symbol was more frequently employed by the Egyptians, or combined more often with other key glyphs. And though the distinguished translator of the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts, R. O. Faulkner, recognizes the curl as "a potent object in its own right",(3) it is fair to say that the present consensus sees in the symbolic curl literally nothing.
But if the thesis we shall present in this series is correct, the curl can be understood as a straightforward picture of a comet, a spiraling apparition perceived by all who recorded it as the visible, encircling, creative "power" of the sun god, who was Saturn. Moreover, as we shall seek to show, the mythical forms of this celestial curl are concretely expressed by the Egyptian hieroglyphs cited above (though there are many other mystical expressions of the Great Comet as well).
Among the Greeks a frequent name for a comet was pogonias, "bearded star".(4)
It is not illogical then to wonder if pre-astronomical symbols of a celestial "beard" might mean nothing more than a comet. The Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and other sources speak repeatedly of a shining beard in the sky - indeed, a "Great Beard", the life breath and soul of the sun god. By it the great god is "adorned" and "washed" in light.(5) The Egyptian sun god is "the lord of the beard"(6) and his home, the Aten, is "the Aten of the Great Beard".(7) Elsewhere, the texts speak of "the Great Beard in the Mansion of Gold".(8)
The Egyptian "Great Beard", also called the "Sacred Beard" is the explicit celestial prototype for the ornamental curved beards of kings (the latter said to shine like the cosmic original). The nature of the prototype, however, is best indicated not by later artistic renderings of the king's beard - which usually show an abbreviated curl - but by the original hieroglyph for "beard" [*!* image] , depicting a pronounced and highly unnatural, spiraling form remarkably similar to that of the curl [*!* image] our proposed image of the Great Comet.
Additionally, the Egyptian hieroglyphic texts themselves show very clearly that the shining beard of the sun god is actually a great goddess circling in the heavens, a goddess about whom the priests had some very concrete ideas: "I worship her as the Great Beard", states a Coffin Text.(9) Another text from the same source declares:
One of the Egyptian forms of the mother goddess is Khebset, or Khabsit, the emanation and "soul" of the sun god - "The Great Khebset" being conceived as a celestial flame. The root Khebs, however, means not only "lamp" or "flame", but "beard". Moreover, throughout the hieroglyphs one frequently finds the "beard" presented together with a star, so that, for the word khebs, or for the "Great Khebset" (adding the feminine t for "goddess"), one could not produce a more literal translation than "the Great (Female) Flame of the beard-star". If such language has any external reference at all, is it not possible, even likely, that the subject was a comet of a particularly dramatic character?
THE LOCK OF HAIR
Of all the acknowledged symbols of comets none is more widespread than the "star with hair". From Egypt to Mesopotamia, from Europe to the Americas, the comet has been conceived as streaming hair or as a lock of hair moving in the heavens. Among classical writers two common names for comets were crinita, "long-haired star", and iuba, "mane-shaped star".(11) And, of course, our own word comet derives from coma, "hair".
Greek authors attributed to the Egyptians the comparison of comets to "long tresses".(11) May we not ask, then, whether in early Egyptian times the "shining hair" or "flaming hair" - described as circling about the sun god as his "side-lock" - may actually have been a comet?
We noted in our previous essay that the Egyptian seshet, meaning "lock of hair" or "sidelock", was employed to signify a comet. In fact the texts are no less explicit in their descriptions of the celestial sidelock than in their celebration of a sun and crescent in the sky, whose external reference scholars do not doubt. The sun god is said to have "the light of the lock of hair on him";(13) the ruling power is "he of the side-lock";(14) and this streaming hair behaves in a quite specific fashion: it is the "lock of hair which circles round about".(15)
As strange as it may seem, the Egyptian king, aspiring to repeat the deeds of the primeval sun god, prays that his soul will soar around the sky as a lock of hair: "I will become splendid. My sidelock [soul] will not perish."(16)
In primeval times, it is said, the sun god Ra created his own special "form", externalizing his heart-soul as a "woman with a lock of hair", and it was this "form" which became the great sidelock in the sky.(17) However one may interpret the story, it does explain - at the mythical celestial level - why hensektet, "sidelock", was a frequent epithet of the Egyptian mother goddess.
It is also noteworthy that the sidelock's shape was a spiral or curl, as indicated by the hieroglyph [*!* Image]
The celestial sidelock, then, can be viewed as the symbolic equivalent of the Great Beard of heaven, an equivalence suggested each time the texts use the "beard" glyph in words for "sidelock". And the further one pursues these and the related symbols discussed below, the more difficult it becomes to find any explanation within conventional frameworks.
Comets appear to have been interpreted mythically as "feathers" or "plumes". We have evidence that this was the case in Europe during the Middle Ages, when comets were called "the peacock's tail".(18) Witness also the Pawnee name for a comet, u: pirikis kuhka, literally "feather headdress".(19) In the earliest writings of Egypt, a mysterious celestial feather looms as a dominant motif. The texts celebrate the goddess Maat, "the bright feather", or "beautiful plume" circling the sky as the "life", "heart", or "soul" of the sun god.(20) The plume of Maat is the luminous breath of Ra, said to have been planted in the sky in primeval times, or to have arisen in the presence of the sun god, "that he might set it on his head as a reward".(21) "I cause Maat to circle about", the god announces.(22)
This same apparition, it is said, came forth from the sun god as a "command which issued from his mouth on the day of protection".(23) Residing inside the orbit of the shining feather, the god is "the one whom Maat protects".(24)
In the hieroglyphs, the Maat-feather not only denotes the released heart-soul, it serves as the pictograph for "order ' and "regularity". Set in opposition to each other upon the king's headdress, two such feathers are said to denote the two halves of a celestial circuit or pathway.
Was this revolving feather, then, a comet? And could this comet - as yet unrecognized by Egyptologists have affected the very origins of the hieroglyphic language itself?
In the Latin historian Pliny's often-cited description of the primeval comet Typhon, the comet is reported to have appeared as a "spiral shaped, rolled up, fiery knot".(25) Typhon is, of course, a key figure in Velikovsky's case for the world-threatening comet Venus.
Egyptian creation texts depict the sun god bringing forth a magical rope, the celestial prototype of the sacred tie or knot. In more than one local tradition, this rope - signified by the hieroglyph [*!* Image] - moves of its own accord, participating in a vital cosmic event called "the stretching of the cord" round about the god.(26)
Recalled as the sun god's "measuring" of an orderly domain in the sky, the occasion seems to have been visualized in the most concrete sense - for the rope itself constituted the very boundary of the god's celestial dwelling.(27)
The most frequent Egyptian name for this encircling rope-boundary was shen, signifying the protective enclosure, the band of the Aten. That the Egyptians may have associated this symbol with a revolving comet surely cannot be discounted, since shen was the most common Egyptian term for "hair". (Cometary "hair" = cometary "rope".)
Also, if one can accept the possibility of the cometary explanation suggested here, it will not be easy to overlook a significant further consideration: that the very attributes of the Great Comet which produced the notion of a spiraling "rope" might explain the special braided form of the sacred beard and sidelock. For could not a prehistoric comet, displaying braided streams, account equally well for three different mythical symbols - the braided, curled rope, and the braided, curled beard and sidelock?
If the mythical rope and the sidelock-beard can be interpreted as the same celestial phenomenon, it will then become clear why the goddess Hensektet, a form of Isis and Hathor, bore a name with two seemingly unrelated meanings: in the Egyptian language hensektet signifies at once "the sidelock" and the magical "rope" or "cord".
One might suppose that the explanatory capability of a rope-like comet would end here. Yet, even the Egyptian feather reveals a definitive and yet-unexplained connection with a celestial rope, exactly as our thesis would predict; the Egyptian sun god dwells within the "circle of shes-maat", literally the circle of the "rope-feather". Whatever the Egyptians meant by the cosmic feather, in other words, it is clear that they were equally comfortable calling it a rope (shes), or more specifically, a rope "drawn in a circle". (The radical nature of this identity can be seen in the fact that maa means not only "feather", but "rope".) At the very least one must concede that a comet of the sort postulated here would account for a convergence of language and symbols which must otherwise remain a curious but meaningless coincidence.
A common Latin name for comet was fax, "torch". Pliny, Seneca, and other classical writers also use the term lampadias, or "torchstar".(28) This fact, however, has not caused commentators to wonder whether the "torch" or "flame" of earlier pre-astronomical texts might suggest cometary phenomena.
In Egypt the priests celebrated a "Great Flame", said to have coursed around the sky both as the protection of the old sun god and as a threat to all of the celestial powers. They invoked this circling flame as the visible "power" and "majesty" of the sun god, and in text after text the Great Flame appears as the god's externalized soul. Issuing from the sun god as the mother goddess, the shining heart-soul becomes a great star, trailing fire behind it, "a flame (moving) before the wind of the sky to the end of the earth".(29)
In the commemorative ritual the goddess who is the circling "flame" announces:
The same texts describe the flame-goddess with these words:
This is indeed a striking mythological notion that the sun god's soul should come forth to circle the sky as a great flame, personified in the texts as a goddess. If the texts do not mean by this star and trailing flame a comet, to what natural phenomenon might they refer?
Also, once the connection is made, the underlying identity between the celestial flame or torch and the previously-noted comet glyphs can no longer be overlooked. Why, for example, does the very Egyptian word for "beard" (khabet), as noted above, mean "torch"? Is this an accident of language? Or was the language itself shaped by the profound influence of a celestial prototype, a "beard" that was like a "torch" circling in the sky? Why do several Egyptian words for "sidelock" also mean "flame"? (33) And must we call it an accident that the word shu, for "plume", similarly means "flame"?
Of course, if one spectacular comet produced this interconnected terminology, then such "coincidences" are immediately removed.
Throughout the ancient world, mythical chronicles told of a former time when a giant dragon threatened to destroy heaven and earth. Roaming among the stars, the great "serpent" blackened the skies, produced a torrential rain or flood, and brought mankind to the edge of extinction. Familiar examples of this celestial monster include the Babylonian Tiamat, Norse Midgard, Hebrew Leviathan, Greek Typhon, Hindu Sesha, and Egyptian Set.
That the celestial serpent or dragon was nothing other than a comet has been argued by many researchers, most recently the British astronomers Clube and Napier.(34) And no one would dispute that earlier ages did record comets as serpentine or dragon-like powers.
In our first article in the series, we noted a crucial characteristic of the great celestial monsters - one hitherto overlooked: in many recurring forms of the story, the body or tail of the serpent-dragon comes to form a celestial enclosure, the dwelling of the sun god. Thus Tammuz-Kingu dwells within the serpentine coils of Tiamat; Vishnu resides within the coils of Sesha; Yahweh is enthroned upon the coils of Leviathan; and the Norse gods reside within the coils of Midgard.
With respect to this widespread tradition, we argued that the well known Egyptian aten-sign [*!* Image] actually represents the old sun god - Saturn within the serpentine enclosure. To support the thesis we cited the popular Egyptian glyph depicting the band of the aten as the body of a serpent [*!* Image]. Similarly, we noted that while the sun god was ami-khet-f; "dweller in his fiery circle", he was also addressed as ami-hem-f, "dweller in his fiery serpent".
Of this serpentine enclosure, we will have much more to say in future essays. But the obvious and immediate question is whether ancient sources will confirm the serpent's link with the "cometary" images reviewed above. For if our thesis is correct, we should expect to find that the enclosing serpent meant the same thing as the revolving beard and sidelock, the circling feather, the enclosing rope and the protective flame all of which appear in the myths as the emanating heart-soul of the sun god. (And, at the risk of belaboring the point, we remind the reader that these symbols are the acknowledged ancient glyphs for the "comet").
In view of the limitations of space in these pages, we shall deal here with only one of the predicted connections - that between the celestial serpent and the revolving sidelock or curl of hair.
It should hardly need to be pointed out that if our prototypal comet inspired the words for "hair" and "serpent", we should find a conventionally inexplicable, but repeated association of the two words, reflecting the underlying identity.
In the previous essay, we noted that the word Typhon has been connected with the Egyptian Thebeh, a serpent form of Set, and that, significantly, the root theb means "lock of hair". We also noted that the serpent-goddess Seshet, whose name is an accepted word for "comet", was literally the revolving lock of hair".
The reader may wonder if these associations of cosmic serpent and celestial sidelock are purely accidental. Quite to the contrary, the association is clearly archetypal: throughout ancient Egypt, the two symbols are virtually synonymous. Hence, the Egyptian Set, the serpent-dragon par excellence, bears a name which means "hair" and "hairy tail", and the texts invoke the "bright hair of Set" and the "tuft" of hair "which is on the tail of Set".(35)
Similarly the serpent aspect of the sun god Atum is Seshem, the root sesh signifying the serpent-fiend". But sesh also means "hair" or "lock of hair". A serpent said to have issued from Ra was Tcha; but tcha means "hair . So, too, the serpent Nesh, "The Terrifier", cannot be separated from nesh, "the raised hair"; nor the serpent goddess Sebit from sebet, "lock of hair"; nor the serpent Nebet from nebet, "lock of hair". In short, it seems that every tribe in ancient Egypt maintained the same radical connection between the celestial serpent and a spiral of "hair", or a "hairy tail". And since these connections will be found in the earliest expressions of the Egyptian language, it is clear that whatever the principle involved its roots are prehistoric, being fully entwined into the language at the time of Egypt's unification. Yet, the conventional vantage point offers no basis whatsoever for the serpent-hair equation, while the cometary explanation resolves the "anomaly" in a single stroke. Of course, to do justice to the related global cometary symbolism, we would have to reckon with the nearly limitless examples of bearded serpents and bearded dragons, of plumed serpents, serpent-ropes and serpent torches, each of which can only strike the traditional researcher as a horrifyingly irrational combination. For these repeated juxtapositions of acknowledged cometary symbols will, in the end, become the strongest argument for a prehistoric comet of extraordinary influence.
Next: "WHEN VENUS WAS A COMET"
REFERENCES1. We intend to elaborate these traditions in a forthcoming essay, showing that such "strange beliefs" about comets reflect the universal myth of the Great Comet.
2. At times this demythologizing leads to a confusion of the Great Comet with apparent later phenomena, as in Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, T. H. Corcoran, trans. (Cambridge, 1972), p. 237.
3. R. O. Faulkner, Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford, 1969), p. 288, n. 12. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of the Pyramid Texts in this series are taken from Faulkner.
4. Aristotle, Meteorologica, 1. VII.
5. Pyr. Texts 1428, 2042. Transliterations of Egyptian words in this series are based upon E. A. W. Budge's An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (Dover edition, New York, 1978).
6. Alexander Piankoff, The Tomb of Ramesses VI (N.Y., 1954), p. 102.
7. Ibid., p. 125.
8. Pyr. Text 1329.
9. Coffin Text 1013. We have amended slightly Faulkner's translation, "I worship her like Tua-Ur." Unless otherwise stated, all translations of Egyptian Coffin Texts are taken from Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (Oxford, 1974, 1977, and 1978), 3 vols.
10. Coffin Text 252. See also the discussion in Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians (Dover edition, New York, 1969), Vol. 1, p. 455.
11. U. Dall' Olmo, "Latin Terminology Relating to Aurorae, Comets, Meteors and Novae," Journal for the History of Astronomy, XI: 10; Also see J. Sammer, "An Ancient Latin Name for Venus," KRONOS VI:2 (Winter-1981), p. 61.
12. Peter Brown, Comets, Meteorites, and Man (N.Y., 1969), p. 15.
13. Budge, op. cit., p. 345. 33
14. Alexander Piankoff, The Litany of Re (N.Y., 1964), p. 183.
15. Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead (London, 1901), p. 413.
16. Coffin Text 334. 17. Budge, op. cit., p. 342.
18. Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology J. S. Stallybrass, trans. (N.Y., 1966), p. 722.
19. Von Del Chamberlain, When Stars Come Down To Earth (College Park, Maryland, 1982), p. 256.
20. Coffin Texts 32, 44, 80,117, and many others.
21. Coffin Text 9.
22. Alexander Piankoff, The Wandering of the Soul (Princeton, 1974). But instead of accepting Piankoffs abstract "Truth" for Maat, the circling feather, we have inserted the original Egyptian word.
23 Coffin Text 176.
24. Coffin Text 513.
25. Pliny, Natural History, II. 91; Also see 1. Fuhr, "On Comets, Comet-Like Luminous Apparitions and Meteors," KRONOS VIII:1 (Fall-1982), pp. 38-52, especially pp. 47-48.
26. See, for example, the texts quoted in E. A. E. Reymond, The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple (N.Y., 1969), pp. 308 ff. Here it is Seshet, our proposed comet goddess, who "stretches the cord" round the sun god's habitation.
27. On the fundamental relationship of the mythical rope to the sun god's enclosure, see Talbott, The Saturn Myth (N.Y., 1980), pp. 68-71.
28. Dall' Olmo, op. cit., 29. Pyr. Text 324.
30. Coffin Text 316.
31. Coffin Text 75.
32. Coffin Text 336.
33. Thus the Egyptian neb and nebet, for "flame", equate with nebet, "tress", or "lock of hair"; sa means "tress", but also "to burn"; sesh, "to pour out fire or light", also means "hair" .
34. V. Clube and B. Napier, The Cosmic Serpent (N.Y., 1982); Reviewed in KRONOS VIII:4, pp. 59-74 and discussed in KRONOS IX:3, pp. 40-51.
35. Coffin Text 396.