“Like a comet burn’d
That fires the length Ophiuchus huge
In the Arctic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war” (Milton, Paradise Lost)
With the ISON comet drawing eyes to the night sky, I started thinking a lot about the superstitions and magical beliefs surrounding the appearance of comets in the sky. Comets have long inspired people in strange, occasionally beautiful, and sometimes disturbing ways. Mark Twain’s life was framed by the appearance of Haley’s Comet, a point the author himself noted. The Heaven’s Gate cult engaged in a group suicide surrounding the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Increase Mather, famed early American religious writer, dedicated an entire work to explaining the spiritual importance of comets in his Kometographia of 1683. He was responding to the presence of the Great Comet of 1680, which had captured the attention of most of the Western world, and felt that many people would be afraid at this sign and misunderstand it as a phenomenon which directly influenced the course of events on earth, rather than a sign from God of some important event to come (see more here). Generally speaking, comets have historically been associated with strife and woe to come. My Opie/Tatem Dictionary of Superstitions gives a laundry list of examples of ill-omen presaged by what the Venerable Bede called “long-haired stars”:
- A comet as portending a change in governance (Tacitus, Annals)
- Famine or pestilence or war or “fearful storms” (Byrhtferth, Manual)
- A comet [the Great Comet of 1680] appeared two days before the Duke of Monmouth died, and all over Europe before the death of Charles II (J. Case, Angelical Guide)
- An appearance before the plague struck London (Defoe, Journal of a Plague Year)
- A wry observation that those who laugh at comets as tokens of disaster will studiously insist on “times and situations proper for intellectual performances” (Johnson, The Idler)
In the New World, comets seem to have retained much of their wicked reputation. In some cases the danger foretold by the comet is vague and ill-defined: “When a comet appears there will be trouble” (Roberts, “Louisiana Superstitions”). In other places, the significance of the hairy star was more direct and its consequences very clearly understood: “A comet is a sign of war” (Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions). Why should these astronomical phenomena, which had been showing up in night skies for ages, have such a bad rap? Considering even Classical authors like Tacitus cite the comet as woeful, the impulse must run deep. The unique cosmological view of Calvinism, though, which influenced much of Atlantic American colonization, both denigrated occult practices like witchcraft and supported an enchanted view of a univers under Divine direction:
“The Calvinism of the colonial awakenings also paralleled important occult ideas. The fatalism inherent in Calvinism’s concept of predestination found an occult equivalent in the idea fundamental to astrology that motions of star and planets revealed a future that individuals could not control. Calvinist evangelists and occult practitioners also explained catastrophes in similar ways. Believers in occult ideas thought the coming of comets and eclipses had inescapable and usually disastrous consequences; not even kings and queens escaped their verdicts. No one escaped judgment by the Calvinist God either. Sometimes He damned seemingly model Christians simply to demonstrate His sovereign” (Butler, “Magic, Astrology, & the Early American Religious Heritage”).
The shared cosmology of the colonists saw the universe as inhabited by spiritual consciousness, and an intelligence that wished to convey its meaning to human beings for one reason or another. Signs, omens, and portents were one such method. Comets, with their placement among the stars, their strange and ill-understood movement, and temporary nature made perfect fodder for prognosticators of all stripes—religious, occult, and both (they did exist, even during the Colonial period).
Lest we make the mistake of thinking that the observation of comets was the purview of only a few dusty old white occultists or a lot of fiery former Englishmen with strong religious convictions, I’d also like to point out that the cosmology which imbued comets with significance stretched across a broad swath of New World denizens, including Native Americans, Spanish and French colonists, and of course, the imported Black slaves.
“English Protestants often read unusual events as evidence of the divine presence in everyday life, acknowledging the activity of a creator deity who operated through omens and portents within the natural order, or signs and wonders in the heavens, philosophy known as Providentialism. “Comets, hailstorms, monster births and apparitions” and other disruptions of the ordinary were demonstrations that foretold God’s will or signaled His displeasure withhumankind. Africans’ understandings of the universe were also inspired by visible manifestations of spiritual forces within nature. They too viewed thunder, lightning, and other elements as heralds of sacred hierophanies,the awesome presence of numerous divine beings.” (Chireau, Black Magic).
The Providentialism Chireau notes fits the cosmology of the English and other European settlers, but it is clearly not unique to them. A world with Divine presence not only innate to its component parts, but in which those component parts act as mediums for communicating with humans, is also very much an African perspective. And while it is tempting to think that such beliefs can be relegated to history’s dustbin, we should also remember that in our time comets stir up a lot of strange excitement. Religious scholar Camile Paglia notes, for example:
“The Children of God, founded in 1968 as Teens for Christ by “Moses” David Berg in Huntington Beach, California, were negligible in number but came to public attention when they loudly prophesied that the us would be destroyed by Comet Kohoutek in January 1974. The group continues under the name “The Family” and is regularly excoriated by conserva tive Christian watchdog groups for its practice of free love (called “Flirty Fishing”) as well as its heretical beliefs that Jesus was sexually active and that God is a woman. (Paglia, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness”)
Paglia also references the Hale-Bopp comet mentioned earlier, and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult. I have, so far, not heard of any particularly distressing phenomena surrounding ISON’s appearance, but if nuclear war breaks out, I may have to blame that particular “long-haired star.”
If you have comet lore you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!
As always, thanks for reading!