60: Comets & Antiquity, Halley’s Comet, ISON, Apophis, and More

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Hello fellow travelers and welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m the astrolabe to your Copernicus, Lucas Livingston.

Over the last year, the blogosphere had been lit up with oracular prophesies of heavenly bodies, namely the supposed comet of the century, Comet ISON. Discovered on September 21, 2012, comet C/2012 S1, better known as Comet ISON, got its popular name after the place of its discovery, the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) in Russia. Calculations of its trajectory predicted early on that ISON was destined to be one of the most spectacular comets visible by earthlings in a long while. Either that or it would be a colossal dud … or something in between. (Yeah, thanks for narrowing it down, astronomers!)

ISON received a whole heckuva lot of coverage leading up to the grand show. One interesting thing about ISON is that it had never before been witnessed by eyes from Earth. It’s a new comet, having never made the trip to the inner Solar System. And this unprecedented journey for ISON proved tragically fatal. On Thursday, November 28, 2013, as millions of Americans were indulging in their Thanksgiving Day feasts, Comet ISON took its closest approach around the Sun and blew up. So, as it turned out, those who predicted this would be the comet of the century, a dud, or something in between were spot on. If you want to learn more about the late Comet ISON from various astronomy blogs and podcasts, I’ve gathered a few references in the footnotes to the transcript for this episode at http://ancientartpodcast.org/60. [1]

While ISON was only making its first approach to the Sun, humanity has been gazing at the stars and other celestial phenomena for ages. And comets are no strangers to past civilizations. In the Classical World we find comets being interpreted as both harbingers of disaster and portents of fortune. And they sometimes found their way into the arts. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, we hear that a comet appeared for seven days shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar. We know now that this was in July of 44 BC, four months after his death and coincidentally during his birth month. [2] This apparition of convenient timing was interpreted by the Roman people as a sign that their emperor had ascended to heaven to be among the gods. The cult of Julius Caesar grew and the Temple of the Divine Julius (Divus Iulius) was built in 42 BC and dedicated in 29 BC by his successor Augustus Caesar. [3] Coins minted in the years 19 and 18 BC during Augustus’s reign depict the handsome, young Augustus Caesar on one side, and on the other a shining, eight-pointed star with a distinct, fiery comet’s tail complete with the inscription “DIVVS IVLIVS” or “Divine Julius.” If you want to learn more about Caesar’s comet from the ancient authors, themselves, click on the transcript for this episode at http://ancientartpodcast.org/60. [4]

Nearly a century earlier, the sighting of a comet in the birth-year of Mithridates VI of Pontus (135 or 134 BC) and another comet in the year of his coronation (120 or 119) were said to have been heavenly portents foretelling his future greatness. This coin in the Art Institute of Chicago, minted during the king’s reign in the year 86 or 85 BC, shows a youthful portrait of the king on one side and a curtseying image of the winged horse Pegasus on the other. And nestled behind Pegasus is a depiction of one of Mithridates’s prophetic comets. There’s a fascinating paper by John Ramsey in the 1999 Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, which explores the theory that Mithridates adopted the Pegasus as something of a personal emblem, because it was within the constellation Pegasus where the prophetic birth comet had been observed. [5]

Hands down the most famous comet to modern observers is Halley’s Comet … well, at least until that unknown one out there with our name on it touches down. Halley’s Comet is so well known today because of its reliable predictability and frequent appearance, grazing past the earth and sun every 75 years or so. Its last appearance was in 1986 and it’s slated to return in 2061. Its prior appearance in 1910 was highly celebrated in the arts and the media. Astronomers at the University of Chicago Yerkes Observatory had just discovered that the earth would be passing through the comet’s debris cloud of poisonous cyanogen gas, which issued something of an end of the world, doomsday, hysteria among many. And, of course, souvenir peddlers didn’t fail to capitalize on this hysteria. [6]

Halley’s Comet gets its name from Edmond Halley, who, in 1705, using Newtonian physics, accurately predicted that the comet seen in 1682 would return in 1758. That happened to be after his death, but when it returned as predicted, the comet was henceforth dubbed Halley’s Comet.

Using computer models, the predictability of Halley’s Comet has allowed us to trace its appearances back through the Middle Ages into antiquity. While it wasn’t necessarily thought to be the same comet each time, it was recorded and variously interpreted across time and place. Perhaps its most famous rendering in art comes to us from the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, France. Stretching almost 230 feet (70 meters) long, this linen cloth embroidered in wool commemorates the Norman invasion of England culminating in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Here we see the comet soaring overhead as interested onlookers marvel at the ominous portent of disaster. Or so the Anglo-Saxons would have thought. To William the Conqueror and the Norman invaders of England, things turned out quite well. Interestingly, the fiery body with its curious geometric tail is labeled in the Latin inscription as a star. Or it could be the first ever recorded sighting of a Corellian Corvette from the planet Alderaan.

Comet Halley also makes a possible appearance as the Star of Bethlehem in Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi from circa 1305. Just four years earlier in 1301 Halley’s Comet soared across Giotto’s Italian sky.

We need to leave our comfort zone of Classical antiquity to find the most meticulous of astronomical records. Babylonian and Chinese documents record appearances of Halley’s Comet in 87 and 164 BC. Chinese records let us push back our earliest know sighting even further to 240 BC. To shake up the establishment, however, a July 2010 article in the Journal of Cosmology by Doctors Daniel Graham and Eric Hintz, makes a strong case for an Ancient Greek sighting of Halley’s Comet in 466 BC. [7]

This shouldn’t steal any thunder away from China, though. A fascinating discovery from Mawangdui, China in 1978 shows us just how meticulously ancient Chinese observers studied these celestial phenomena. The 4th century Comet Atlas meticulously catalogues a myriad of different comet formations. To the untrained eye, these sketches may seem like imaginary fantasy, but the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan, among others, confirmed the amazingly strong similarity between the ancient Chinese illustrations and modern comet photography [8].

Curiously, if you look closely at the Chinese Comet Atlas, you’ll note in this section that the first illustration on the left bears a striking resemblance to the swastika. The swastika will perhaps be forever damned in modern consciousness by its association with history’s dark chapter of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party, but we must try to step back and remind ourselves that it’s an ancient and originally positive, auspicious symbol. It’s also a global symbol, having appeared independently in visual culture across the world. To the Navajo of America it’s a sacred symbol of healing. [9] In Japan, the swastika, or manji, is a symbol of longevity and was even adopted by the famous woodblock print artist Hokusai as part of his artist name. We find the swastika across the cultures of Eurasia stretching back as far as prehistoric times in Neolithic rock art. A quick trip to the US Holocaust Museum website tells us that word swastika comes from the Sanskrit “svastika” meaning “good fortune” or “well-being.” [10]

One wonders how populations across the globe with no perceivable contact would have been independently inspired to produce the same geometric design in their art. So often visual inspiration for early peoples comes from the natural world … the earth and sea around us, plants and animals, and the sky above … the sun, the moon, planets, and stars, and most distinctly, comets, appearing spontaneously and briefly in the heavens and visible across the globe to most of the world’s inhabitants. If a comet can appear as a swastika in the sky, as evidenced by the Chinese Comet Atlas, it’s unsurprising that this peculiar phenomenon would be recorded by witnesses the world over.

The swastika is certainly a curious shape for a comet, though. The idea is that we’re looking at a comet more or less from behind moving away from earth toward the sun. As comets are heated by the sun, streams of vapor escape, which produce the signature comet tail. Comets can easily have more than one tail, as we see in the many different designs in the Comet Atlas. Imagine a four-tailed comet seen from behind with a little bit of a spin or rotation. Theoretically, this would give us a somewhat softened version of the swastika. Well, if you don’t take my word for it, I encourage you to read the interesting article “The astronomical origins of the swastika motif” by Fernando Coimbra. You’ll find a link to this article, more on the Chinese comet atlas, and other references for further study at http://ancientartpodcast.org/60. [11]

As we began with the contemporary, so do we conclude. To wrap up, another celestial body worthy of inclusion here, while not a comet, is the asteroid Apophis. Apophis caused something of a stir after its discovery in 2004 when initial calculations indicated a small chance that it could impact Earth in 2029. [12] I’m compelled to imagine that its finders chose the dubious name Apophis, heralding its ignominious parallel to the Egyptian demon serpent of chaos and destruction. But no, apparently they’re just Stargate fans. [13]

Refined calculations and observations eliminated the risk of impact in 2029. For a while, though, there remained a risk that when Apophis passes us in 2029 the gravitational nudge of the Earth would set it on a collision course with Earth in 2036. Rest assured, though, friendly listeners, that this probability is known now to be minimal. [12]

So next time you’re out on a clear night, when you spy with your eye to the starlit sky, consider the legends and tales our ancient ancestors shared gazing upon those same celestial objects and ponder the myriad of inspirations our cosmic neighbors had upon our visual culture.

Thanks for tuning in to the Ancient Art Podcast. If you dig the podcast, be sure to “like” us on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ancientartpodcast and give us a nice 5-star rating on iTunes. You can follow me on Twitter @lucaslivingston and can subscribe to the podcast on YouTube, iTunes, and Vimeo, where you’ll hopefully give us a good rating and leave you comments. You can also email your questions and comments to me at info@ancientartpodcast.org or use the online form at http://feedback.ancientartpodcast.org. Thanks for tuning in and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2014 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


[1] References on Comet ISON:

Phil Plait. “12 Cool Facts about Comet ISON.” Slate.com.

The 365 Days of Astronomy, the daily podcast of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 – Weekly Space Hangout – Comet ISON Special. November 8, 2013.

The 365 Days of Astronomy, the daily podcast of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 – Cosmic Perspective Radio – Brother Guy Consolmagno. November 28, 2013.

The 365 Days of Astronomy, the daily podcast of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 – Astronomy Cast Ep. 324 – Sun Grazers. December 9, 2013.

[2] John T. Ramsey and A. Lewis Licht, The Comet of 44 BC and Caesar’s Funeral Games, Scholars Press, 1997.

[3] James Grout, “Temple of the Divine Julius,” Encyclopaedia Romana. Retrieved February 11, 2014.

[4] Quotes from primary sources on Caesar’s Comet:

“Rome is the only place in the whole world where there is a temple dedicated to a comet; it was thought by the late Emperor Augustus to be auspicious to him, from its appearing during the games which he was celebrating in honour of Venus Genetrix, not long after the death of his father Cæsar, in the College which was founded by him. He expressed his joy in these terms: ‘During the very time of these games of mine, a hairy star was seen during seven days, in the part of the heavens which is under the Great Bear. It rose about the eleventh hour of the day, was very bright, and was conspicuous in all parts of the earth. The common people supposed the star to indicate, that the soul of Cæsar was admitted among the immortal Gods; under which designation it was that the star was placed on the bust which was lately consecrated in the forum.’ This is what he proclaimed in public, but, in secret, he rejoiced at this auspicious omen, interpreting it as produced for himself; and, to confess the truth, it really proved a salutary omen for the world at large.”

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Book 2, Chapter 23. Accessed 20 January 2014.

“LXXXVIII. He died in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and was ranked amongst the Gods, not only by a formal decree, but in the belief of the vulgar. For during the first games which Augustus, his heir, consecrated to his memory, a comet blazed for seven days together, rising always about eleven o’clock; and it was supposed to be the soul of Caesar, now received into heaven: for which reason, likewise, he is represented on his statue with a star on his brow. The senate-house in which he was slain, was ordered to be shut up, and a decree made that the ides of March should be called parricidal, and the senate should never more assemble on that day.”

C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Volume 01: Julius Caesar by Suetonius, Project Gutenberg. Accessed 20 January 2014.

“‘…Meanwhile transform the soul, which shall be reft from this doomed body, to a starry light, that always god-like Julius may look down in future from his heavenly residence upon our Forum and our Capitol.’
“Jupiter hardly had pronounced these words, when kindly Venus, although seen by none, stood in the middle of the Senate-house, and caught from the dying limbs and trunk of her own Caesar his departing soul. She did not give it time so that it could dissolve in air, but bore it quickly up, toward all the stars of heaven; and on the way, she saw it gleam and blaze and set it free. Above the moon it mounted into heaven, leaving behind a long and fiery trail, and as a star it glittered in the sky.”

P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, Book 15, Card 745, trans. Brookes More, 1922. Accessed 20 January 2014.

[5] Ramsey, John T. “Mithridates, the Banner of Ch’ih-Yu, and the Comet Coin.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 99 (1999), pp. 197-253.

[6] Comets in History(Does Ignorance Rule?) ©1999, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents. Accessed 8 February 2014.

Josh Sokol. HubbleSite – ISONblog – Great Moments in Comet History: Comet Halley, 1910. 30 August 2013. Accessed 8 February 2014.

[7] Graham, Daniel W., Ph.D., and Eric Hintz, Ph.D., “An Ancient Greek Sighting of Halley’s Comet?” Journal of Cosmology, v. 9 (2010), 2130-2136. Accessed 8 February 2014.

[8] Coimbra, Fernando, Ph.D., “The Sky on the Rocks: Cometary Images in Rock Art,” Quaternary and Prehistory Group, Centre of Geosciences.

[9] Aigner, Dennis J. (2000). The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles. Laguna Beach, California: DAI Press. ISBN 0-9701898-0-X.

Dottie Indyke. “The History of an Ancient Human Symbol.” April 4, 2005. Originally from The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque, Volume 15.

[10] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “History of the Swastika.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed on 7 February 2014.

[11] References on the Chinese Comet Atlas:

Coimbra, Fernando, Ph.D., “The astronomical origins of the swastika motif,” Proceedings of the International Colloquium – The intellectual and  spiritual expressions of non-literate peoples, 2011, Atelier, Capo di Ponte: 78-90.

“Han Dynasty silk comet atlas,” China International Travel Service Limited. Retrieved February 11, 2014.

[12] References on Asteroid Apophis:

Neil Degrass Tyson, Alan Alda, Kristen Schaal, Scott Adsit, Eugene Mirman, StarTalk Radio – Live at the Bell House (Part 1). September 15, 2011.

“Predicting Apophis’ Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036,” NASA Near Earth Object Program. Last updated April 13, 2014 as of date retrieved: February 9, 2014.

Bill Cooke, “Will Earth break up 2004 MN4?” Astronomy Magazine, February 10, 2005. Retrieved February 9, 2014.

Bill Cooke, “2004 MN4: swing and a miss,” Astronomy Magazine, December 27, 2004. Retrieved February 9, 2014.

Ian O’Neill, “Asteroid Apophis Just Got Supersized,” Discovery News, January 9, 2013. Retrieved February 9, 2014.

[13] Darren Sumner, “Scientists: Apophis could destroy Earth in 2036,” Gateworld: Your Complete Guide to Stargate, February 10, 2011. Retrieved February 9, 2014.

Bill Cooke, “Asteroid Apophis set for a makeover,” Astronomy Magazine, August 18, 2005. Retrieved 8 October 2009.

See the Photo Gallery for detailed photo credits.


Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934)
The Planets, op. 32 (Mars, the Bringer of War)
US Air Force Band

David William Lamont
Corellian CR90E – C
Used with permission

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