Comet Phaethon's Ride

by Bob Kobres ~ 1993


A condensed version of this article titled, The Path of a Comet and Phaethon's Ride, was published by The World & I (ISSN 0887-9346) Vol. 10, No. 2 (Feb. 95) pp. 394-405.


In 1927 Franz Xaver Kugler, a Jesuit scholar who had devoted over thirty years to the study of cuneiform astronomical texts, published an essay entitled "The Sibylline Starwar and Phaethon In the Light of Natural History." His tri-decade-plus familiarity with ancient documents of celestial events plus a growing consensus that the crater at Coon Mountain Arizona (Meteor Crater) was in fact produced by a large meteoroid provided the scientific footing for Kugler's assertion that a similarly large impact event in the Mediterranean Sea inspired fire-from-above legends such as Phaethon's ride.

Coincidentally, it was also in 1927 that Leonid Kulik, a Russian Scientist, located the area devastated by the twenty-megaton aerial explosion in 1908 of what was probably a piece of debris long ago separated from the progenitor of the still extant comet, Encke. Kulik's first expedition to the Tunguska region in 1921 had been intriguing but unsuccessful, so the cash poor Soviet Academy was reluctant to fund another hunt. What finally tipped the scales in Kulik's favor was a report prepared by a former head of the Irkutsk Observatory, A.V. Voznesensky. Voznesensky combined the data Kulik had gathered with 1908 seismic data recorded at Irkutsk and concluded that:

. . . it is highly probable that the future investigator of the spot where the Khatanga [Stony Tunguska] meteorite fell will find something very similar to the meteorite crater of Arizona; . . . . The Indians of Arizona still preserve the legend that their ancestors saw a fiery chariot fall from the sky and penetrate the ground at the spot where the crater is; the present-day Tungusi people have a similar legend about a new fiery stone. . . . the search for and investigation of the Khatanga meteorite could prove a very profitable subject of study, particularly if this meteorite turned out to belong to the iron class. (J. Baxter and T. Atkins 1976)

In other words, it was thought possible that a very valuable chunk of nickel-iron might be recovered; this is why Kulik was a bit dumbfounded when he actually found the spot he had sought. The devastation was quite obvious--over two-thousand square kilometers of dense Siberian forest had been scorched and flattened. There was, however, no crater.

Kulik's find revealed that colliding space debris could do a great deal of damage yet leave little long-term detectable evidence to indicate that an impact had occurred. Some implications of this fact were recognized by a few investigators almost immediately. Astronomer C.P. Olivier, writing of Kulik's discovery for Scientific American, stated in the July 1928 issue:

In looking over this account, one has to admit that many accounts of events in old chronicles that have been laughed at as fabrications are far less miraculous than this one, of which we seem to have undoubted confirmation. Fortunately for humanity, this meteoric fall happened in a region where there were no inhabitants precisely in the affected area, but if such a thing could happen in Siberia there is no known reason why the same could not happen in the United States.

Newly discovered impact craters were big news in the early thirties; some large structures had been discovered in Australia (Henbury Craters), and British explorer James Philby was, in 1932, led to find some impressive and actually fairly recent craters in the Arabian Desert (Wabar Craters) by a guide who sang:

From Qariya strikes the sun upon the town;

Blame not the guide that vainly seeks it now,

Since the Destroying Power laid it low,

Sparing nor cotton smock nor silken gown.

That same year geologist Frank A. Melton and physicist William Schriever, both of the University of Oklahoma, finished a lengthy study of the unusual features revealed by the flying camera two years earlier. They reported their findings at a 1932 meeting of the Geological Society of America, and these were published the following year in the Journal of Geology, under the title "The Carolina 'Bays'--Are They Meteorite Scars?" Later that year (1933), Edna Muldrow captured the attention of Harper's Monthly readers with this opening paragraph:

What would happen if a comet should strike the earth? We do not like to dwell on that possibility, it is true; yet such evasion arises mainly because we are human and it is human to shun the unpleasant. So we bolster our sense of security by the assumption that what has not happened will not happen. This assumption is false. The truth is that the earth in the past has collided with heavenly bodies, and the more serious truth is that it may collide again.

After informing readers of Melton and Schriever's work, Muldrow concludes her six and a half page article, "The Comet That Struck The Carolinas," with a rather graphic "if" scenario:

If the disaster of the Carolinas should repeat itself in the vicinity of New York City, all man's handiwork extending over a great oval spreading from Long Island to Ohio, Virginia, and Lake Ontario would be completely annihilated. One-half of the people, one-third of the wealth of the United States would be completely rubbed out. The world's greatest metropolis would lie a smoking ruin, . . . . Only a few broken struts set awry and throwing lengthened shadows across sullen lagoons would survive as reminders of the solid masonry of the city . . . .

In 1937, near-Earth-asteroid Hermes, which could impart much more destructive energy into the biosphere than the global nuclear arsenal is capable of releasing, was observed to have missed Earth by less than seven hours.

By 1940, Harvard Astronomer Fred L. Whipple had adduced comet Encke as a remnant of larger parent body which had been in a short period (around 3.3 years) low inclination (3.6 - 16 degree) orbit for between five and twenty thousand years; a long present spectacle for our ancestors as the comet progressively broke up creating the still active Taurid meteor streams (F.L. Whipple 1940).

Obviously, there was, half a century ago, sufficient rational for academia to take a serious look at the plentiful body of lore which spoke of fire raining destructively from the sky. What happened? Perhaps it was the break in scholarly continuity caused by World War II; maybe the subject became virtually taboo in the wake of the well-publicized flap over the myth based theory of Immanuel Velikovsky. Regardless of why circumstances retarded the academic pursuit of understanding this fascinating and arguably important influence on human social development, recent astronomical evidence emphasizes the need to give this subject proper attention.

An interesting place to start is with an objective look at plausible scenarios which could have inspired legends such as Phaethon. Kugler argued in favor of a Sun-like meteor. A problem with using this type phenomenon to explain the origin of Phaethon's ride is the brevity of prelude to an actual impact with a large meteoroid; the object would become visible only after it entered the atmosphere, seconds before it crashed into earth or water. In several ways a close brush with an active comet provides better source material for Phaethon's ride.

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Figure One illustrates the final six hours during a close approach of a comet in an Encke type orbit. In this scenario a Mediterranean view at minus six hours is sunrise and already the comet nucleus appears eleven degrees above the horizon, with a tail, shortened by perspective, pointing upward. For the next several hours the Sun seems to chase the comet as the latter increases its apparent size at an increasing rate. By minus one hour the comet has reached a maximum apparent motion to the west, eighty degrees above the eastern horizon. Here it will appear to stay for the next half hour as, in line with the Sun, the translucent coma seems to double in size. At this point Earth is within the tail of the comet perhaps producing an erie glowing sky with intense aurora and meteor shower phenomena. In the next quarter hour the coma again seems to increase by over one hundred percent as the center of this horrifying spectacle appears to move back to the east by over sixteen degrees. It is during the last fifteen minutes, as the comet reaches it's closest distance to Earth, that damaging impacts with larger fragments from the nucleus are most likely to occur.

Similarities to the Phaethon myth are obvious. The young driver with rays about his head rises early, his father, Helios, according to Lucretius (5: 397-405) and Euripides (see J. Diggle 1970), follows behind ultimately taking control of the reins after Phaethon falls from the chariot. The inexperienced charioteer balks nearly halfway across the sky and is not destined to make it to the west. He travels against the stars (incursent stellis--Ovid, Met. II: 205) before being struck by a thunderous bolt as the Earth catches fire. Helios, in grief, refuses to bring light to the world. A likely allusion to a now recognized secondary phenomenon of large impact events: aerosols blocking or attenuating solar radiation.

It is unfortunate, in terms of expediting a definitive solution, that it is not possible to simply back track the orbit of a suspect comet and thereby show that the object was close enough to Earth to produce such effects on a specific date. The small mass of comets relative to the planets plus the natural 'retro-rocket' phenomenon produced by gases jetting from the solar heated surface of these bodies renders precise calculation of past positions impossible. A credible answer to what actually inspired the Phaethon legend can only come from examining all available evidence.

Figure One also shows that different cultures around the world would witness this hypothetical yet plausible approach of the comet; however, the perspective of disparate observers would not be the same. For instance, at minus one hour for an observer on the Nile delta, the phenomena is hovering overhead, while at the mouth of the Amazon (80 degrees to the west) a disconcerting dawn is breaking. It is therefore encouraging to find stories which seem to support the witnessing of such an event embedded within the native lore of this part of the world:

The sun had risen indeed, and with a glory of the cruel fire about him that not even the eyes of the gods could endure; but he moved not. There he lay on the horizon; and when the deities sent Tlotli, their messenger, to him, with orders that he should go on upon his way, his ominous answer was, that he would never leave that place till he had destroyed and put an end to them all. Then a great fear fell upon some, while others were moved only to anger; and among the latter was one Citli, who immediately strung his bow and advanced against the glittering enemy. By quickly lowering his head the Sun avoided the first arrow shot at him; but the second and third had attained his body in quick succession, when, filled with fury, he seized the last and launched it back upon his assailant. And the brave Citli laid shaft to string nevermore, for the arrow of the sun pierced his forehead.

Then all was dismay in the assembly of the gods, and despair filled their heart, for they saw that they could not prevail against the shining one; . . . (emphasis added) (H.H. Bancroft 1886 Vol. 3 p. 61)

and along the same theme:

. . . According to the Annals of Quauhtitlan, Quetzalcoatl, when driven from Tollan, immolated himself on the shores of the eastern sea, and from his ashes rose birds with shining feathers (symbols of warrior souls mounting to the sun), while his heart became the Morning Star, wandering for eight days in the underworld before it ascended in splendour. In numerous legends Quetzalcoatl is associated with Tezcatlipoca, commonly as an antagonist; and if we may believe one tale, recounted by Mendieta, Tezcatlipoca, defeating Quetzalcoatl in ball- play (a game directly symbolic of the movements of the heavenly orbs), cast him out of the land into the east, where he encountered the sun and was burned. (emphasis added) (H.B. Alexander 1919, 1964 ed., Vol. 11 p. 68)

A strong tradition of "Sun Ages" existed among the people who passed these potentially quite valuable stories to our time; memories that relate the transitions of those eras also seem pregnant with information:

. . . "The Sun of Air," Ehcatonatiuh, closed with a furious wind, which destroyed edifices, uprooted trees, and even moved the rocks. . . . Quetzalcoatl appeared in this third Sun, teaching the way of virtue and the arts of life; but his doctrines failed to take root, so he departed toward the east, promising to return another day. With his departure "the Sun of Air" came to its end, and Tlatonatiuh, "the Sun of Fire," began, so called because it was expected that the next destruction would be by fire. (emphasis added) (ibid, p. 91)

This tradition seems to imply that Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent) departed to the east in the last great period of cosmic destruction. A recent palaeoecological study of lakes in the Caribbean region (D.A. Hodell, 1991) reveals a sudden onset of dry conditions about thirty-two hundred years ago, this finding adds to an already robust collection of data which suggest a global perturbation of climate around that time period (1200 - 1000 B.C.E.). It is an intriguing possibility that cultures throughout the world experienced hardships during this era due to a large input of extraterrestrial material.

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As Figure Two illustrates, there would, assuming one near approach, have been several close encounters over a two hundred-year period; not all, or even another, of these rendezvous would need to be as near and hence destructive as the one hypothesized above to adversely affect Earth's climate. The reason for this is that the gravity of Earth makes our planet an efficient dust collector and in close proximity to an active comet there is plenty available to form a solar shade in the upper atmosphere which would be disruptive to the climate.

Though definitive dating of protohistoric impact events can only come from careful stratigraphic work, there are some rather strong indicators that a nasty encounter such as suggested here occurred about 1159 B.C.E. This is not an arbitrary date for it marks the beginning of a sharp decline in the annual growth of Irish bog oak which lasted almost two decades and for that reason stands out in the over seven thousand year long dendrochronological record based on this species of tree (see M.G.L. Baillie and M.A.R. Munro 1988). The middle of the twelfth century also, according to widely accepted chronologies based on eclectic sources (such as Egyptian), marks a time period of general discord. A stark specimen of pertinent tie-in is related to chapter ten in the book of Joshua, where perhaps the most widely known mention of helio-halting occurs (Joshua 10: 12-14).

Now in the line just prior to Joshua's ambitious communique to the god of Israel it is stated that:

. . . the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died; they were more who died with the hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword. (Joshua 10: 11)

Deferring discussion of the specific nature of these "great stones," it is worth noting that this incident is recorded by Sirach, with a somewhat different connotation:

"With hailstones of mighty power He caused war to break violently upon the nation." (Ecclesiasticus 46:6)

after asking:

"Did not the sun go back by his hand? And did not one day become as two?" (Ecclesiasticus 46:4).

These seemingly minor differences should perhaps be more closely examined with regard to Joshua's reported conquests, particularly in light of recent archaeological findings. An especially valuable site for affixing a date to Joshua's campaign is the Canaanite city of Lachish (re: Joshua 10: 31-33), where time marking Egyptian artifacts have been found. Finds at this location are also quite supportive of the scenario espoused in this paper. David Ussishkin, reports in Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages (1985 p. 223) that at tell Lachish:

The city of Level VI was razed in a violent destruction accompanied by fire, traces of which could be detected in every spot in which its remains were uncovered. The destruction was apparently complete, and the population liquidated or driven out. Following the catastrophe, the site was abandoned and remained desolate for a long period of time.

Ussishkin dates this devastation at 1150 B.C.E.; he also paints an archaeological picture of a crushingly abrupt end:

The tragic circumstances of the city's destruction were vividly illustrated in the ruins of the Level VI building of Area S. This large public edifice seems to have been turned into living quarters during its final period of use, perhaps occupied by refugees from outside the city who fled their homes in the face of the impending disaster that was eventually to destroy the city. On the floors, sealed beneath the building debris, were found human remains that were studied by Professor Patricia Smith (Ussishkin, 1983; 116, Pl. 25:2). They include a number of bones of an adult female aged 40-50 and of an 8-year-old child, as well as two skeletons, one of a child aged 2-3 years and one of an infant of 6-8 months. Professor Smith reported that according to the position of these skeletons on the floor, 'the child had either been thrown down on its face, or possibly died while crawling along the ground . . . . the infant was thrown or fell onto the ground'. Apparently, these children were trapped and crushed under falling debris while trying to crawl out from under it. According to Professor Smith, the good state of skeletal preservation suggests that they were covered by the debris shortly after death.

Several artifacts directly traceable to Ramses III have been recovered from Level VI; perhaps, in light of a broader view of possible events, the early criticism heaped upon the Egyptian epic poetry of this period was not well-founded. As an example, Wilson, after lambasting the poetic excesses in the Medinet Habu account of the second Libyan war, offers this free translation of the enemy's flight before the Pharaoh:

. . . The pupils of their eyes squinted so that they could not see. The roads were blocked and stopped up before them, while the world was a whirlwind behind them to carry off their people. Their weapons had fallen from their hands, and their hearts knew no rest . . . . They were straggling trembling and sweating. The uraeus-serpent which is upon the head of the Sun of Egypt (Pharaoh) was against them, so that the great heat of (the war-goddess) Sekhmet permeated their hearts and their bones were burned up within their bodies. The stars of the seshed-constellation were frightful in pursuit of them, while the land (of Egypt) was glad and rejoiced at the sight of his valor: Ramses III. (Wilson, J.A. 1928/29 p. 27)

The belief that the Pharaoh magically controlled celestial events is well attested to in Egyptian literature. In fact the personage of these fleshy gods was often directly equated with a cosmic object (see G.A. Wainwright 1938). For instance R.O. Faulkner (1969) translates sections 1454-55 in utterance 570 of the Pyramid Texts:

Do not break up the ground, O you arms of mine which lift up the sky as Shu; my bones are iron and my limbs are the Imperishable Stars.

I am a star which illumines the sky, I mount up to the god that I may be protected, for the sky will not be devoid of me and this earth will not be devoid of me for ever.

It is with this larger than life royal identity that the following Chinese account should be viewed.

King Wan dreamt that he was clothed with the sun and moon. . . . In the first month of spring, on the 6th day, the five planets had a conjunction in Fang. . . . The conjunctions of the five planets in Fang brightens all within the four seas.'

When king Wan was dead, his eldest son Fa ruled in his stead. . . . When he [Fa] was crossing the river at the ford of Mang, in the middle of the stream, a white fish leaped into the king's boat. The king stooped down and took it up. It was 3 cubits long, and under its eyes were red lines which formed the characters--'Chow may be smitten.' The king wrote over them the character for 'dynasty,' and the words disappeared. After this he burned the fish in sacrifice, and announced the event to Heaven. Lo! fire came down from heaven, and rested over Wang uh, gradually floating away into a red bird, with a stalk of grain in its beak.

If this collection of mixed metaphors was the sole record of end times for the Shang dynasty it would lend little help to support the suppositions of this paper; however it is not, and when the unusual boat ride of Fa is considered in context with other Chinese lore speaking of this period (approx. 1150 B.C.E.) it becomes quite intriguing. The above passage comes from The Annals of the Bamboo Book (ch. 4, part 5) and is devoted to King Woo (named Fa) who, with his father King Wan is considered co-founder of the Chow dynasty. From the conjunction of five planets in Fang to the end of the Shang dynasty the Bamboo Book records a span of two decades. This "warring period" (given as 1148-1122 B.C.E. by N. Koss 1979) is the subject of a later historical novel (Feng-Shen Yen-I) which contends that the war between Shang and Chow groups was not caused by human factors but by the predestined investiture of the gods (see S.H. Chang 1990 pp. 169-70). In the Shoo King (book of history) there are several mentions of heaven sending down calamities during this time period. The explanation for these adversities is that heaven was showing displeasure with the Shang ruler, Te-sin (named Show), and it is expressly stated of Fa that:

"Reverently obeying the determinate counsel of Heaven, I pursue my punitive work to the east, . . ." (Shoo King, Part 5, Book 3, p. 7).

In the Great Declaration, also in the Shoo King (Part 5, Book 1, Part 2-8.9), Fa states:

. . . My military prowess is displayed, and I enter his territories, to take the wicked tyrant. My punishment of evil will be shown more glorious than that of T'ang.

The last line has an important connotation, for turning to the scholarly notes of James Legge concerning the Punitive Expedition of Yin (Shoo King, Part 3, Book 4) Legge indicates that:

. . . at last, B.C. 1765, after many misgivings, T'ang took the field against his sovereign. There could be no doubt as to the result. Heaven and earth combined with men to show their detestation of the tyrant. Two suns fought in the sky. The earth shook. Mountains were moved from their strong foundations. Rivers were dried up. Kee was routed, and fled south to Ts'aou, . . .

The known distribution of debris associated with comet Encke makes earlier events, such as alluded to here, quite plausible, however for now this passage serves only to show that a cosmic interpretation of Fa's conquest is not ad hoc. Also, before discussing the interesting aspects of Fa's fish story, it is pertinent to note that the Annals of the Bamboo Book record that in the forty-eighth year of Show's (the Shang tyrant) reign, two suns appeared together and the E goat was seen. Legge notes that this E goat "was a prodigious thing, 'a spirit-like animal,'--variously described." This is almost certainly a reference to the appearance of a comet.

In the Appendix to the Great Declaration there is again mention of Fa crossing what was probably at some point in this legend's history a cosmic river:

As the prince Fa had got to the middle of the stream in his boat, a white fish entered it. The king knelt down and took it up. He then went on the bank, and burned it, in sacrifice to Heaven. All the dukes said, "This is auspicious!"

On the fifth day there was a ball of fire which descended from above, till it came to the king's house, and there dissolved into a crow. Its colour was red . . .

Remarkably, this incredible sounding tale fits well with a Chinese view of a comet approaching as postulated above.

The plain of Honan is about eighty degrees east of the Nile delta so for an observer located in that part of the world the hypothetical comet would have come into view over five hours earlier than it would for a counterpart located in the Mediterranean. Looking at Figure One again, it can be seen that the comet, or "white fish," would appear to move closer to the sun, or "solar barge," throughout the morning. By mid-afternoon (minus 2 to 3 hours) the comet, rapidly growing in apparent size, would seem to be merging with the sun. At minus one hour the fieriest sunset imaginable would begin, followed forty-five minutes later by the dramatically sudden eruption of a "ball of fire" which in the span of fifteen minutes, would have moved the wrong way into the night horizon where it would, in a phoenix like fashion, rise again, rapidly losing apparent size as it sped away from Earth into the star peppered black void perhaps taking on the appearance of a red bird as the object's aspect became smaller and so returned less sunlight to an atmosphere recently loaded with comet dust.

As mentioned above, without detailed groundwork, no definitive conclusion regarding the magnitude or timing of a past impact event can be put forth. It is, however, possible to be relatively secure in asserting that encounters disruptive to the environment have occurred since the end of the Pleistocene some twelve-thousand years ago. Indeed the Younger Dryas cold oscillation, which is contemporary with the Pleistocene/Holocene transition as well as the American and perhaps Euro/Asian megafauna extinction episode, may have been caused by external input. The newly recognized large population of near-Earth-objects provides a sound astronomically based argument for a much higher frequency of impact events than was estimated two decades ago. Also, an improved understanding of phenomena associated with cosmic collisions supplies credibility to certain ancient assertions which had seemed completely illogical. A good example of generally misunderstood lore can be found in Book V of the Sibylline oracles. H.N. Bate (1918) translates lines 298-300:

And then in his anger the immortal God who dwells on high shall hurl from the sky a fiery bolt on the head of the unholy: and summer shall change to winter in that day. (emphasis added)

Bate notes that Book VIII contains a parallel passage with winter being changed to summer--fortunately he did not feel compelled to "correct" the lines above as others have. For example:

And then the imperishable God who dwells in the sky in anger will cast a lightning bolt from heaven against the power of the impious. Instead of winter there will be summer on that day. (emphasis added)

This comes from Old Testament pseudepigrapha (vol. 1) published in 1983. Not only has the passage been rationalized (If God throws down fire it should get hotter, right?), but, a fiery bolt now has become a lightning bolt.

Evidence of impact-induced cold is valuable in gauging how energetic a past fall was. Based on nuclear winter studies, a cosmic collision would need to impart at least the energy equivalent of a thousand megatons TNT into the environment to produce such an effect.

A number of cultures retained stories of impact-induced winter. Most telling of all such lore this author has read are these amazingly informative tales of the Yakuts: [note that the CH in brackets below is printed in the reference as a "c" with a diacritic "v"]

[ch]olbon . . . is said to be "the daughter of the Devil and to have had a tail in the early days". If it approaches the earth, it means destruction, storm and frost, even in the summer; . . .

[ch]olbon, the daughter of the Devil is a beautiful girl . . . she is the bride and the sweetheart of Satan's son-- ürgel (Pleiades). When these two stars come close to one another, it is a bad omen; their eager quivering, their discontinuous panting cause great disasters: storms, blizzards, gales. When they unite, fathom deep snow will fall even in the summer, and all living beings, men, animals and trees will perish . . . " (L. Mandoki, 1968, p. 489)

Both folk memories were recorded by ethnographer V.L. Serosevsky, the first in 1877, the next in 1885. The Yakuts identified Venus as [ch]olbon; however, as a later student of this culture, G.V. Ksenofontov, observed:

"The Yakuts have two words for the "star": sulus and [ch]olbon. The first means simply "star", the second refers to stars that change their place in the sky, sometimes appearing and disappearing. Nowadays, however, it no longer--or very seldom--refers to other planets than Venus and has almost become its name. Yet, as we have seen, in legends also other "[ch]olbons" (i.e. planets) are mentioned. (ibid, p. 490)

What is remarkable about these particular tales is the conjunction of several pieces of information. The lines contend that a comet ([ch]olbon with a tail) came close enough to influence weather on Earth--i.e. deadly storms, frost and deep snow in summer. Also, it is implied that this is most likely to occur if the comet appears close to the Pleiades. In short, these legends accurately describe what can now be inferred from astronomical data on comet Encke and the ring of debris its progenitor strew about the Sun.

Of particular interest with regard to external perturbation of climate is an artifact unearthed in 1934, the Ch'u Silk Manuscript . This document, which dates from 500-400 B.C.E., is primarily astrological in nature. Because several of the characters painted on this silk have no directly traceable descendants translation is difficult, making it preferable to take into account more than a singular attempt at extracting meaning from the text. Pertinent is Jao Tsung-yi's interpretation of lines B. 1-1 to 2-30 which relate irregularities of a "Broom Star" (comet):

Sometimes the sun and moon are not in their constant course. This is called Ying (gaining) and Ch'u (retreating). Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter have . . . and have their own regular way. When the order of the sun, the moon, and the heavenly bodies is disturbed, gaining and retreating . . . and the plants would become erratic . . . ominous happenings. Heaven and earth will cause disasters(?). The T'ien-p'ou star [ ] will tremble and fall down in . . . direction. Then, the mountains and hillocks . . . there will be streams and floods. Such (phenomena) are (seen) in the Po-po [ ]. (Jao Tsung-yi, 1972, pp. 118-119)

A more raw rendering of these lines is provided by Noel Barnard:

. . . (particle) . . . . . . (= verb?) the sun, the moon thence will gain and retreat, and will not obtain its . . . . Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter . . . . (= not?) have . . . . (- their?) regularity. When the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, and the Constellations confuse and . . . . (= muddle?) their movements, the [process of] gaining and retreating . . . . (= becomes muddled?) . . . . [thus] the grasses and the trees will lack regularity [of growth?] . . . . ; . . . . [ . . . . ] . . . . . . . . , Heaven and Earth will . . . . (- verb?). The T'ien-p'ou will be about to move and to descend to its . . . . region. The Hills and the Plains - their . . . . (- verb?) have depth (?) their (?) . . . . ; this is known as . . . . . (N. Barnard, 1973, Part 2, p. 207)

Clearly, in the light of contemporary knowledge, it is not outrageous to suppose that humanity learned to dread comets as a consequence of direct experience with destructive phenomena engendered by actual encounters with the immediate environment of these flamboyant cosmic interlopers (see V. Clube and B. Napier, 1990). Indeed, early attempts to predict this infrequent but periodically recurring phenomenon were quite likely the impetus which led to the widespread and ultimately formalized belief that star positions could directly influence events on Earth. Observed comet phenomena such as fragmentation, where a comet appears to produce one or more offspring, can explain the origin of odd notions like Athena being born fully formed from the head of Zeus. That these objects were feared and worshiped as omnipotent, judgmental gods of the sky is understandable and seems attested to in several ancient texts. For instance in Ezekiel 1:27-28 it is stated that:

. . . upon the throne, a form in human likeness. I saw what might have been brass glowing like fire in a furnace from the waist upwards; and from the waist downwards

I saw what looked like fire with encircling radiance. Like a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day was the sight of that encircling radiance; it was like the appearance of the glory of the Lord.

When I saw this I threw myself on my face, . . . (New English Bible)

A similar description of celestial war-lord can be found in the Drona Parva of the Mahabharata:

Many are the blazing and terrible forms of this God that men speak of and worship in the world. Many also are the names, of truthful import, of this Deity in all the worlds. Those names are founded upon his supremacy, his omnipotence, and his acts . . . [several names and attributes are given]. . . Downwards fiery, and half the body that is auspiciousness is the moon. His auspiciousness is the moon. So also half his soul is fire and half the moon. (P.C. Roy 1973 ed., Vol. 6, pp. 486- 487)

That these stories are rooted in comet lore is suggested by content; for example, in the above-mentioned Parva it is said of the preceptor that:

. . . When Drona, of sure aim, thus proceeded, the earth trembled violently. Fierce winds began to blow, inspiring the (hostile) ranks with fear. Large meteors fell, seemingly issuing out of the sun, blazing fiercely as they fell and foreboding great terrors. (ibid. p. 452)

Drona's offspring was also quite formidable:

. . . the preceptor's son, that slayer of hostile heroes, inspired with mantras a blazing shaft possessed of the effulgence of a smokeless fire, and let it off on all sides, filled with rage. Dense showers of arrows then issued from it in the welkin. Endued with fiery flames, those arrows encompassed Partha on all sides. Meteors flashed down from the firmament. A thick gloom suddenly shrouded the (Pandava) host. All the points of the compass also were enveloped by that darkness . . . Inauspicious winds began to blow. The sun himself no longer gave any heat . . . Clouds roared in the welkin, showering blood . . . The very elements seemed to be perturbed. The sun seemed to turn. The universe, scorched with heat, seemed to be in a fever. The elephants and other creatures of the land, scorched by the energy of that weapon, ran in fright, breathing heavily and desirous of protection against that terrible force. The very waters heated, the creatures residing in that element, O Bharata, became exceedingly uneasy and seemed to burn. (ibid. p. 481)

The form perceived by Ezekiel, as well, seems capable of wreaking havoc on a grand scale:

. . . says the Lord God, my wrath will boil over. In my jealousy and in the heat of my anger I swear that on that day there shall be a great earthquake throughout the land of Israel. The fish in the sea and the birds in the air, the wild animals and all reptiles that move on the ground, all mankind on the face of the earth, all shall be shaken before me. Mountains shall be torn up, the terraced hills collapse, and every wall crash to the ground. I will summon universal terror against Gog, says the Lord God, and his men shall turn their swords against one another. I will bring him to judgement with pestilence and bloodshed; I will pour down teeming rain, hailstones hard as rock, and fire and brimstone, upon him, upon his squadrons, upon the whole concourse of peoples with him. Thus will I prove myself great and holy and make myself known to many nations; they shall know that I am the Lord. (New English Bible, Ezekiel 38:19-23)

To conclude, the above conveys a need for students of the past to begin searching specifically for data which can facilitate an accurate understanding of the effect this long underrated and thus virtually neglected natural phenomenon has had upon human social development.


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The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.