Out of the ancient world had come a mass of beliefs regarding comets, meteors, and eclipses; all these were held to be signs displayed from heaven for the warning of mankind. Stars and meteors were generally thought to presage happy events, especially the births of gods, heroes, and great men. So firmly rooted was this idea that we constantly find among the ancient nations traditions of lights in the heavens preceding the birth of persons of note. The sacred books of India show that the births of Crishna and of Buddha were announced by such heavenly lights. The sacred books of China tell of similar appearances at the births of Yu, the founder of the first dynasty, and of the inspired sage, Lao-tse. According to the Jewish legends, a star appeared at the birth of Moses, and was seen by the Magi of Egpyt, who informed the king; and when Abraham was born an unusual star appeared in the east. The Greeks and Romans cherished similar traditions. A heavenly light accompanied the birth of Æsculapius, and the births of various Caesars were heralded in like manner.
The same conception entered into our Christian sacred books. Of all the legends which grew in such luxuriance and beauty about the cradle of Jesus of Nazareth, none appeals more directly to the highest poetic feeling than that given by one of the evangelists, in which a star, rising in the east, conducted the wise men to the manger where the Galilean peasant-child - the Hope of Mankind, the Light of the World - was lying in poverty and helplessness.
Among the Mohammedans we have a curious example of the same tendency toward a kindly interpretation of stars and meteors, in the belief of certain Mohammedan teachers that meteoric showers are caused by good angels hurling missiles to drive evil angels out of the sky.
Eclipses were regarded in a very different light, being supposed to express the distress of Nature at earthly calamities. The Greeks believed that darkness overshadowed the earth at the deaths of Prometheus, Atreus, Hercules, Æsculapius, and Alexander the Great. The Roman legends held that at the death of Romulus there was darkness for six hours. In the history of the Caesars occur portents of all three kinds; for at the death of Julius the earth was shrouded in darkness, the birth of Augustus was heralded by a star, and the downfall of Nero by a comet. So, too, in one of the Christian legends clustering about the crucifixion, darkness overspread the earth from the sixth to the ninth hour. Neither the silence regarding it of the only evangelist who claims to have been present, nor the fact that observers like Seneca and Pliny, who, though they carefully described much less striking occurrences of the same sort and in more remote regions, failed to note any such darkness even in Judea, have availed to shake faith in an account so true to the highest poetic instincts of humanity.
This view of the relations between Nature and man continued among both Jews and Christians. According to Jewish tradition, darkness overspread the earth for three days when the books of the Law were profaned by translation into Greek. Tertullian thought an eclipse an evidence of God's wrath against unbelievers. Nor has this mode of thinking ceased in modern times. A similar claim was made at the execution of Charles I; and Increase Mather thought an eclipse in Massachusetts an evidence of the grief of Nature at the death of President Chauncey, of Harvard College. Archbishop Sandys expected eclipses to be the final tokens of woe at the destruction of the world, and traces of this feeling have come down to our own time. The quaint story of the Connecticut statesman who, when his associates in the General Assembly were alarmed by an eclipse of the sun, and thought it the beginning of the Day of Judgment, quietly ordered in candles, that he might in any case be found doing his duty, marks probably the last noteworthy appearance of the old belief in any civilized nation.
In these beliefs regarding meteors and eclipses there was little calculated to do harm by arousing that superstitious terror which is the worst breeding-bed of cruelty. Far otherwise was it with the belief regarding comets. During many centuries it gave rise to the direst superstition and fanaticism. The Chaldeans alone among the ancient peoples generally regarded comets without fear, and thought them bodies wandering as harmless as fishes in the sea; the Pythagoreans alone among philosophers seem to have had a vague idea of them as bodies returning at fixed periods of time; and in all antiquity, so far as is known, one man alone, Seneca, had the scientific instinct and prophetic inspiration to give this idea definite shape, and to declare that the time would come when comets would be found to move in accordance with natural law. Here and there a few strong men rose above the prevailing superstition. The Emperor Vespasian tried to laugh it down, and insisted that a certain comet in his time could not betoken his death, because it was hairy, and he bald; but such scoffing produced little permanent effect, and the prophecy of Seneca was soon forgotten. These and similar isolated utterances could not stand against the mass of opinion which upheld the doctrine that comets are "signs and wonders."
The belief that every comet is a ball of fire flung from the right hand of an angry God to warn the grovelling dwellers of earth was received into the early Church, transmitted through the Middle Ages to the Reformation period, and in its transmission was made all the more precious by supposed textual proofs from Scripture. The great fathers of the Church committed themselves unreservedly to it. In the third century Origen, perhaps the most influential of the earlier fathers of the universal Church in all questions between science and faith, insisted that comets indicate catastrophes and the downfall of empires and worlds. Bede, so justly revered by the English Church, declared in the eighth century. that "comets portend revolutions of kingdoms, pestilence, war, winds, or heat"; and John of Damascus, his eminent contemporary in the Eastern Church, took the same view. Rabanus Maurus, the great teacher of Europe in the ninth century, an authority throughout the Middle Ages, adopted Bede's opinion fully. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great light of the universal Church in the thirteenth century, whose works the Pope now reigning commends as the centre and source of all university instruction, accepted and handed down the same opinion. The sainted Albert the Great, the most noted genius of the medieval Church in natural science, received and developed this theory. These men and those who followed them founded upon scriptural texts and theological reasonings a system that for seventeen centuries defied every advance of thought.
The main evils thence arising were three: the paralysis of self-help, the arousing of fanaticism, and the strengthening of ecclesiastical and political tyranny. The first two of these evils - the paralysis of self-help and the arousing of fanaticism - are evident throughout all these ages. At the appearance of a comet we constantly see all Christendom, from pope to peasant, instead of striving to avert war by wise statesmanship, instead of striving to avert pestilence by observation and reason, instead of striving to avert famine by skilful economy, whining before fetiches, trying to bribe them to remove these signs of God's wrath, and planning to wreak this supposed wrath of God upon misbelievers.
As to the third of these evils - the strengthening of ecclesiastical and civil despotism - examples appear on every side. It was natural that hierarchs and monarchs whose births were announced by stars, or whose deaths were announced by comets, should regard themselves as far above the common herd, and should be so regarded by mankind; passive obedience was thus strengthened, and the most monstrous assumptions of authority were considered simply as manifestations of the Divine will. Shakespeare makes Calphurnia say to Caesar:
"When beggars die, there are no comets seen;Galeazzo, the tyrant of Milan, expressing satisfaction on his deathbed that his approaching end was of such importance as to be heralded by a comet, is but a type of many thus encouraged to prey upon mankind; and Charles V, one of the most powerful monarchs the world has known, abdicating under fear of the comet of 1556, taking refuge in the monastery of San Yuste, and giving up the best of his vast realms to such a scribbling bigot as Philip II, furnishes an example even more striking.
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."
But for the retention of this belief there was a moral cause. Myriads of good men in the Christian Church down to a recent period saw in the appearance of comets not merely an exhibition of "signs in the heavens" foretold in Scripture, but also Divine warnings of vast value to humanity as incentives to repentance and improvement of life-warnings, indeed, so precious that they could not be spared without danger to the moral government of the world. And this belief in the portentous character of comets as an essential part of the Divine government, being, as it was thought, in full accord with Scripture, was made for centuries a source of terror to humanity. To say nothing of examples in the earlier periods, comets in the tenth century especially increased the distress of all Europe. In the middle of the eleventh century a comet was thought to accompany the death of Edward the Confessor and to presage the Norman conquest; the traveller in France to-day may see this belief as it was then wrought into the Bayeux tapestry.
Nearly every decade of years throughout the Middle Ages saw Europe plunged into alarm by appearances of this sort, but the culmination seems to have been reached in 1456. At that time the Turks, after a long effort, had made good their footing in Europe. A large statesmanship or generalship might have kept them out; but, while different religious factions were disputing over petty shades of dogma, they had advanced, had taken Constantinople, and were evidently securing their foothold. Now came the full bloom of this superstition. A comet appeared. The Pope of that period, Calixtus III, though a man of more than ordinary ability, was saturated with the ideas of his time. Alarmed at this monster, if we are to believe the contemporary historian, this infallible head of the Church solemnly "decreed several days of prayer for the averting of the wrath of God, that whatever calamity impended might be turned from the Christians and against the Turks." And, that all might join daily in this petition, there was then established that midday Angelus which has ever since called good Catholics to prayer against the powers of evil. Then, too, was incorporated into a litany the plea, "From the Turk and the comet, good Lord, deliver us." Never was papal intercession less effective; for the Turk has held Constantinople from that day to this, while the obstinate comet, being that now known under the name of Halley, has returned imperturbably at short periods ever since.
But the superstition went still further. It became more and more incorporated into what was considered "scriptural science" and "sound learning." The encyclopedic summaries, in which the science of the Middle Ages and the Reformation period took form, furnish abundant proofs of this.
Yet scientific observation was slowly undermining this structure. The inspired prophecy of Seneca had not been forgotten. Even as far back as the ninth century, in the midst of the sacred learning so abundant at the court of Charlemagne and his successors, we find a scholar protesting against the accepted doctrine. In the thirteenth century we have a mild question by Albert the Great as to the supposed influence of comets upon individuals; but the prevailing theological current was too strong, and he finally yielded to it in this as in so many other things.
So, too, in the sixteenth century, we have Copernicus refusing to accept the usual theory, Paracelsus writing to Zwingli against it, and Julius Caesar Scaliger denouncing it as "ridiculous folly."
At first this scepticism only aroused the horror of theologians and increased the vigour of ecclesiastics; both asserted the theological theory of comets all the more strenuously as based on scriptural truth. During the sixteenth century France felt the influence of one of her greatest men on the side of this superstition. Jean Bodin, so far before his time in political theories, was only thoroughly abreast of it in religious theories: the same reverence for the mere letter of Scripture which made him so fatally powerful in supporting the witchcraft delusion, led him to support this theological theory of comets - but with a difference: he thought them the souls of men, wandering in space, bringing famine, pestilence, and war.
Not less strong was the same superstition in England. Based upon mediaeval theology, it outlived the revival of learning. From a multitude of examples a few may be selected as typical. Early in the sixteenth century Polydore Virgil, an ecclesiastic of the unreformed Church, alludes, in his English History, to the presage of the death of the Emperor Constantine by a comet as to a simple matter of fact; and in his work on prodigies he pushes this superstition to its most extreme point, exhibiting comets as preceding almost every form of calamity.
In 1532, just at the transition period from the old Church to the new, Cranmer, paving the way to his archbishopric, writes from Germany to Henry VIII, and says of the comet then visible: "What strange things these tokens do signify to come hereafter, God knoweth; for they do not lightly appear but against some great matter."
Twenty years later Bishop Latimer, in an Advent sermon, speaks of eclipses, rings about the sun, and the like, as signs of the approaching end of the world.
In 1580, under Queen Elizabeth, there was set forth an "order of prayer to avert God's wrath from us, threatened by the late terrible earthquake, to be used in all parish churches." In connection with this there was also commended to the faithful "a godly admonition for the time present"; and among the things referred to as evidence of God's wrath are comets, eclipses, and falls of snow.
This view held sway in the Church of England during Elizabeth's whole reign and far into the Stuart period: Strype, the ecclesiastical annalist, gives ample evidence of this, and among the more curious examples is the surmise that the comet of 1572 was a token of Divine wrath provoked by the St. Bartholomew massacre.
As to the Stuart period, Archbishop Spottiswoode seems to have been active in carrying the superstition from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth, and Archbishop Bramhall cites Scripture in support of it. Rather curiously, while the diary of Archbishop Laud shows so much superstition regarding dreams as portents, it shows little or none regarding comets; but Bishop Jeremy Taylor, strong as he was, evidently favoured the usual view. John Howe, the eminent Nonconformist divine in the latter part of the century, seems to have regarded the comet superstition as almost a fundamental article of belief; he laments the total neglect of comets and portents generally, declaring that this neglect betokens want of reverence for the Ruler of the world; he expresses contempt for scientific inquiry regarding comets, insists that they may be natural bodies and yet supernatural portents, and ends by saying, "I conceive it very safe to suppose that some very considerable thing, either in the way of judgment or mercy, may ensue, according as the cry of persevering wickedness or of penitential prayer is more or less loud at that time."
The Reformed Church of Scotland supported the superstition just as strongly. John Knox saw in comets tokens of the wrath of Heaven; other authorities considered them "a warning to the king to extirpate the Papists"; and as late as 1680, after Halley had won his victory, comets were announced on high authority in the Scottish Church to be "prodigies of great judgment on these lands for our sins, for never was the Lord more provoked by a people."
While such was the view of the clergy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the laity generally accepted it as a matter of course, Among the great leaders in literature there was at least general acquiescence in it. Both Shakespeare and Milton recognise it, whether they fully accept it or not. Shakespeare makes the Duke of Bedford, lamenting at the bier of Henry V, say:
"Comets, importing change of time and states,Milton, speaking of Satan preparing for combat, says:
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky;
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars,
That have consented unto Henry's death."
"On the other side,We do indeed find that in some minds the discoveries of Tycho Brahe and Kepler begin to take effect, for, in 1621, Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy alludes to them as changing public opinion somewhat regarding comets; and, just hefore the middle of the century, Sir Thomas Browne expresses a doubt whether comets produce such terrible effects, "since it is found that many of them are above the moon." Yet even as late as the last years of the seventeenth century we have English authors of much power battling for this supposed scriptural view and among the natural and typical results we find, in 1682, Ralph Thoresby, a Fellow of the Royal Society, terrified at the comet of that year, and writing in his diary the following passage: "Lord, fit us for whatever changes it may portend; for, though I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are they frequently also the presages of imminent calamities." Interesting is it to note here that this was Halley's comet, and that Halley was at this very moment making those scientific studies upon it which were to free the civilized world forever from such terrors as distressed Thoresby.
Incensed with indignation, Satan stood.
Unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge
In the arctic sky, and from its horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war."
The belief in comets as warnings against sin was especially one of those held "always, everywhere, and by all," and by Eastern Christians as well as by Western. One of the most striking scenes in the history of the Eastern Church is that which took place at the condemnation of Nikon, the great Patriarch of Moscow. Turning toward his judges, he pointed to a comet then blazing in the sky, and said, "God's besom shall sweep you all away!"
Of all countries in western Europe, it was in Germany and German Switzerland that this superstition took strongest hold. That same depth of religious feeling which produced in those countries the most terrible growth of witchcraft persecution, brought superstition to its highest development regarding comets. No country suffered more from it in the Middle Ages. At the Reformation Luther declared strongly in favour of it. In one of his Advent sermons he said, "The heathen write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretoken a sure calamity." Again he said, "Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God's wrath." And sometimes, yielding to another phase of his belief, he declared them works of the devil, and declaimed against them as "harlot stars."
Melanchthon, too, in various letters refers to comets as heralds of Heaven's wrath, classing them, with evil conjunctions of the planets and abortive births, among the "signs" referred to in Scripture. Zwingli, boldest of the greater Reformers in shaking off traditional beliefs, could not shake off this, and insisted that the comet of 1531 betokened calamity. Arietus, a leading Protestant theologian, declared, "The heavens are given us not merely for our pleasure, but also as a warning of the wrath of God for the correction of our lives." Lavater insisted that comets are signs of death or calamity, and cited proofs from Scripture.
Catholic and Protestant strove together for the glory of this doctrine. It was maintained with especial vigour by Fromundus, the eminent professor and Doctor of Theology at the Catholic University of Louvain, who so strongly opposed the Copernican system; at the beginning of the seventeenth century, even so gifted an astronomer as Kepler yielded somewhat to the belief; and near the end of that century Voigt declared that the comet of 1618 clearly presaged the downfall of the Turkish Empire, and he stigmatized as "atheists and Epicureans" all who did not believe comets to be God's warnings.