Astronomical Omens: Comets and Superstitions Around the World

Great Comets, AKA ones that are easily observed by naked eye from Earth, occur about once a decade – if that. The largest ones can be once in a century event. Thus, throughout human history, these burning ice balls have caused much thought and superstitious feelings whenever they have streaked across our skies and disrupted the order of the heavens. But what have been some of the most portentous, synchronous or downright strange beliefs about comets and meteors over the years?

Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet

In recorded history, no temporary celestial visitor to Earth’s skies has had as much of a cultural impact as Halley’s Comet.

For just one example of this consider the famous author Mark Twain, writer of Huckleberry Finn and other American classics. Twain was born 1835, as Halley passed by in the skies above Florida, Missouri. Around 100 years earlier Edmund Halley, after which it is now named, had certified the comet’s periodicity – that is the time it takes to circle the Sun once and return to Earth. 74-79 years was his calculation. Mark Twain no doubt knew this, and 74 years after his birth he said:

‘I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.’

His prediction came true and he died the day after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to Earth in 1910.

The Tears of St Lawrence

The Perseid Meteor Shower occurs every year in late July or Early August, primarily from Northern Hemisphere countries – although some meteors can be seen all over the world. Some Catholics call this shower the Tears of St Lawrence as their peak often coincides with the date of his canonization in 258 AD.

Legends holds that Lawrence was burned at the stake, and that the passing fires in the sky are the embers from his fiery death. In fact, they are nothing more than bits of dust and rock left over from the 900- thousand-mile-long tail of passing comet Swift-Tuttle. As the Earth passes its orbital line, bits of debris fall to Earth and burn up in our atmosphere, creating bright shooting stars.

The Battle of Hastings

Probably the most famous appearance of Halley’s Comet, in European History at least, was in 1066 shortly before William the Conqueror left Normandy for his ultimately victorious invasion of Britain. King Harold, and many English astronomers, saw it as a portent of doom for Harold’s reign. William however, supposedly called it ‘a wonderful sight from heaven’ before he launched in ships at the beginning of that year.

The comet was immortalised in the Bayeux tapestry, which tells the story of Harold’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings and shows his troops looking up in awe at the mighty celestial visitor.