Fear of comets

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Flyer from 1687: The comet as a harbinger of death (skull), storms (lightning) and the danger of new Turkish invasions (three heads with mustaches and turban)

Comet fear is the fear of comets . Numerous historical documents show that the appearance of large comets has always frightened people. According to Isaak Asimov , “this is certainly also due to the fact that they seem to disregard the heavenly laws. All other celestial bodies - stars, sun, moon and planets - move on regular orbits. "

Astronomical and historical background

While every attentive observer can know the "regular" orbits of the stars and the sun, recurring cycles can be found in the moon and planets. However, comets appear suddenly and without warning in the night sky, become brighter, develop different types of tails and finally disappear again. Many decades can pass before the next comet, but it can also appear in the next month.

Aristotle saw in them similarities to rare weather phenomena, which is why he considered them to be exhalations from the upper atmosphere and thus shaped opinions until the early modern era. It was also conspicuous that all other celestial bodies appear star-shaped or spherical, while the strangest shapes can be observed in the comet's tails. Another cause of comet fear lies in Babylonian astronomy . The priest astronomers of the time believed that one could predict the future of states and rulers from the orbits of the planets against the background of the "eternal stars". They tried to decipher this "secret code", but could not find anything to do with comets.

Fears of comets and their apparent confirmation

Halley's Comet in 1066 (top right) on the Bayeux Tapestry .
Woodcut 1577 "From a Terrible and Wonderful Comet"

Comets were already interpreted as a sign in the ancient mantic and assigned to both catastrophes and important political events. In 44 BC a The bright tail star that appeared in BC was soon called Comet Caesar , as Octavian interpreted it as confirmation of the deification of Caesar as Divus Julius , which the Roman Senate had undertaken.

Much more often, however, comets were interpreted as harbingers of misfortune and catastrophe . Around that of 79 AD as the announcement of the eruption of Vesuvius and the fall of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Another historic event is the theme of the famous Bayeux Tapestry : the devastating defeat of the Anglo-Saxons against the Normans in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, for which the Halley comet served as a bad omen.

In the Middle Ages , a passage from the Gospel of Luke contributed to interpreting large tail stars as signs sent from above or the wrath of God: "There will be tremendous earthquakes and famine in many places, and tremendous signs will be seen in heaven" ( Luke 21:11). As recently as 1635 in London the outbreak of the plague when a comet appeared was seen as God's punishment. The heavenly warning was felt particularly clearly in the face of the huge comet of 1618/19 and was associated with the Thirty Years War that had broken out . Tycho Brahe's knowledge, gained 50 years earlier , that comets are very distant celestial bodies, could only counteract such interpretations very little.

A leaflet from 1680

In order to better understand the background to the fear of comets, which was still strong 300 years ago, a flying leaf from 1680 illustrated with a comet picture is quoted. It was printed shortly after the Great Comet of 1680 by the Nuremberg copper engraver Johann Jacob Schollenberger:

“Illustration and description of the wonderful, incomparable Comet. Who appeared for the first time at the beginning of the winter month before the sun rises / and now after the same setting can be seen terribly. "

The approximately 20 × 30 cm large picture shows the comet, whose wide, fanned out tail extends over most of the sky. People stand tightly packed on the hills in front of the walls of Nuremberg and marvel at the event. The text of the leaflet begins with a reference to the Bible, to God's long-suffering and his call to repentance with a heavenly torch, rod and sword:

“One finds both in holy scriptures / as well as other credible histories / that so often Almighty GOD is determined to punish the sins of some earth inhabitants /: He first announces this out of mild paternal patience either through true prophets / or horrific miracles; Has this warning been fruitful / and an eyferige penance and conversion has taken place / then the threatened punishment is averted ... [...] As if He has now again in the high heaven / a terrible torch / Ruthe and Schwerdt / to a benevolent Warning / issued for the still imminent disaster; So that [...] this cruel and terrible Comet, who is incomparably admired by the star experiences / because of its shape and movement /, can squeeze out some horror and change in the sin-hardened minds / ... But it is this wonderful, incomparable Comet / here and there also in other places / the first time / in the sign of the lion / in which the war planet Mars was also at that time ... under the lion heart-star ... stroking southwards / then the following days in the sign of the virgins ... seen with an ever increasing tail, but weak because of the breaking of the day. "

Then the passage of the comet behind the sun observed in the Christian month is described, after which it

"At the approaching night / with a very long pale white tail / very splendidly broken out / and presented to the inhabitants of the earth / as a vengeance heavy and angry rod of the Most High of GOD /"

After this precise astronomical description of the comet's orbit, the author states that the comet "to the astonishment of those with astronomy" not only declined , but also rose more and more to the north.
Finally - in strange contrast to the heavenly warning - the distance and size of the comet is estimated: its body , although only a third mag star, is estimated by astronomers to be hardly smaller than the earth, but the extension of the 60 ° long tail is estimated by many one hundred thousand German miles (several million km).

The text closes with the call to let this heavenly sign guide all of our minds to signs of repentance, repentance and humility.

The imposing image of the comet, which is reproduced in several specialist books, was also part of the 2005 exhibition "Gotts verhengnis und seine strafe" - On the history of epidemics in the early modern period in the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel.

From the 19th to the 20th century

When the “Great March Comet” appeared in 1843 , primitive peoples and superstitious people saw in it a portent of the end of the world . The South Australian Aborigines hid in caves and saw the comet as a calamity, especially for the white colonists.

But even the well-known Comet Halley was assigned a number of catastrophes in 1835, including a major fire in New York , the outbreak of several wars in Central and South America and a massacre in Africa , and another comet, the American Civil War .

The fact that 100 years ago (1910) the same comet caused the mass purchase of gas masks appears particularly bizarre . It had been calculated that the earth would cross the tail end, where traces of hydrogen cyanide ( hydrogen cyanide ) had been detected spectroscopically . Although it was clear to scientists that the earth's atmosphere was a perfect protection against these extremely thin gas clouds, unscrupulous people made their profit from people's stupidity.

The Johannesburg Comet , which also suddenly appeared in 1910, aroused extreme fear among the rural population of Russia , who took it as an omen for a great war in the Far East, according to reports in the New York Times . Fears of war have also been reported from North Africa and India . A newspaper report from January 27th blamed him for the severe winter in Europe.

Is there a danger of a comet impacting Earth?

Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 in the Spitzer Telescope 2006. It began to decay in 1995 and will cause a large meteor shower on Earth in 2022

Even today, some media play with vague comet fears. When the comet 73P / Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 , which crossed the earth's orbit, broke into a few pieces in 2006 , this was worth a gruesome report in the Bild newspaper under the title "Comet is racing towards earth - researchers in great concern - 200 meter high tidal wave in the Atlantic?" Only in the last sentence did the NASA report that a collision was impossible.

In fact, according to current knowledge, a comet impact on the earth is possible, but - statistically speaking - it only happens every few million years with bodies over 1 km in size. In any case, the sky has been systematically searched for possible earth orbit cruisers for several years in order to be able to ensure a timely deflection of a collision orbit in the future.

Literary processing

The historical fears of comets were also discussed in the literature. Well-known examples can be found u. a. with Johann Nestroy :

The following poem can be found in the "Neue Himmelszeitung" from 1680/81, which deals with the "glorious" but also "cruelly big-tailed" comet:

Heaven, let this star and your anger disappear
and stop your revenge and our punishment!
But if the comet should work something dangerous, then
pour your anger on Tartars and Turks.

See also


  • Karl Wurm : The comets . Volume 53 of the series Understandable Science. Springer, Berlin / Göttingen 1954.
  • Isaak Asimov : The Return of Halley's Comet - The Enigmatic History of Comets. Kiepenheuer and Witsch, Cologne 1985, ISBN 3-462-01711-X .
  • Ulf Borgeest: Comets and Asteroids . (= Stars and space . Special 2/03). Heidelberg 2003, ISBN 3-936278-36-9 .
  • Wilhelm Foerster : The exploration of the universe. In: Hans Kraemer (Ed.): Universe and humanity. Volume III, Verlag Bong & Co., Berlin / Leipzig 1903, pp. 257-265.
  • Patrick Moore among others: Atlas of the solar system. Herder-Verlag, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1985, chapter comets .
  • Helmut Zimmermann, Alfred Weigert: Lexicon of Astronomy. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg / Berlin 1999, pp. 171–180, chapter comets .
  • Christian Köberl : Impact - danger from space . Edition Va Bene, Vienna 1998.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Fear of comets. In: Isaak Asimov: The return of Halley's comet - The enigmatic history of comets. Kiepenheuer and Witsch, Cologne 1985, 1st chapter. Literal quote.
  2. 46; Divus Caesar reconstructed in: Ittai Gradel: Emperor Worship and Roman Religion . Oxford 2002, pp. 61-69.
  3. ^ Facsimile from Wilhelm Foerster : The exploration of the universe. In: Hans Kraemer (Ed.): Universe and humanity. Volume III, Verlag Bong & Co., Berlin / Leipzig 1903, pp. 261/62.
  4. ^ Disease exhibition 2005 in Wolfenbüttel
  5. ^ DW Hamacher, RP Norris: Comets in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy. In: Journal for Astronomical History & Heritage. Vol. 14, No. 1, 2011, pp. 31-40 ( bibcode : 2011JAHH ... 14 ... 31H ).
  6. ^ Peter Grego: Blazing a Ghostly Trail: ISON and Great Comets of the Past and Future . Springer, Cham 2013, pp. 124–128.
  7. 200 meter high tidal wave in the Atlantic? PICTURE, 2006.
  8. Johannes Lenz: The heavens boast. Tyrolia-Verlag, Innsbruck / Vienna 1950, p. 81.