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A Star, A Star, Portents in the Night

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 1982, A.S. XVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The Christmas star is the most celebrated celestial event in history. Speculation as the nature of this event has ranged from comet, to supernova, to planetary conjunction. The Christmas star is hardly an isolated incident; throughout history, man has scanned the night looking for the portents of the future. The idea that events in the sky influenced events on earth came from the Babylonians. This idea came about as the result of the Babylonians identifying the planets, or wandering stars, as various deities. The regular motions of the planets and the stars led eventually to the development of astrology. Instead of delving into the ordinary operations of this pseudo-science, I will explore a sidelight, the anomalous events in the sky.

Comets have the longest track record for being harbingers of disasters. Albertus Magnus believed that comets could signify wars and the death of kings. A report in 1543 tells of a comet with the shape of a dragon, larger than a millstone, raining fire, and leaving behind sickness and death. The Bayeux Tapestry records the passage of Halley’s comet in 1066, presaging Harold of England’s defeat and death. The Nuremberg Chronicles recount the passage of Halley’s Comet in 684 accompanied by months of rain, dying flocks of sheep, withered grain, eclipses of the sun and moon, and topped by a plague. The passage of Halley’s comet in 66 A.D. was thought by Jewish writers to portend the burning of the Temple Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

And yet, occasionally comets present a benign side. Christian writers took the same appearance of Halley’s Comet in 66 A.D. as an allegory of the star of Bethlehem. It is even thought by some that this appearance influenced Matthew, the only Gospel that mentions the star, and was written after the fall of Jerusalem. Halley’s Comet makes another appearance as the Star of Bethlehem in Giotto’s fresco “The Adoration of the Magi.”

After comets, the next most feared event in the sky was planetary conjunctions. While conjunctions are the result of the regular motions of the planets, and therefore predictable, the astrological associations placed on them resulted in many catastrophical predictions. Europe-wide hysteria would mark these periodic occurrences.

Another regularly occurring phenomenon that could be expected to cause fear was eclipses. Yet, strangely enough, this is not the case. While such negative adjectives as “horrible,” and “terrible,” were often used to describe eclipses, the chronicles only record momentary fear, and panic. Eclipses were rarely taken as omens.

Novas and supernovas caused even less reaction. In fact, records of these events are rare in chronicles. There are several possible explanations for this. One hypotheses is that in the casual observation of the sky, a sky with over thousand visible stars, the addition of one more could be easily overlooked. Another hypothesis by George Sarton is that the Aristotelian concept of the perfection of the heavens preventing the Europeans form recognizing these new stars for what they were. The problem with this hypothesis is that Aristotle did not become entrenched in European thought until around 1250 A.D.

Since the time when Galileo turned his telescope to the sky, much has been learned about these events in the sky. And yet, they still on occasion cause fear; such as the return of Halley’s Comet in 1910, and the planetary alignment last spring. So, man still looks for portents in the sky.

 

Bibliography

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Newton, Robert R. Medieval Chronicles and the Rotation of the Earth. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Olsen, Roberta J.M. "Giotto’s Portrait of Halley’s Comet." Scientific American May 1979: 160-170.

Stephenson, F. Richard, and David H. Clark. "Historical Supernovas." Scientific American June 1976: 100-107.

Thiel, Rudolf. And There was Light. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

 

Copyright © 1982 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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