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Humans Have Feared Comets, Other Celestial Phenomena Through The Ages


University of Washington Office of News and Information

FROM: Joel Schwarz, (206) 543-2580

DATE: : March 24, 1997

The sky isn't falling As Comet Hale-Bopp continues to grow increasingly prominent in the sky, humans around the world will be peering at it with fear, awe, curiosity, superstition and suspicion.

That's nothing new. Throughout recorded history people have looked at the heavens, and celestial phenomena such as comets, meteor showers, the Northern Lights, novas and even eclipses have provoked visceral responses ranging from reverence to hysteria. Comets in particular have held an extended and generally terrifying fascination for people, according to researchers at the University of Washington.

"Comets have a long history, usually as omens and bearers of bad news," says Woody Sullivan, professor of astronomy. "But on the other hand, the death of Julius Caesar was marked by a comet and this was taken by the Romans as a sign of his divinity. And Napoleon made a fuss about the appearances of comets and some of his early military victories.

"'Awe-full' might be a better way to describe the impact of comets. It is often taken to mean dread, but it also can indicate greatness."

Caesar and Napoleon aside, comets generally have been regarded unwelcome visitors over the years.

Pope Callixtus III excommunicated Halley's Comet in 1456 as an "instrument of the devil," and in the following century the appearances of comets were seen by Inca and Aztec astrologers as signs of divine wrath leading to the downfall of those empires to Spain. The 1835-36 return of Halley's Comet was said to have caused a large fire in New York, a Zulu massacre of Boers in South Africa and the Mexican slaughter of Texans at the Alamo. In 1910, charlatans sold "comet pills" and "comet insurance" and a number of fearful Americans tried to board up their houses as protection against poisonous cyanide gas as the earth passed through the tail of Halley's comet.

Lurid and fanciful descriptions of comets stretch the imagination. Ambroise Par=8E, a French physician, described the comet of 1528 as follows: "This comet was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror that some died of fear and others fell sick. It appeared to be of extreme length, and was the color of blood."

This dark shadow over comets persists in strange ways to the present. The very appearance of these cosmic iceballs is given a ghostly presence by being called an apparition by science.

With this kind of historical record, it's no wonder that the approach of Hale-Bopp has been heralded by a rash of claims that: the comet is accompanied by a "dark" companion, is shadowed by a large spaceship four times the size of earth and is being controlled by extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Why do celestial phenomena, particularly comets, provoke such extreme reactions? "Whenever a major event occurs in the environment that is unusual, it is frightening because it is not natural and because we have no explanation for it and can't control it," explains Robert Kohlenberg, an associate professor of psychology, who studies how people learn.

"Explanations of phenomena such as comets are ultimately appealing because they offer control and the possibility of protecting ourselves against possible harm. This is very reasonable and accounts for why we have science and also why some people come up with less than conventional ideas to explain phenomena. Everything is always answered in terms of what motivates us. In this case, the motivation is protection. If something is unknown, there is no conceivable way of dealing with it," he adds.

As the same time, Kohlenberg acknowledges that alternative or less conventional ideas such as rocket ship guiding comets can be appealing because they do offer an explanation.

"Assuming that there are no frauds and charlatans involved, many people who come up with off-beat ideas are sincere in their explanations, which give them a better sense of control than the scientific reasons. Ideas of this type that persist are useful; if they are not, these beliefs die.

"We have a strong belief in science in our culture, so these off- beat ideas stand out. They might not in other cultures where science is not as well accepted."

Sullivan agrees, noting that the 20th century has been called the "psychiatric century" and that there are UFO believers who will latch onto anything to support their beliefs. This is, he notes, a product of the space age, the cold war and the modern-day belief in government cover-ups.

"But there has been a long human tradition of outside forces influencing events and, of course, in many belief systems the gods lived in the sky," says Sullivan.

"All ancient cultures with historical records, western and eastern, looked at any new apparition in the sky, such as a comet, with apprehension. The average person in ancient times knew the heavens much better than we do today, and something changing day to day in the sky was alarming to them."

But like Napoleon, not everyone dreaded comets. Back in the 17th century, Europeans believed that comets affected weather and helped produce superior wines. Comets were believed to cause warmer temperatures and thus higher sugar concentrations in wine grapes.

1997 already promises to be a vintage year for comet watching. Only time will tell if it will be the same for chardonnay.

For more information contact:
Kohlenberg at (206) 543-9898 or
Sullivan at (206) 543-7773 or
Sullivan will be away from his office March 24-30.

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