Sunday, 14 April 2013

Comets: Hairy stars, celestial scimitars, broom stars... and the death of princes

Rising TV star (and infamous astrology sceptic) Brian Cox and his spacewatching colleagues tell us that this could well be the year of the comet; although Comet Pannstarrs, which visited our skies in mid-March (and I understand is still – just – visible) was not quite the scorcher some of us were expecting. This November, however, we are widely assured we can expect what could be the comet of the century: the catchily named Comet ISON aka C/2012 S1 is  confidently predicted to shine so brightly that it will be visible even during the day. It is thought to be related (although no one knows quite how) to the legendary Great Comet of 1680, which was instrumental in Newton crystallising his theory of what we now know as gravity. They are hedging their bets, though: comets like cats have long tails, but are not best known for their predictability, and there have been more than a few instances of red-faced astronomers and their comet predictions hitting the skids in recent years. Actually, I am hoping on this occasion they are not wrong. With so much gloom and darkness about, it will be nice to see something spectacular in our skies.

Although for long largely ignored in the astrological community (for want, probably, of knowing what to do with them – comets do not conveniently confine themselves to the ecliptic plane of the zodiac, but can appear even in the circumpolar regions where no planet ever ventures), historically comets have have widely been associated with catastrophe. The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh described fire, brimstone and flood with the arrival of a comet, Arab astrologers held that they heralded wars, earthquakes, disasters and plagues, while Chinese astrological texts dating from as far back as 1500 BCE associate what was known in the East as 'broom stars' with wars, famine, floods, drought, death, betrayal and mutation of fruit trees. In short, just about anything could be blamed on comets and usually was...

In the Western astrological tradition, comets usually heralded 'the death of princes.'
"When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes" warns Calpurnia to her headstrong husband Julius as he sets out on his ill-advised journey to the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March. (Although in point of fact, the Great Comet of 44BC almost certainly didn't appear until at least July that year – some four months after Caesar's death – but Shakespeare was never one for letting the facts get in the way of a good story). This is one of the earliest widely-recorded sightings of a comet in the West. According to the historian Suetonius, as celebrations were getting underway to mark the anniversary of Julius Caesar's birth (the month of July was named after him) "a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour, and was believed to be the soul of Caesar." Never one to miss a trick, Augustus, Caesar's great nephew and heir adopted the comet which was to become a powerful political symbol, appearing on coins which would be sent out across the Roman empire. He suggested the comet symbolised  the soul of Caesar being borne off to heaven, fostering a 'Cult of the Comet' whose focus became the newly built Temple of Divus Iulius, in which was displayed a huge image of the emperor with a flaming comet affixed to his forehead. Edmund Halley studied this comet, which was also recorded extensively in the records of the Han Chinese. Contemporary scientific records suggest it was particularly bright – one of just five in the whole of recorded history known to have had a negative absolute magnitude*.

Subsequent comets have also been associated with the passing of great rulers. The appearance of Halley's Comet in 1066 is recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry, coinciding with the succession of the English Saxon dynasty by the Normans, while the Great Comet of 1264 was associated with the death of Pope Urban IV who allegedly fell ill on the day the comet was first seen, and died the day it disappeared from view. It was said the "the prodigy of a hairy star had brought upon his illness and slipped away once the job was finished." Another spectacular visitation was the 1556 Comet, also known as the Comet of Charles V. Upon catching sight of it, the Holy Roman Emperor reportedly exclaimed: "By this dread sign my fates do summon me" and promptly hastened to the monastery of St Juste where he spent the rest of his life.

Between 1664 and 1665, two bright comets appeared over London, and between them, an eclipse of the Moon. Such a triple omen was unique, and merited mentions by both the young Isaac Newton and diarist Samuel Pepys, amongst others. The astrologer John Gadbury notes that they were the brightest in living memory and visible across all Europe. "These Blazeing Starrs! Threaten the World with Famine, Plague and Warrs. To Princes Death; to Kingdoms many Crises: to all Estates, inevitable Losses." The Great Plague followed in 1665, and hot on the heels of that, the Great Fire of London.

The most widely observed comet of our modern age was Hale Bopp – the comet that brightened our northern skies throughout the early part of 1997. The internet was a relatively new phenomenon at the time and numerous websites tracked the comet's progress, providing daily images and resulting in unprecedented public interest. Discovered independently of one another by both a Mr Hale and a Mr Bopp at different locations on July 23rd 1995, this distinctive comet with its somewhat chubby outline and two distinct tails was visible all over the Northern hemisphere – even in large cities with light-polluted skies throughout the spring of 1997.

1997 was also the year in which Princess Diana died. As we now know, she was the most widely observed member of Royalty of our modern age. She was also a figure of whom daily images and heated speculation over her progress and conduct were also beamed around the world in this new global age. The eminent astrologer Maggie Hyde, drew up a chart for the comet's discovery. The comet's position is pinpointed at 10° Capricorn – an almost exact conjunction with the Midheaven Sun of the 1066 chart for the UK.** Diana's natal chart has her Sun exactly opposed to the UK Sun and thus symbolic of her transformative function within the Royal Family: she challenged what it symbolised and precipitated cultural change.

November's comet has no such obvious links with the UK chart. Some astrologers, I believe, have linked it with the death of the Euro (ISON was discovered at the end of the constellation of Cancer, close to a star connected with the tail of Canis Major – the legendary dog set by Jupiter to guard Europa). I'm not convinced this symbolism is totally convincing for the death of a currency, but then again, you never know...

The appearance of Pannstarrs, of course, has coincided with the passing of a Pope, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the death of Margaret Thatcher. Whatever one's view of the Iron Lady (must check whether this comet has any correspondence with her chart or the planet Mars), one cannot disagree that she has left an indelible mark on our country. Whether or not her passing merits a comet fly-past, of course, is another question entirely...


*The brightness of heavenly bodies is measured in magnitude – apparent and absolute. The lower the number, the brighter the object. Roughly speaking, bodies with an apparent negative magnitude are visible to the naked eye in daylight; for example, the bright planets Jupiter and Venus have magnitudes ranging from -2 to -4, depending on phase, proximity and angle. Absolute magnitude is the objective magnitude of an object measured at 1 AU (Astronomical Unit) from both the Sun and the Earth, an Astronomical Unit being equal to the distance between the Earth and the Sun)

**Although there are several possible charts for the UK – many astrologers prefer to use the 1801 Act of Union chart, which also has the Sun at 10° Capricorn – I have always found the 1066 version works best, particularly in relation to the Royal Family. It is, of course, a Royal dynastic chart.