Shadows of the Mind

Gazing up into the March sky, there seemed to  be something missing, Ah yes, no comet. In March of 96 we were treated to Hyakutake and last March was Hale Bopp. A year since the fuzzy snowball graced our skies, a year since the Heaven's Gate suicides. I still find it sad that such a beautiful celestial visitation had to be marred by superstition and death. But that is often the way when superstition grows from the deep shadows of the mind to the surface and gains control.

 Comets have seemingly always had a bad rep, they just seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The faithful in Europe prayed for mercy from their enemies in the fifteenth century. And it was many enemies these people had.  The Turks were invading and conquering, the devil was running rampant, it seemed no-one was safe. And included in the list of enemies, was a bright comet in the sky. It gave rise to a common prayer back then:

 "Lord, save us from the devil,
  the Turk, and the comet...

When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., there was a bright comet in the sky, that some said foretold of his death, and others said, it carried Caesar's soul into heaven.

In the year 1066, King Harold  proposed the comet in the sky at the time, to be an evil omen of things to come. Shortly afterwards, he led his armies into battle, against  William the conquerer!

A comet in the sky was blamed for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius  in 1631.

A lot of people in London shook their fists at the comet of 1665 as they died of bubonic plague.  London was the only major city ravaged by the plague that year.  However, elsewhere, when people saw the comet, they were busy moving out of the range of volcanos!

 When Comet Halley visited in 1910 it was discovered that the Earth would pass through the comet's tail. When Astronomers mentioned trace amounts of cyanide gas were in the tail (far too sparse to ever have an effect) this got blown way out of proportion. Gas Masks were a hot item in 1910, as were "comet pills" which made one doctor quite rick.

 In 1973 the Children of God distributed pamphlets proclaiming that Comet Kohoutek was sent to announce the end of the world. The comet itself was a disappointment, the media had hyped it up a great deal and astronomers had believed it would become very bright as it swung around the sun. No matter that you nearly had to strain your eyes to see it, the cultists still claimed it was the end of the world.

And of course, most recently were the 39 deaths of the Heaven's Gate cult. The cult was inspired by some misinformation from an amateur astronomer, Chuck Shramek of Texas. Shramek photographed the comet and saw what eventually turned out to be a star, but Shramek reported it as a "saturn like object following the comet." The cult's leader decided this object was a spacecraft, long awaited, according to their prophecies. Their actions led to suicide.

 It is interesting to note that with Comet Hyakutake there was only a few weeks notice for the comet's appearance. There was no cult surfacing proclaiming doomsday or other horrors. Apparently these things take time to build up, with help from media hype. It is sad though to look back over the centuries and see that superstitions still abound. In spite of the attempts to educate, fear and superstition can still rule some people, and a graceful visit from a celestial object can lead to tragedy. It gives us all a deeper responsibility to teach children not to fear the unknown.

Copyright © 1999 Kathy Miles  and Charles F. Peters II