"There are a thousand hacking at the
Myth to Model
Site Section Links
Venus the Great Comet
A powerful conjunction of Venus symbolism and comet symbolism will be seen in the vast tribal wars and conquests that fed the rise of empires in Mesoamerica--a conjunction that will only grow in significance as we find the same nexus of symbols in other major cultures as well.
What is not sufficiently recognized by the experts is that, in mythical terms, the "first" sacrifice and "first" war occurred in the lives of the gods themselves. Ancient beliefs, symbols, and expectations concerning sacrifice and war were rooted in something REMEMBERED. Only the remembered, prototypal Great Comet will explain the recurring patterns of belief about comets in general, the planet Venus in particular, and the mythically-rooted "signs" heralding or calling for war and sacrifice.
Around the world, comets were seen as harbingers of devastating invasion, war, and conquest. A comet, according to the Chinese, could mean that "there are uprisings and war continues for several years."
"When a comet travels into the Constellation Taurus, in the middle of the double month, blood is shed...[and] dead bodies lie on the ground. Within three years the emperor dies and the country is in chaos."
The Roman poet Tibullus cites the comet as "the evil sign of war." Pliny, treating comets in his Natural History, tells us they bring war and commotion, while the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy associates them with foreign invasion. The third century Christian writer Origen saw the comet as heralding war and the collapse of dynasties. Centuries later (1011), Byrhtferth's Manual lists war as one of the disastrous effects of a comet's appearance."
The extraordinary power of the mythic tradition will explain why many of early history's most brutal wars had affixed to them the appearance of a comet, even in cases in which the actual arrival of a comet may be in doubt. A comet and shooting stars are said to have appeared before the battle of Pharsalus in central Greece, heralding Caesar's defeat of Pompey. Josephus mentions in his History of the Jews that a comet in the form of a "sword" hung over Jerusalem for a whole year, foretelling the destruction of the city in the reign of the Emperor Vespasian.
"The belief persisted into medieval and later ages," writes Theodor Gaster. "A comet heralded the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066. Disasters suffered by the Christians at the hands of the Turks in 1456 were popularly attributed to the appearance of a comet."
In 1456 a comet described as having a "fan-shaped tail like that of a peacock" is said to have stretched across half the sky. With the Turkish army at the gates of Belgrade, Pope Calixtus III feared a domino effect from a Mohammedan victory. Thus a Vatican historian wrote:
A hairy and fiery star...made [an] appearance for several days, [and] mathematicians declared that there would follow...great calamity. Calixtus [ordered] prayers, beseeching God that if this meant impending evils for mankind, God would turn them all upon the Turks, the enemies of Christendom.
The Zulu of South Africa also say that a comet brings war. And the same portentous significance of the comet seems to have prevailed in the Americas. In 1835, the warrior-chief Osecola, leader of the Seminole tribe in Florida, "saw an appearance of Halley's Comet as an omen, and called on his people to launch a war against white settlers. The Seminoles overwhelmed the army garrison at Fort King and killed every last soldier. Osecola personally scalped the fort's commander, General Wiley Thompson."
In the light of the general tradition, the retrospective accounts of Mesoamerican chroniclers, remembering that a comet preceded the Spanish invasion, take on greater meaning for us. The motif is strikingly familiar in an Aztec poem:
I foresaw, being a Mexican, that our rule began to be destroyed,
One of the principles I intend to establish in this series of articles is that, in the earlier expressions of comet imagery, the fiery star did not just "herald" war; it was itself an agent of celestial upheaval, an active participant in the remembered WARS OF CELESTIAL POWERS, whose battles produced deep archetypal images subsequently reflected in ALL war. The flaming sphere of the comet was hurled into the midst of a great conflagration in the sky. In the original system of thought, every war on earth was an echo of the primeval disturbance, involving both celestial upheaval and the sacrifice of gods and heroes. Thus every local war needed not just rites of sacrifice, but a COMET to ratify a symbolic accord between current event and ancient memory.
Of course the peaceful celestial visitors of a later age would never achieve the violent and world-changing impact of the prototype, and over time this could only accentuate the distance between the archetype and the later symbols referring back to it.
Originally, the comet shook heaven and earth, summoning celestial armies and inspiring a clash of opposing forces in the sky. Latin poets seemed to have remembered the tradition well when, on the death of Caesar, they sought to portray a recurrence of the world-threatening tempest. When Caesar died, Virgil recounted, the sun "veiled his shining face and an evil age dreaded eternal night." Then "Germany heard the clash of armor fill the sky; the Alps quaked with unwonted shocks. Moreover a voice was heard of many among silent groves, crying aloud, and phantoms pallid in wonderful wise were seen when night was dim... Never elsewhere did more lightnings fall from clear skies, or ghastly comets so often blaze."
The poet is here asking history to accommodate a more ancient tradition, in which the clash of armor, the cries of heaven, the appearance of "phantoms" (as in the Mexican counterpart), and the bursts of "lightning" all accompanied the appearance of the Great Comet and its flaming retinue, the chaos hordes.
As can be seen in the words of the poet Manilius, the memory of a destructive comet is inseparable from the idea of devastating WAR:
Such are the disasters which the glowing comets oft proclaim.
When, in their wars with "barbarous Germany," the enemy made away with the Roman commander Varus, the poet was quick to assert a COMET'S presence. Then "did menacing lights burn in every quarter of the skies; nature herself waged war with fire marshaling her forces against us and threatening our destruction."
That the great wars of early civilizations had a ritual character and purpose is often stated, though the connection with REMEMBERED tumult in the sky is rarely confronted. One of the underlying attributes of ritual is its commemorative function--repeating the "exemplary" actions of gods and celestial heroes, with special emphasis on the catastrophic junctures in the biographies of the gods. The motive was announced repeatedly by warrior kings, who saw themselves as extending the "glory" of the ancestral gods, and repeating the devastation that the gods themselves had wrought upon the world. And the gods desired that their ancient deeds be remembered.
Remembering through re-enactment was thus the essential nature of ritual combat. It is significant, therefore, that the great wars of early nations, in their ritualistic aspect, involved a deliberate repetition of earthshaking noise and havoc, endlessly blended with the motives of sacrifice. In the general mythic tradition, sacrifice and war belong to one and the same cosmic sequence.
In Olmec times, according to Carrasco, "war was the place 'where the jaguars roar,' where 'feathered war bonnets heave about like foam in the waves.'" The original reference is not to a terrestrial engagement but to the contest of the gods, in which jaguar warriors (including Quetzalcoatl's jaguar form) engaged each other on the celestial battlefield. The great havoc of that conflagration meant nothing other than the cosmic night, the occasion of the god king's own death or sacrifice, when the god's heart-soul (Venus) was seen in the sky trailing fire and smoke, and the chaos-powers were set loose upon the world.
The model for both the ritual war and the closely related sacrificial rites was the life of the great initiate Quetzalcoatl, as noted by Carrasco. "Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was born into a world of war."
According to many primary sources the gods were periodically at war with one another during the mythic eras...In the vivid creation story of the Historia de los Mexicanos por Sus Pinturas, the gods created the Chichimec people in order to gain sacrificial blood through human warfare and the ritual sacrifice of captive warriors." Ritual repetition honored and glorified the gods through REMEMBRANCE.
There is an interesting battlefield account by the Spanish soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo, depicting a scene in the wake of a Spanish retreat near the Great Temple. A number of Spanish soldiers had been captured alive during the engagement, and the chronicler gazed back at the ensuing spectacle.
There was sounded the dismal drum of Huichilobos and many other shells and horns and things like trumpets and the sound of them was terrifying, and we all looked toward the lofty Pyramid where they were being sounded, and saw that our comrades whom they had captured when they defeated Cortés were being carried by force up the steps, and they were taking them to be sacrificed.
Sacrifice and war here merge as overlapping symbols, together with the "terrifying" sounds of a more ancient holocaust. Through sacrifice and war the divine ordeals were re-lived and the nation brought into more intimate correspondence with the gods. According to Duran, the Aztec priests periodically "approached the rulers, telling them that the gods were famished and wished to be REMEMBERED." The rulers then consulted among themselves regarding the hunger of the gods, and told their neighbors, the Tlaxcalans, to prepare for war--clearly a ritual occasion with agreed ground rules and calendar. "When the men were placed in formation and the troops set in order, the squadrons departed toward the plains of Tepepulco, where the armies met. The whole contest, the entire battle, was a struggle whose aim it was to capture prisoners for sacrifice."
At the risk of redundancy, we must emphasize again the crucial distinction between archetype and symbol. The challenge to the investigator is this: the gods demanded sacrifice and remembrance, but the prevailing theoretical frameworks cannot answer the most fundamental question. What is the nature of the events which the gods demanded mankind remember? It is the countless RE-ENACTMENTS that answer this question, and in these re-enactments, a collective finger is pointed directly at the planet Venus, the now-settled star of the Great Comet.
According to Floyd Lounsbury, one of the most respected authorities on Maya religion, the warrior kings synchronized their wars to the movements of Venus. The point is stated more than once by Linda Schele: the appearance of Venus "after superior conjunction, when Venus passes behind the sun and disappears from view, was often the occasion of war between Maya cites."
Thus the Maya kings "believed that Venus played a tremendous role in war, and it appears that they invoked its assistance," looking for the day "augured by Venus as appropriate for battle." But is this not the very role of the comet in the universal lexicon?
Archaeo-astronomers have come to call the bloody wars sanctioned by Venus the "Star War events," a very fitting title. Citing studies by leading Maya experts, Carlson notes that 'the Maya conducted certain battles, raids or martial contests timed for significant stations in the Venus cycle, such as first appearances as Morning Star and Evening Star." Thus the Star War events were "Venus regulated."
What is there about the speck of light we call Venus that could account for this power over war and warriors? And is it only a coincidence that, as the herald of war, Venus here offers us one more convergence with the celebrated Great Comet? My intent in this series of articles will be not just to demonstrate the full alignment of cometary symbols with Venus symbols, but to expose that planet's original character AS the Great Comet. In truth, Venus was remembered around the world as the flaming tempest in the heavens--the very tempest to which all of the great warrior-kings looked back again and again.