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THE GREAT COMET AND THE DEATH OF KINGS
We began this section with a note on the Aztec emperor Moctezuma's terror on the arrival of a comet. The focus of this fear is significant because it was shared by emperors and kings and tribal chiefs the world over. The comet means the death of great leaders.
The idea appears to be as old as Babylonian astronomy, which associates a comet with the death of kings. The Roman poet Lucan offers a vivid description of cometary disaster, when the skies, "blazing fire," bring forth the "hair of the baleful star--the comet which portends changes to monarchs." So too did the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy connect the comet with the death of kings.
The profound fears of royalty at the appearance of the comet continued well into the present era. The third century Christian theologian Origen cites the comet as heralding a change in dynasties. It was a common "belief that the comet of AD 336 had announced the death of the great emperor Constantine." In connection with the assassination of Julius Caesar, it was said, a comet had appeared in the sky. On learning of a comet Nero was seized with fear, and chroniclers assure us that a comet preceded the death of the Emperor Macrinus in A.D. 218, and of Attila in A.D. 451.
According to Synesius, writing in the fourth century A.D., a comet means great disaster: "And whenever these comets appear, they are an evil portent, which the diviners and soothsayers appease. They assuredly foretell public disasters, enslavements of nations, desolations of cities, deaths of kings."
The Frankish bishop and historian Gregory of Tours, writing in the sixth century, reports that the "flaming diadem" of a comet portends the death of kings. Geoffrey of Monmouth connected the death of Aurelius Ambrosius with the appearance of a spectacular comet whose political symbolism was said to have been explained by Merlin.
Even the brilliant astronomer Tycho Brahe, several centuries later, was unable to free himself from the idea that the comet brought overwhelming pestilence, war, and the death of kings.
When Halley's Comet appeared in April 1066, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gave this report:
...In this year King Harald came from York to Westminster at Easter, which was after the mid winter in which the king (Edward the Confessor) died. Then was seen over all England such a sign in the heaven as no man ever before saw; some say it was the star Cometa.
Among the ancient Germanic peoples, according to Grimm, the belief persisted that a comet's "appearance betokens events fraught with peril, especially the death of a king."
The memory of the comet is well preserved in the song of German schoolchildren in the time of Martin Luther--
[These] things a comet brings ... Storm, plague, famine, death of kings, War, earthquake, flood, and upheaval.
A drawing of a comet in the Chinese cometary atlas from the tomb at Mawangdui is accompanied by the simple statement: "There will be deaths of kings." The Chinese Record of the World Changes, by Li Ch'un Feng, (602-667 AD) warns of dire consequences: "When a comet travels into the Constellation Taurus... within three years the emperor dies and the country is in chaos." So, too, do the Luba of Africa say that comet means the death of a leader. And in the same way, natives of the Polynesian Islands, claimed that a comet signified the death of a chief. Here, then, is the universal mythical context in which we must understand Moctezuma's fears. In the global tradition it is as if the comet bore particularly ominous news for heads of state, and the Aztec world view was no exception. Aveni, noting the intense interest in cometary phenomena among Mesoamerican peoples, tells us that illustrations of comets are frequently accompanied by interpretations of these portents: "These usually signify that a person of nobility will die."
The paradox is accented in Shakespeare's famous lines--
When beggars die there are no comets seen;
Of course kings knew very well the special perils of comets. When a comet in 837 drew the attention of King Louis the Pious of France, "The king went into a veritable orgy of prayers and devotions, ordering churches and shrines built to appease the imagined wrath of God." The Carthaginian general Hannibal in 184 B.C. was warned that a "recently- discovered comet meant he would die soon." He answered the comet by committing suicide.
Is there something to be explained in the comets threat to kings? When Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan encountered the "death of kings" idea, they offered the usual explanation, calling such ideas "the triumph of superstition" and assuming the fear arose from the random coincidence of certain kings dying at the time comets appeared.
Velikovsky's critic Bob Forrest was even less impressed with the strange idea. While noting that the death of kings is "perhaps the commonest" theme of all, he adds--
Certainly I see no pressing need to postulate cometary "collisions" on the basis of the "evil" reputation of comets any more than I need to invoke cometary/planetary exhalations to explain good wine years.
But again the critic has drawn his conclusion prematurely, and we are left only with what amounts to a guess as to whether there is a connection with planetary upheaval. What happens, on the other hand, if instead of setting the fragments aside once gathered, we look for connecting links? In summarizing the curious theme of the comet and the death of kings, Mary Proctor adds a telling observation.
The comet of A.D. 451 or A.D. 453 announced the death of Attila, and the comet of A.D. 455 that of the Emperor Valentinian. So widely spread was the belief in the connection between the death of the great and those menacing signs in the heavens that the chroniclers of old appear to have recorded comets which were never seen, such as the comet of A.D. 814, which was supposed to have presaged the death of Charlemagne.
The note concerning the death of Charlemagne is significant. Can one really believe that localized, random, and disconnected events caused the same theme to arise on every continent--and with such oppressive influence that a comet would be invented when the expected visitor failed to materialize at the death of a powerful ruler? According to Peter Lancaster Brown, "Every bright comet which appeared during the medieval period, the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance had itself affixed to the death or misfortune of a prominent historical figure.
These beliefs were so widespread that (according to Pingre) the chronicles recorded in good faith comets which were never actually seen." This suggests that the death of kings motif, rather than reflecting random local events, conditioned man's perception of local events for century upon century. For those familiar with the way core mythical ideas work their way down through history, this is a key indicator of a very ancient and well-rooted idea. The chroniclers would happily re-write history to bring it into accord with the great mythical traditions of kingship and the gods.
To the modern reader it may appear as if the ideas dropped randomly out of the sky, but a closer look will eliminate that impression completely. The patterns are the key. One fascinating idea about comets, for example, provides a unifying thread, while directing our attention to earlier mythical sources. A comet was frequently claimed to be the soul of a great ruler rising in the sky (certainly a good reason for loyalists to find a comet on the death of a ruler, even if the sky is not cooperating). Consider the famous case of Julius Caesar. On the death of that ruler, according to the Latin poet Ovid and others, a great cometary spectacle occurred in the sky, as Caesar's soul itself rose as a comet. And from Ovid's reverent description it seems that it could not have been otherwise for a leader of such stature. Clearly, the mythically-rooted story--celebrating the cometary "soul" of a great leader--preceded Ovid's poetic license!
Aristotle, not given to celebrate the mythical tradition, tells us that the Greek philosopher Democritus held that comets were the souls of men of renown. Among the Polynesian Islanders, according to Williams, a comet did not just signify the death of a king, a comet meant the flight of the soul. Similarly, the eminent student of comparative myth and religion, James Frazer, produced extensive proof that "a widespread superstition...associates meteors or falling stars with the souls of the dead. Often they are believed to be the spirits of the departed on their way to the other world."
With respect to the departing cometary soul of Caesar, which I shall take up in a summary of the Greek and Roman material, I cannot resist passing on to the reader one fascinating detail. When Robert Schilling, perhaps the world's leading authority on the Latin goddess Venus, gathered the references to Caesar's apotheosis, he noticed a curious blend of two ideas: one that the soul rose as a comet, the other that the soul rose as the planet Venus. And the two ideas were actually joined as one, for the poet Ovid describes the soul as a flaming comet CARRIED ALOFT BY VENUS. In more than one instance the soul itself is celebrated as Venus. A curiosity indeed. "What general conspiracy," Schilling asks, "seems to have tacitly excluded the comet to the profit of the star [Venus]?" That the specialist did not discern the connection to a larger pattern (Venus = comet in a global tradition) is why the comparative study is so crucial.
SOUL OF THE CREATOR-KING
We are thus brought back to Moctezuma's terror. One "explanation" for his fear of the comet asks unidentified local experiences to account for it and asks coincidence to account for parallel comet fears around the world. But another explanation is possible, in terms of an ancient story known to every native of Mexico and reflected in the most powerful cosmic images of Aztec culture. I refer to the myth of Quetzalcoatl, whose soul rose as the comet-like Venus. If Quetzalcoatl's departing heart-soul provided a prototype of the comet myth, we do not need to look further for an explanation of the comet's relation to the "death of kings" . In this case, the relationship is self-evident: the comet means the death of the king because tradition proclaimed that on the death of GREAT KING (the god remembered as the PROTOTYPE of kings) his soul departed from him in a cosmic disaster. And the comet brings the end of the world because, in the death of the god-king and the departure of his heart-soul as a comet, a former world age ended catastrophically.
Having raised the question rhetorically, I do not expect the critic to accept the suggested explanation of comet symbolism apart from the complete presentation of evidence in this series. Nevertheless, for the sake of saving time, it may be helpful to give the gist of the idea I intend to develop and substantiate with each future installment--
Within human memory extraordinary changes have occurred in the solar system. Planets now remote from the Earth once moved in much, much closer proximity to our planet, appearing as gigantic powers looming over man. Hence, we cannot understand the mythical age of the gods without confronting the "gods" as visible forms in the sky, forms that are no longer present. In all mythical systems the gods rule for a time, then depart amid celestial upheaval.
Mythically, there was once a founding king, a celestial model of the good king. But neither this charismatic figure, nor his celestial progeny will answer to familiar references in a now-settled sky. Nor will the mythical powers of darkness, in their monstrous dress, find any explanation in our experienced world.
Inherent in the myths of the gods is the collective human experience of extraordinary trauma. An idyllic world, a paradisal condition, a Golden Age ruled by a former "great king" (the CREATOR-king, the Universal Monarch), came crashing down in a world-ending disaster: wars of the gods, earthquake, famine, wind and flood, the arrival of universal night.
Of this world-ending catastrophe the Great Comet Venus--the departing heart-soul of the creator-king--was remembered as both symbol and agent.