In antiquity, comets were seen as eerie messengers of change or even doom. In the modern world, where the scientiﬁc explanation for them is known, there are still those who see comets as harbingers of dread.
The seemingly unpredictable appearance of comets and the mystery surrounding them ﬁlled the ancients with awe. The comet’s shape was also seen as a portent. Some cultures interpreted the long, streaming tail as the blade of a sword—a prophecy of war—while others saw it as trailing hair, which was related to mourning.
The comet named for the seventeenthcentury English astronomer Edmund Halley was ﬁrst recorded around 240 B.C.E. The 1066 reappearance of Halley’s Comet was recorded around the world. The Anasazi of the American Southwest left a carving of it on an Arizonan cliff, without any clues as to what it meant to them. The Chinese kept careful records of the comet’s visit. In Europe, the comet’s visit inspired terror, since people there saw it as an omen of war and the death of rulers. William the Conquerer of Normandy, however, saw it as a sign of his victory. In fact, after his victory over King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the comet was embroidered into the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts that battle.
In folk belief, comets always have been omens of dread. In the sixteenth-century Swiss illuminated manuscript known as the Lucerne Chronicles, the 1456 appearance of Halley’s Comet was blamed for earthquakes, illness, a mysterious red rain, and the birth of twoheaded animals. Pope Calixtus III is said to have excommunicated the comet as an instrument of the devil.
In the United States, the 1835–1836 appearance of Halley’s Comet was blamed for the massacre at the Alamo and a large ﬁre in New York City. In 1910, astronomers at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory used spectroscopy to study Halley’s Comet. They discovered that the comet’s tail contained poisonous cyanogen gas. People panicked when they learned that Earth would pass through the “deadly” tail on its next visit. Some people committed suicide, and others bought comet insurance.
As recently as the late twentieth century, people continued to fear comets. A rumor circulated during the 1985–1986 appearance of Halley’s Comet claimed that the comet would crash into Earth and kill everyone. Its next appearance is predicted to be in 2061.