The mystery of comets

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Comets and meteors have been sources of awe, terror, and majesty since before the dawn of history, and have often figured in the myths and legends that inspire modern Pagan religions today.

Archeologists have found evidence of ancient stargazers dating to 9000 B.C.E., when one of the pillars at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey – the so-called “Vulture Stone” – was carved to depict a swarm of comet fragments hitting the earth. Similar rock carvings were found in Scotland dating to 2,000 B.C.E. Rudolf Simek, in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology, notes that in Norse mythology, comets were thought to be flakes of the ur-giant Ymir’s skull falling to the earth. There are even scholarly works that attribute the “Star of Bethelehem” as actually being a comet.

A section of the Mwangdui Silk texts, containing part of the Laozi [public domain]

How astronomical events like comets or eclipses were interpreted seems to have shifted over time. The idea that comets were ill harbingers can be traced as far back in written works as the Mawangdui Silk texts, which contain a series of observations which were meticulously documented and complied by Chinese astrologers around 300 B.C.E. and record over 1,200 past years of comet activity.

“Comets are vile stars,” noted Li Ch’un Feng, the director of the Chinese Imperial Astronomical Bureau around 648 CE. “Every time they appear in the south, they wipe out the old and establish the new. Fish grow sick, crops fail, Emperors and common people die, and men go to war. The people hate life and don’t even want to speak of it.”

Despite that astronomer’s pessimistic opinion, the appearance of a comet during ancient times was not always considered to portend bad tidings. Sometimes they were viewed as a divine promise, like the comet that appeared shortly after Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., which Octavian used as propaganda to reinforce his divine right as successor.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting Halley’s Comet over Easter of 1066 [public domain]

Other historical events have occurred during times that coincided with the appearance of a comet. For instance, Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky in England in 1066, and later that year William the Conqueror defeated Harold II in the Battle of Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1066 includes this description:

This year came King Harold from York to Westminster, on the Easter succeeding the midwinter when the king (Edward) died. Easter was then on the sixteenth day before the calends of May. Then was over all England such a token seen as no man ever saw before. Some men said that it was the comet-star, which others denominate the long-hair’d star. It appeared first on the eve called “Litania major”, that is, on the eighth before the calends off May; and so shone all the week.

Whether the comet’s omen was good or bad depended on which king the commentator favored.

There are theories that various plagues, like the first appearance of the bubonic plague in the Byzantine empire in 541, were caused by a piece of a comet falling to the earth in 536. Were such theories ever to be proven, it might justify the fear and uneasiness some cultures experienced every time a comet has shown up.

In more modern times, the presence of a comet has figured prominently in the beliefs of groups such as Heaven’s Gate. The comet Hale-Bopp (formally designated C/1995 O1) holds the record for being the comet visible to the naked eye for the longest period, at 569 days. First visible in May of 1996, Hale-Bopp then burned brightly and spectacularly through much of 1997 before finally fading from view that December.

Unfortunately, Hale-Bopp’s legacy is interwoven with the Heaven’s Gate cult, who believed a spaceship was hidden behind its glow that had arrived to take them “home.” 39 people committed ritual suicide as part of their beliefs.

NEOWISE [SimgDe, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]

This year, two major new comets have been discovered, SWAN (C/2020 F8) and NEOWISE (C/2020 F3). While SWAN has come and gone, NEOWISE is still easily viewable for a few more days.

NEOWISE may be the latest comet to make the news, but since the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was created in 1995, they have discovered 4,000 new comets. SOHO is a joint venture between European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NEOWISE became viewable with the naked eye on July 3 in the pre-dawn sky and then around the middle of the month shifted to being visible about an hour after sunset. The window for viewing NEOWISE is fading, quite literally. Since it has transitioned to evening visibility, it has decreased in brightness.

As the moon continues to wax in size and brightness, NEOWISE will become increasingly difficult to see. After Monday, July 27, the light of the moon and NEOWISE’s path away from the earth will work in conjunction to further obscure it from view.

The arrival of NEOWISE, the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV2, and the widespread social demonstrations across the U.S. and around the globe may provide an interesting reference point in future history – but only time will tell.