Comets by Albany Poyntz

Comets played a leading part among the omens of the olden time; and the appearance of one in the heavens was the signal for popular panic. The unlooked for appearance of a comet became a godsend to the astrologers.

The credit of omens, however, was on the decline from the time when Cato declared that it was impossible for two augurs to meet without a smile; and for the Romans, the discredit of presages and omens was an important matter, nature and all her works furnishing them with indications from which auguries might be elicited. The omens of which they stood most in awe were invariably connected with the left side. Thunder audible from the left, or even the croaking of a frog to the left, filled them with such consternation, that they instantly propitiated the Gods by an offering. The sudden appearance of a mouse, determined Fabius Maximus to abdicate the dictatorship; and the Consul Flaminius renounced a command of cavalry in consequence of the same sinister omen. Great events certainly proceeded in those centuries from the smallest causes. But in all this, the self-love and vanity of the human race were chiefly apparent, the ancients being convinced that even in the most insignificant details of their lives, the Gods were actively interested.

Hannibal rose superior to this weakness. Having advised Prusias to give battle to the Romans, it is related that the King of Bithynia declined, alleging that the entrails of the victims suggested a contrary conclusion.

“You prefer then,” said the Carthaginian hero, “the advice of a sheep’s liver to that of the head of a veteran General?—I pity you!”

Ancient history affords only too many instances of similar superstition; from the sacred fowls which were consulted only in imminent dangers, to the deformed children flung into the Tiber, lest they should bring down evil on the republic. The practice of the ancient Germans, by the way, of plunging new-born infants into the Danube to render them robust, is more easily explained; since being necessarily fatal to weakly children, the qualities of the healthy ones who survived were readily attributable to the immersion.

The absurd prejudices connected with the appearance of comets, are about equally deserving of attention. Madame de Sévigné writes upon this subject in her usual lively style.

“We are visited by a comet,” says she, in one of her letters to her daughter, “which is the finest of its kind, and possesses one of the most splendid tails ever beheld in the heavens. All our great personages are terrified; conceiving that Providence, having nothing better to do than watch over their paltry comings and goings, has decreed their downfall, and sent an intimation of it to the world by means of this comet.” Cardinal Mazarin was just then given over by his physicians, and those about him saw fit to flatter his vanity by pretending that the Almighty had signalized his last moments by a prodigy. Having mentioned to him that a terrible comet was announcing the great event which struck panic into the world, he had strength of mind to jest upon their vile adulation, assuring them that the comet “did him a great deal too much honour.” It would be well, were all men to judge as wisely; for human pride must be blind indeed, to suppose that the stars have no other duty in their spheres than to regulate the affairs of mortals.

A celebrated Spanish author has written concerning comets with even less reverence than Madame de Sévigné.

“Comets,” said he, “are the very braggarts of the sky. They have been aptly used as engines for the intimidation of Sovereigns, who have less to fear upon the face of the earth than other men. Still, it is scarcely necessary that the celestial bodies should derange themselves to appal them, so long as they have the ambition of neighbouring Princes, the insubordination of their subjects, and the numerous plagues of government to hold them in subjection.”

The same writer attacks the influence of comets in terms less reverential than those of the learned dissertations of Bayle; for he pretends that the earth is too small a planet to attract so vast a meteor. As regards their influence in the necrology of Kings, he proves that the average life of royal personages equals the average life of peasants; without requiring the aid of a comet to announce their natural dissolution.

Various interpretations have been affixed at different times to the appearance of comets. Thus, the one that appeared at Rome, shortly after the death of Julius Cæsar, was regarded as a glorification of the deceased Emperor; and in 1811, on the appearance of the comet which has given its name to the year, as, “l’année de la comète,”—(the wines made from grapes grown under its fervid influence being sold under the name of Comet wines)—an attempt was made to convert it into an homage to the glory of the Emperor Napoleon!