Comets by Albany
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 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!