Feb 1, 2011 | Noah Goldman
Comets have inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different cultures and societies around the world and throughout time. They have been branded with such titles as "the Harbinger of Doom" and "the Menace of the Universe." They have been regarded both as omens of disaster and messengers of the gods. Why is it that comets are some of the most feared and venerated objects in the night sky? Why did so many cultures cringe at the sight of a comet?
When people living in ancient cultures looked up, comets were the most remarkable objects in the night sky. Comets were unlike any other object in the night sky. Whereas most celestial bodies travel across the skies at regular, predictable intervals, so regular that constellations could be mapped and predicted, comets' movements have always seemed very erratic and unpredictable. This led people in many cultures to believe that the gods dictated their motions and were sending them as a message. What were the gods trying to say? Some cultures read the message by the images that they saw upon looking at the comet. For example, to some cultures the tail of the comet gave it the appearance of the head of a woman, with long flowing hair behind her. This sorrowful symbol of mourning was understood to mean the gods that had sent the comet to earth were displeased. Others thought that the elongated comet looked like a fiery sword blazing across the night sky, a traditional sign of war and death. Such a message from the gods could only mean that their wrath would soon be unleashed onto the people of the land. Such ideas struck fear into those who saw comets dart across the sky. The likeness of the comet, though, was not the only thing that inspired fear.