Foreboding in the heavens


THE current political uneasiness, both here and across the Irish Sea, should come as no particular surprise. Ancient wisdom, based, some would say, on sound experience, has it that when a comet like that called after Hale and Bopp dominates the skies, it is a sign of great disorder in the heavens and a portent of chaos here on Earth.

Halley's Comet, for example, has always been deemed particularly malign in this regard. It was first noted in China in 240BC, when it was blamed for the death around that time of the Dowager Empress. It pops up again in Jerusalem in AD66, convincing the despairing residents that the Romans were about to overrun their city - which they did, in fact, a few years later.

The AD684 appearance was associated with a list of famines, plagues and disasters caused by weather, and in 1066 the Saxons blamed it for the defeat of Harold by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings: its presence over the battlefield on that occasion is commemorated in the Bayeux Tapestry, where it is shown as a prominent star with sweeping tail, being pointed at by the people on the ground.

Halley's first appearance in the current century was in 1910, when its arrival occasioned great excitement and a considerable amount of popular concern. The news that the Earth in the course of its orbit would pass through the tail of the comet convinced many people that the end of the world was nigh moreover, rumours spreADthat the gases of the tail were toxic, or even lethal, and unscrupulous entrepreneurs manufactured "comet pills", which they sold to the unwily public as antidotes to counteract the ill effects.

Fears of the nasty consequences of passing through a comet's tail had been voiced on many previous occasions. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, for example, tells us that "the Laputans' apprehensions arise from several changes they dreAD in the celestial bodies, for instance that the Earth very narrowly escaped a brush from the tail of the last comet which would have infallibly reduced it to ashes; and that the next, which they have calculated for one hundred and thirty years here, will probably destroy us.

Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, took his comets much less seriously. Recalling that Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, hADremarked on the night before her husband's most untimely death that

When beggars die there are no comets seen,

The heavens themselves burst forth the death of princes,

Johnson responded:

If at your coming, princes disappear,

Comet! come every day -

and stay a year.