Exploring Space: Images from NASA - COMETS and OMENS

Comets are not just interesting objects in our solar system. They have also played curious roles in history - like the struggle for power in eleventh-century Britain.

Harold II was crowned king of England on the 6th of January, 1066 - soon after Edward III (The Confessor) died without children, leaving his succession in dispute. In the spring of that year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Part 5) records that a “comet-star” shone for a week:

A.D. 1066. ...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.

Some of the people took this as a bad omen: Maybe Harold wasn’t the rightful king after all?

The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered history completed in the eleventh century, memorializes this sense of awe and foreboding. In one panel (look at the bottom right), we see the “long-hair’d star” and this description: ISTIMIRANT STELLA - Latin for “They are seeing the star.” We also see the king’s attendant, who has rushed to tell Harold about the celestial sighting.

What do the pictures mean? Harold - according to the French perspective - knows he broke an oath to William, Duke of Normandy. He’d promised William to support his claim to the throne of England on the death of King Edward the Confessor (William’s distant cousin).

Instead, Harold became King himself. Now the “comet-star” appears - as do empty longboats at the bottom of the tapestry panel. Is the comet foreshadowing a French invasion (or worse) of Britain?

We know, of course, that the Duke of Normandy - William the Conqueror - did invade his neighbor to the north, defeating Harold and his exhausted troops in the 1066 Battle of Senlac Hill (near Hastings), thereafter becoming King William I. History - and the tapestry - record the events. (See the hand-embroidered tapestry “come alive” in narrated animation.)

We also know something else. Seven centuries later, Edmond Halley accurately predicted the return of a comet in 1758. His work, A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, together with subsequent studies, led scientists to conclude the unusual star of 1066 was Halley’s Comet, making one of its rare appearances.

Throughout recorded history people were fascinated by (and fearful of) comets whenever they appeared in the sky. Around 300 B.C., Chinese astronomers compiled the Mawangdui silk which depicts various comet forms and their associated disasters. Halley’s Comet became so closely associated with disasters that - it is said - Pope Calixtus III actually excommunicated its apparition in 1456.

Many comets appeared during the seventeenth century, and artists created images of them. Let’s look at a few examples.

Awesome Stories Silver Membership Required
Registration for an Awesome Stories account is quick and free.
Awesome Stories Silver Membership Required
Registration for an Awesome Stories account is quick and free.