Tag Archives: cultures

How ancient cultures explained comets and meteors



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IgorZh/Shutterstock

Eve MacDonald, Cardiff University

Comets and meteors have fascinated the human race since they were first spotted in the night sky. But without science and space exploration to aid understanding of what these chunks of rock and ice are, ancient cultures often turned to myth and legend to explain them.

The Greeks and Romans believed that the appearance of comets, meteors and meteor showers were portentous. They were signs that something good or bad had happened or was about to happen. The arrival of a comet could herald the birth of a great figure, and some people have even argued that the star in the sky which the Persian Magi followed to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus was actually a comet.

In the spring of 44BC, a comet that appeared was interpreted as a sign of the deification of Julius Caesar, following his murder. Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (soon to be the Emperor Augustus) made much of the comet, which burned in the sky during the funerary games held for Caesar. This portentous event was frequently celebrated in the ancient sources. In his epic poem, the Aeneid, Virgil describes how “a star appeared in the daytime, and Augustus persuaded people to believe it was Caesar”.

Caesar’s comet, depicted on a denarius coin.
Wikimedia/Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA

Augustus celebrated the comet and the deification of his father on coins (it did help to be the son of a god when trying to rule the Roman Empire), and many examples survive today.

Meteor showers

The Roman historian Cassius Dio referred to “comet stars” occurring in August 30BC. These are mentioned as among the portents witnessed after the death of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Experts are not entirely sure what it means when Dio uses the plural term “comet stars”, but some have connected this recorded event to the annual Perseid meteor shower.

Though it retains an ancient Greek name, we now know that the arrival of the Perseid meteor shower every August is actually the Earth’s orbit passing through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet.

Perseus flees after cutting off Medusa’s head in this water jar depiction.
British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

The meteor shower is named for the Perseidai (Περσείδαι), who were the sons of the ancient Greek hero Perseus. Perseus was a legendary figure with a fine family pedigree – he was the mythical son of Zeus and Argive princess Danaë (she of the golden rain). Perseus earned himself a constellation after a number of epic adventures across the Mediterranean and Near East that included the frequently illustrated murder of the Gorgon sister, Medusa.

Another of Perseus’s celebrated acts was the rescue of the princess Andromeda. Abandoned by her parents to placate a sea monster, the princess was found by Perseus on a rock by the ocean. He married her and they went on to have seven sons and two daughters. Sky watchers believed that the constellation Perseus, located just beside Andromeda in the night sky, was the origin of the shooting stars they could see every summer, and so the name Perseid stuck.

Wall painting from Pompeii, representing Perseus rescuing Andromeda.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Tears and other traditions

In Christian tradition the Perseid meteor shower has long been connected to the martyrdom of St Lawrence. Laurentius was a deacon in the early church at Rome, martyred in the year 258AD, during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. The martyrdom supposedly took place on August 10, when the meteor shower was at its height, and so the shooting stars are equated to the saint’s tears.

Detailed records of astronomical events and sky watching can be found in historical texts from the Far East too. Ancient and medieval records from China, Korea and Japan have all been found to contain detailed accounts of meteor showers. Sometimes these different sources can be correlated, which has allowed astronomers to track, for example, the impact of Halley’s comet on ancient societies both east and west. These sources have also been used to find the first recorded observation of the Perseid meteor shower as a specific event, in Han Chinese records of 36AD.

The ConversationThough the myths and legends may make one think that ancient civilisations had little scientific understanding of what meteors, comets and asteroids could be, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The early astronomers of the Near East, those who created the Babylonian and Egyptian calendars, and astronomical data were – by far – the most advanced in antiquity. And a recent study of ancient cuneiform texts has proven that the Babylonian ability to track comets, planetary movements and sky events as far back as the first millennium BC involved a much more complex geometry than had been previously believed.

Eve MacDonald, Lecturer in Ancient History, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How ancient cultures explained eclipses



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A 1765 painting of Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology.
Wikimedia Commons

Roger Culver, Colorado State University

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across parts of the United States.

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk – a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damages the eyes, a sign of the sun deity’s wrath.

So the idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

The various creatures include the Vikings’ sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, it was believed that such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, and banging pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu is said to have attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu’s transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon by pursuing them across the sky to eat them. Once in a while – at the time of an eclipse – Rahu actually catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun, and it gradually disappears into Rahu’s throat – only to reappear from his severed neck.

Rahu swallowing the moon.
Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY

In other branches of Hindu culture, the “sun eater” took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water in an act of worship, believing that the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for – and defenses against – a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant that the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they’d cover up everything of importance – themselves included – lest they be infected by the “diseased” rays of the eclipsed sun.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse actually ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, it’s thought that the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus had, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were also said to be sophisticated enough to not only understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the “dragon” would come to devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses, to the extent that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

The ConversationOf course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists say this year’s eclipse will cause the end of the world – perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.

Roger Culver, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Colorado State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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