The mixed reactions to the Red Comet recorded in A Clash of Kings and the concordant early episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones (see HERE) reflect similar ambiguous responses in history to such astronomical phenomena.
“All ancient cultures with historical records, western and eastern, looked at any new apparition in the sky, such as a comet, with apprehension. The average person in ancient times knew the heavens much better than we do today, and something changing day to day in the sky was alarming to them.”
(Schwarz (1997), https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/news59.html)
In ancient cultures, their sudden appearance was considered to a sign from the gods. And because they disturbed the harmony of the starry sky, they were soon deemed to be a bad omen (http://deepimpact.umd.edu/science/comets-cultures.html).
The great work of ancient Babylonian mythological literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, described the arrival of a comet in almost apocalyptic terms of fire, brimstone and flood, although there has been some other views on Gilgamesh and his relations with comets and astronomical (http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/gilgamesh-and-enkidu-as-orion-and-a-meteor). The ancient Yakut legends from Mongolia spoke in similar terms, calling comets “the daughter of the devil,” who was to be accompanied by storms, freezing temperatures and general destruction.
Some Jewish sources, such as Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, a Jew living in Spain, suggested that the Great Flood had been caused by two stars being thrown at the Earth by God (http://discovermagazine.com/2007/nov/did-a-comet-cause-the-great-flood).
The Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’, c.300BC
For all their record keeping, seen in the Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’ from c.300BC above, many Chinese also regarded comets as “vile stars.”
As well might be imagined, looking at how ancient peoples received comets would require an extensive academic work. However, focusing on one specific period – that covered by the reign of Mithridates VI of Pontus (135-66BC) and the last century of the Roman Republic can cover much of the different beliefs surrounding comets in eastern and western culture (Mayor (2009), 27-33 provides much of the basis of this piece)
The career and propaganda of Mithridates Vl can demonstrate much of the Middle Eastern view of comets. Even his very name paid tribute to Mithras, the Iranian sun god, whose birth was accompanied by “a great fire or light from the heavens.” (Mayor (2009), 27)
While already a dynastic name, the reputed circumstances of his birth could point to why Mithridates’ parents chose that name for him. According to the Roman historian Justin, “in the year that Mithradates was begotten, and again when he first began to rule, comets blazed forth with such splendor that the whole sky seemed to be on fire” (Justin 37.2). A second such comet appeared in 119BC, which just so happened to be the year Mithridates ascended to the Pontic throne.
The type of comet to appear in 135BC and 119BC also played in the hands of the Pontic king. Their curved tail allowed for identification as a bladed weapon, much like how Gendry considered the Red Comet to be a ‘Red Sword.’ Furthermore, to the peoples of the east, the curved comets reminded them of a very specific blade: “the sickle-shaped harpe, the Persian scimitar, the signature weapon of Mithra himself” (Mayor (2009), 32).
Various Roman, Jewish and Biblical sources also record instances of such sword-like comets – Pliny, NH II.22.89 called them ‘daggers’; Josephus, BJ VI.5.3 recorded “a star, resembling a sword;” while 1 Chronicles 21.16 and Revelation 1.16 seemingly refer to comets.
There were further mythological connections to be made through the association of the harpe with Perseus. While best known as a hero of Greek mythology, the character of Perseus was much influenced by Iranian culture, including his use of the harpe, most famously used to behead the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa. Mithridates made use of this by depicting Perseus and his harpe on Pontic coins (Højte (2009); McGing (1986), 35, 94).
The Perseus/Medusa myth had the added layer of the involvement of the winged horse Pegasus, who was foaled by the blood of the beheaded Gorgon. Much like Perseus, while most famous for being part of Greek mythology, the winged steed had its origins in the Middle East, where Mithras’ sacred animal was the horse, providing Mithridates with yet more divine providence for his comet-blessed birth and coronation as it has been suggested that the comets of 135BC and 119BC appeared in the constellation of Pegasus (Ramsey (1999), 218-228; Widengren (1959), 244; McGing (1986), 85, 94-95 on Pegasus also appearing on Pontic coins).
Mithridates could really not have asked for a better propaganda boon for his life and reign for “according to well-known prophecies, a bright new light in the sky would announce the coming of a savior-king, a messiah or great leader who would triumph over enemies.” (Mayor (2009), 27)
It may be the immediate supposition of the sceptic to think of these two comets as inventions of the court of Mithridates to increase his own prestige, particularly when they represented such positive Messianic heralds in eastern tradition. However, not only is the account of Justin ultimately derived from a potential eye-witness, through Pompeius Trogus, other sources also recount the presence of comets in the skies of 135BC and 119BC. For example, Seneca, Natural Questions 7.15 records that “there appeared a comet which was small at first [then] spread . . . its vast extent equalled the size of the Milky Way,”
Astronomers of Han China kept detailed records of astronomical events and for 135BC and 119BC, they list comets of what they call the ‘war banner’ type, giving descriptions very similar to that of Justin. That the Han soothsayers proclaimed that such ‘war banner’ comets predicted massacres, terrible wars, and the rise of a great conqueror also fit in with the propaganda and indeed the reality of the reign of Mithridates VI (Loewe (1980); Ramsey (1999), 198-199, 200 n.9, 206 n.30). European astronomers also seem to have recognized the reality of the two comets of 135BC and 119BC as early as 1783 (Fotheringham (1919), 166).
Mithridates was so proud of his connection to these comets that he had them depicted on his small denomination coins, so the common people of his empire could see how his birth had been so well-omened (Arslan (2007), 73-76). The Armenian king Tigranes II was also minting coins depicting a comet around the same time perhaps as a public declaration of his alliance with his father-in-law Mithridates.
It has been speculated that the comet on Tigranes’ coin was meant to be Halley’s Comet (Gurzadyan and Vardanyan (2004)); however, this appears unlikely. The comet on the Armenian coins has a curved tail, linking it to the ‘war banner’ comets of 135 and 119BC, rather than the always straight-tailed Halley’s Comet.
That said, if Mithridates needed any more politico-religious capital out of comets, the most famous comet of them did make an appearance in the skies of 87BC, mere months after Mithridates’ orchestration of a massacre of Romans in Asia Minor in 88BC. This serendipitous timing allowed the Pontic and Armenian kings to present this latest wandering star as proof of divine favour for their anti-Roman actions.
Such was the political climate and their desperation to escape the ever-tightening grip of Rome, the Athenians seem to have been willing to accept, perhaps against their own negative predilections, the positive signs attributed to the appearance of Halley’s Comet given the successes of Mithridates in Asia Minor and Greece. With that, they elected the philosopher Aristion as their leader on a pro-Mithridates platform.
Such willingness to accept the positive spin on comets by the Athenians may represent another aspect to Mithridates’ propaganda. While his kingdom may have had significant eastern influences, Mithridates will have understood that many of his Hellenised people may have viewed comets in a negative way. The distribution of his coins may therefore have been part of winning hearts and minds by promoting the positive aspects of Middle Eastern views on comets.
The indigenous populations of Anatolia, Armenia, Media, Syria, Scythia, and other lands of the old Persian Empire interpreted comets as signs of hope, not grounds for despair. Even the more apocalyptic Zoroastrian scriptures of the third century BC such as the Bahman Yasht, envisioned an avenging saviour-prince who would be born under a shooting star: this prince would drive foreign tyrants out of Asia (Bahman Yasht III.13-15). Such prophecies were increasingly prominent around the time of Mithridates’ birth in Egyptian and Jewish literature.
For the Greeks who were increasingly rankling under their ‘liberation’ by the Romans, such promises must have seemed welcome and mind-altering when it came to comets. None of this seemed to bode well for Rome, although as will be seen in the final part of this blog, the Romans themselves were seemingly in the process of changing their view of comets.