by Bob Kobres ~ 1988


Franz Xavier Kugler (1862-1929), a Jesuit priest who devoted much of his life to the study of cuneiform astronomical texts, ultimately reached the conclusion that most of these ancient tablets reflected actual observations and were not, as many other philologists had adduced, nonsensical. Two years before his death, Kugler published a book entitled "Sybillinischer Sternkampfund Phaethon in naturgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung" (The Sybilline Battle of the Stars and Phaethon Seen as Natural History). This work was one of a series entitled "Zeitgemassige Beitrage" (Essays of Current Interest). Obviously Kugler felt his effort would affect contemporary society by shedding new light on past cultures (this illumination was, of course, immediately reflected to the outer limits by the polished surface of the gradualist paradigm). The Jesuit order is renowned for meticulous scholarship. Kugler was not jumping completely outside the then dominant research framework; he called this agent of destruction a sunlike-meteor that was for some reason associated with the planet Venus. He placed this event around 1500 B.C. The fact that Kugler chose the term sunlike-meteor rather than comet is indicative of his desire to remain within bounds. Many early historians had attributed widespread floods and conflagrations to a huge comet (Typhon). Recall that in 1927 comets were held to be innocuous "flying sandbanks"; however, the theory that Coon Mountain (Meteor Crater) in Arizona had been formed by a nickel/iron meteoroid was gaining acceptance rapidly. [For a general review of Kugler's work see "Astronomical Theory and Historical Data" (Part Two) by L.C. Stecchini in The Velikovsky Affair (1966).]

Some scholars who delved into ancient astro-myths were less concerned with conventional research boundaries. Immanual Velikovsky is by far the best known example of radical departure. Velikovsky was an diligent researcher (his work is still valuable in this respect), but he made one major error in his underlying premise. He assumed continuity of nouns or more precisely he thought philologists had correctly identified the various ancient names for planets. Where Kugler (whose various works are referenced by Velikovsky) saw a sunlike-meteor in association with Venus, Velikovsky saw "Comet Venus." Both researchers fell victim to what this author calls the"bibbu boo-boo." There is considerable reason to suspect that the majority of our planet's namesakes were comets--probably of the Encke family.

[Thus far three large objects are identified with this family: Comet Encke itself and the asteroids Hephestos and 1982 TA. We may find more. All of these would have been visually impressive several thousand years ago as they all would have been comets. Many researchers now believe that most Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids are remnants of comets; the distinction between such objects is not as firm as it once was. Comet Encke's coma is fast waning--in fifty years it may be asteroid Encke.]

For instance, we can read from W.M. O'Neil (1975):

"The word planet comes from the Greek planetes, the wanderers; these seven celestial bodies moved among the fixed stars. The Babylonians had a more picturesque name bibbu, the wild sheep, as these bodies broke through the fixed formation in which the tame sheep crossed the sky."

To call into question Greek continuity of planet identity we can refer to A.B.Cook (1914):

"Aristotle in his work On the Universe draws up a list, which gives both the earlier and the later names arranged in the Greek order:

Planet    Earlier Name                                 Later Name

Saturn    Phainon (the 'Shining')                      Kronos.
Iupiter   Phaethon (the 'Brilliant')                   Zeus.
Mars      Pyroeis (the 'Fiery')                        Herakles or Ares.
Mercury   Stilbon (the 'Gleaming')                     Hermes or Apollon.
Venus     Phosphoros (the 'Light-bringer')             Aphrodite or Hera."

[Cook spent over forty years studying Zeus. His work Zeus is a gold mine of data on beliefs and customs associated with this sky god.]

The earlier names are rather flamboyant for planets, Are they not? The mythology associated with the later names and the earlier name for Zeus certainly describes the break-up of a comet with an orbit that crossed Earth's better than the monotonous behavior of planets. As for the bibbus, we go to J. K. Bjorkman (1973):

"We move now to a discussion of a word which probably refers to comets, bibbu. As the material in CAD B 217a to 219 makes clear, bibbu has a variety of astromantic and non-astromantic meanings. There is a lengthy omen text, the 56th tablet of Enuma Anu Enlil, which deals with various features of the bibbu, and some of these seem to describe comets. For example:

(Largement 1957, 239 line 12b) If a bibbu continues one day, two days in the sky and does not disappear: (CAD B 218b) If three or four bibbus rise one after the other at sunrise

The latter text might refer to a comet which has broken up into three or four comets under the stress of the sun's gravitational pull; however, this is an unusual occurrence. There are many more references to bibbu, but in them the translations "unspecified planet" or "meteor" could be proposed with equal or greater logic than "comet." "

These cuneiform tablets which Kugler so diligently studied may yet be our clearest window to an obscure past. They are unearthed documents--not handed down tales. Bjorkman's article is illustrative of the potential for research in this area. It also shows well causes for difficulty in understanding these texts. Bjorkman herself states in preface that " . . .without having read parts of Middlehurst and Kuiper (1963) [The Moon, Meteorites and Comets], I would not have adequately understood the ancient description of a comet as a star with a tail and a beak."

Some enticing lines given by her are:

If a fireball (coming from) a planet is seen:

If a fireball (coming from) Mars is seen:

If a fireball (coming from) the Old-Man star is seen:

If a fireball moves across the Wagon-Star and stands

(if Venus) rises very high and constantly has a red glow,

(explanation) constantly (SAG.US = kunnu) a red fireball moves across,

variant: at its zenith(?) it is altogether red-hued

Sallummu is a key word in these lines. Bjorkman believes fireball or meteor is indicated by this term. Mishu or meshu is another astronomical word which Bjorkman renders as meteor and/or train of such. It seems likely to this investigator that the term could also be applied to a bright comet tail. The word has also been rendered as aufleuchten (flash or flaring) and as glow. Comments from later scribes often appear within copies of older texts--ostensibly for clarification. The following lines used by Bjorkman to illustrate the use of mishu contain considerable commentary--perhaps this scribe was having trouble interpreting the older text being copied. The reader should note how easily premise alters meaning when interpreting ancient works. Were these lines inspired by meteors or comets?

TEXT: [If] in the sky a meteor (mishu) which (is) like a . . .rises heliacally(?), (and) its train (mishu) appears in the east: famine will be in the land;

COM: its copy: . . . = husu, it twinkles like husu.

TEXT: If in the sky a meteor (train) from a planet (Mustabarrumutanu) appears: destruction of cattle will occur in the land.

COM: sallummu = mesih of a star, the same is the zimu of a star. A planet (Mustabarrumutanu) is shining brightly.

TEXT: [If] in the sky a meteor train which is like the meteor train from the Nasru-star, = from the KUR.MUSEN-star, appears from east to west: famine will be in the land.

COM: This means: the Nasru-star produced (a meteor train) from the top; these look alike to him.

TEXT: If in the sky a meteor train occurs from east to west (and) north to south (and) stands out (?) like a cross: the king of that land will die, and famine will seize (it).

COM: (This means) two stars flashed.

In terms of the present discussion, the last line of text is most interesting. Could it not be read: If in the sky a comet tail appears from east to west and north to south and stands out like a cross? We know from modern observation that comets can produce jets of gas which radiate outward. We have learned from a 2,500 year old Chinese comet atlas that records of a comet appearing as a cross on more than one occasion were in existence. Furthermore, sky borne crosses begin to appear in the art of a variety of cultures (including the one which produced the above text) all over the world at least 5000 years ago. And lastly, the lines quoted above are taken from an omen text devoted to Ishtar (generally labeled as Venus) which has for one of its symbols a four pointed cross within a circle.

The cross, however, is only one aspect of a rotating, jetting comet. Such an object can appear to be quite a different animal when viewed from another angle. To appear as a cross the comet's rotational axis must be closely aligned with the observers line of sight. The Sun's "wind" will also play a part, making the cross less or more symmetrical depending upon how closely Earth, Sun and comet are aligned with one another. Naturally, a short period comet will be observed more often away from such optimum conditions. It is in these aspects that we may find the origin of the many bazaar creatures and things our ancestors depicted as gods. Viewed perpendicular to spin, a jetting comet could appear as a bird, a fly, a four-legged animal, a horned animal's head, a fish, etc. What came to the viewer's mind would depend largely on how the object was oriented with respect to the horizon. If we add to this the likelihood that the main comet had a host of lesser offspring clustered about, the variations of form become almost endless. Also, a comet is not obligated to produce a certain number of jets; though shape of nucleus may predispose it to a certain number of flares, the number of appendages could vary from none to too many to discern. Though the drawings provided are fanciful, they serve to illustrate the point.

Another ubiquitous and enigmatic symbol our ancestors left for us to ponder is the concentric circle motif. These drawings, often carved in stone, are probably not renderings of drug enhanced phosphenes, originally they quite likely depicted the night sky as it appeared during a certain period of the year.

[For an overview on the subject of rock art, see "Theory and Practice in the Study of Rock Art" by C.W. Meighan in Messages From The Past (UCLA Inst. of Archaeology. Monograph XX 1981) edited by Meighan. Also, in this volume is a paper ("Two Rock Art Sites in Calaveras County, California" by W. Wilbert) discussing the potential influence of phosphenes on such art.]

Astronomer Fred Whipple calculates that the night time Taurids have been with us for 5,000 years. It now takes Earth about three months (mid-September to mid-December) to traverse this band of debris. The night-time Taurids branch into two radiants. One branch appears to radiate from near the Pleiades star cluster and peaks around November 3 to 5; the other seems to spray from close to the Hyades and is most active from November 10 to 13. Earlier in its history, as the progenitor of comet Encke was creating it, this debris ring had to have been more dense. As Earth passed through the mess, it no doubt collected a considerable amount of dust. The night time Taurids are known for frequent bolide activity. Large, vaporizing meteoroids (bolides) in an atmosphere loaded with comet dust will produce unusual visual effects. Refraction, reflection, and possibly secondary emission come into play as a sizable object splashes into an aerosol laden atmosphere compressing molecules of gas against motes of dust in its bow-shock wave until--BOOM--the object vaporizes, illuminating the multiple layers of compression separated gas and debris. From the ground this might look as if a god threw a pebble in the sky-pond.

[There are similar visual phenomena associated with comets which may also be represented in petroglyphs, such as comets with multiple halos or a pronounced spiral. These are distinguishable from the plain concentric circle or spiral carvings in that they have tails and in the way they are placed.]

Quite likely a large sector of the sky would be filled with such phenomena. Though the intensity would vary from year to year our ancestors, no doubt, expected a rather disconcerting light show on an annual basis--perhaps many of them did take drugs in anticipation of the event. Actually, an appeal of phosphene hypothesis is that such geometric visions occur naturally due to rubbing the eyes, light deprivation, etc. The rationale is that primitive people would notice these visions more readily than we moderns with our artificial lights and CRTs and that they would attach great significance to such apparitions. This type of gradualist reasoning demonstrates flaws common to much conjecture on our past; such speculation ignores the potential influence of exceptional events. For instance, why would a people who had for thousands of years, produced beautifully detailed scenes of the natural world switch rather suddenly all over the globe to "abstract designs" and drawings of warfare? This recognized alteration seems to coincide with the Pleistocene/Holocene transition. The change of climate is commonly given as sufficient reason for this alteration of art. Later, between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago, spirals and concentric circles begin to appear. Again this seems to have been a global phenomena. Did everybody suddenly notice phosphenes? Maybe there was a neolithic Tim Leary . . . Much the same can be said of conjecture regarding "solstice festivals"--would our ancestors actually fear that the Sun would not return? How many thousands of years had it been observed to do so? Eclipses also are common occurrences--only when the Sun and Moon become darkened at the wrong time do you get jumpy and go after He and Ho.

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