Though gaining a detailed understanding of the effects episodic encounters with comets had on humanity will take some time, incorporating recent astronomical evidence can provide immediate boons to our comprehension of past cultures. This is particularly true for certain symbols and motifs that have endured to our time period. Wilson's 1894 work on the history of the swastika is quite valuable in showing how widely that symbol was utilized and what meanings came to be associated with it.
|The fortunate find in the seventies, at Mawangdui, China, of a Han dynasty silk comet atlas sheds considerable light on earlier enigmatic motifs. Most illuminating is the drawing, described by text on the artifact as a long-tailed pheasant star. This rendering of a jetting comet viewed down its axis of rotation has a considerable history, and, as a motif, appears on artifacts found in most areas of the world. The artist who illustrated this silk twenty-two hundred, or so, years ago was not likely a first-hand observer. What is produced here is a schematic of received comet caricatures with claims that specific things will happen if a represented type appears. The pinwheel-like image is unique to the compilation in that an omen is given for an appearance in each of the four seasons, implying that this comet was seen more often than the others represented. This may illustrate a frequently viewed aspect of comet Encke which has a 3.3 year orbit and rotational axis that occasionally points toward Earth. [Whipple, F. 1985]|
|Important in understanding ancient oriental lore is learning that this motif was associated with the pheasant (divine bird in China) which is frequently mentioned in the Chinese classics. The link between the spinning cross and birds is evident on artifacts from many cultures. Perhaps the association of the Sanskrit term "svastika" with this symbol can be linked to the Astika Parva in the MAHABHARATA which relates the birth of a cosmic bird par excellence--Garuda. This fabulous winged deity had a radiance like the Sun, could change shapes at will, and destroyed other gods and kings by casting down fire and stirring up storms of reddish dust which darkened the Sun, Moon and stars. Clearly Garuda was symbolic of an Earth approaching comet.|
The bird-comet connection is even more obvious in the Jamva-khanda Nirmana Parva of the MAHABHARATA which describes a fierce fowl with but one wing, one eye, and one leg, hovering in the night sky. As this bird "screams" and "vomits blood":
All the quarters of the earth, being overwhelmed by showers of dust, look inauspicious. Fierce clouds, portentous of danger, drop bloody showers during the night. Rahu of fierce deeds is also, O monarch, afflicting the constellation Kirtika. Rough winds, portending fierce danger, are constantly blowing.
The mention of Rahu, the demon of eclipse, which originally had four arms and a tail that was severed by Vishnu to become Ketu (comet) is interesting in that the demon is here darkening Kirttika (the Pleiades) in the month of Karttika (latter half of October, through mid November), for the tale goes on to relate that:
. . . in course of the same month both the Moon and the Sun have undergone eclipses on the thirteenth days from the day of the first lunation. The Sun and the Moon therefore, by undergoing eclipses on unusual days, will cause a great slaughter of the creatures of the earth. Meteors, effulgent like Indra's thunder-bolt, fall with loud hisses . . . People, for meeting together, coming out of their houses with lighted brands, have still to encounter a thick gloom all round . . . From the mountains of Kailasa and Mandara and Himavat thousands of explosions are heard and thousands of summits are tumbling down . . . Fierce winds charged with pointed pebbles are blowing, crushing mighty trees. In villages and towns trees, ordinary and sacred, are falling down, crushed by mighty winds and struck by lightning.
This is, without doubt, a mythological record of an intense meteor storm from the still active Taurid stream which presently peaks around the first of November and appears to radiate from near the Pleiades star cluster. The un-airworthy bird associated with this meteor bombardment could have been comet Encke which until recently was thought to be the sole source for the Taurid meteors. However, the discovery of other large contributors which are now dark but were once active comets rules out a positive identification.
|Another interesting aspect of this folk memory which might shed some light on why the rolling cross motif is linked to birds is the image of a one-legged fowl. This is also a characteristic of the Chinese divine pheasant which was closely associated with the fabulous, lame, raven-beak-nosed emperor, Yu, who could transform himself into this pheasant or a bear. One of Yu's enemies, the Owl, who invented thunder and lightening was also one-footed. [Lonsdale, S. 1982, Barnard, N. 1972, 1973]|
In a less artificial environ animal tracks speak strongly
to people and convey much about the creature which left them.
Thus a bear, bird or any animal which made impressions on the
ground could be symbolically represented in total by drawing
these marks. I suggest that the jetting comet, to some cultures,
looked like a bird's foot and, as a
motif, represented a divine fowl. This can explain why the
not very bird-like drawing on the Han silk is captioned as a
pheasant star. Chinese lore upholds such an interpretation as
Ts'ang Chieh, the four eyed legendary inventor of writing,
derived his inspiration to create written symbols from noticing
the marks of birds' feet in the sand. His ancient style is known
as niao chiwen--"bird foot-prints writing."
[MacCulloch, C.J.A. 1928]
|Symbolic bird tracks, unrecognized as such, appear on objects unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann from Hissarlik in Asia Minor. Artifactual support for this contention comes from petroglyphs found in the south-western United States which Pueblo people identify as roadrunner (a type of cuckoo) tracks and identical renderings found by Schliemann. [Morphy, H. 1989] The close association of these two distinctive crosses on artifacts from Schliemann's Troy could be considered coincidental and not necessarily avion-inspired were they found out of context, however, in Schliemann's words:|
|Owls, like cuckoos, have zygodactylous or semizygodactylous (outer toe reversible) feet. Obviously these "Trojans" had an elaborate belief system which focused on the activities of a non-terrestrial bird of the night. With this in mind, a re-examination of artifacts recovered from Hissarlik could be quite revealing.|
Another aspect of comets which is evident in ancient lore involves shape shifting. A comet is three dimensional and could appear as quite a different animal when viewed from a different angle. For instance, allowing that a foot-print signifies the creature, the fabled ability of Yu (mentioned above) to transform into a pheasant or bear can be easily understood as a radial view distinguished from an axial view of the same comet.
Comets can also change spontaneously; a gas emitting area could become dust covered and extinguish a jet, a piece of the comet could break away, creating another comet, perhaps initially more flamboyant than its parent. Our ancestors' stories speak of these weakening gods and fantastic births; however, until now, our ears heard only gibberish.
Comets and the Bronze Age Collapse, from which the above is excerpted.