Auspicious or Sinister Heavenly Signs

Since the earliest times, people have believed that great phenomena in the skies foretold of massive changes here on Earth. The general idea circulating among the ancients was that the birth of a person destined for greatness was announced through celestial signs. 

The appearance of bright stars was generally thought to presage happy events, especially the birth of gods, emperors, kings, and heroes. Signs in the heavens heralded the births of the founders of all major religions. The Star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Christ. The legends of Jewish patriarchs and prophets relate that a brilliant star shone in the heavens when Abraham and Moses were born. The sacred books of Buddhism state that the rising of a group of stars on the horizon accompanied Buddha’s birth. When Krishna was born, his stars were seen in the heavens. Celestial signs foreshadow the birth of all Indian avatars. According to Muslim tradition, celestial signs foretold the birth of Ali, Mohammed’s great disciple. The same tradition is found in China at the birth of Yu, the first dynasty’s founder, and Lao-Tzu, the Chinese sage. This myth also extended to the New World, as we find that the symbol of the god, Quetzalcoatl, was the Morning Star. Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered that the appearance and disappearance of heavenly bodies symbolised the births and deaths of great men. At the birth of the various Caesars, brilliant signs in the heavens were purportedly seen each time. 

Superstitious beliefs concerning the heavens originated from humankind’s idea that the gods lived there. In ancient times, meteorites were seen as messages from the gods and interpreted as omens of impending death, war, and catastrophe. Shakespeare alludes to this notion in Richard II: ‘... meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven, the pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth and lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change ... these signs fore-run the death of Kings’.105 

Meteorites, or rocks falling from space, often appear as shooting stars in the night sky. During the Middle Ages, the belief was widespread in Europe that shooting stars were the souls of children falling to Earth to animate newborn babies. Another common belief was that when a death occurred here on Earth, the flame of life lit up a new star. 

Although most meteorites burn up on entering the Earth’s atmosphere, some do reach the ground, and many beliefs are centred on such fragments, inspiring awe and reverence throughout the ages. A sacred ruby sent down from heaven is said to be contained in the northeast corner of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca.106 According to Arab tradition, the sacred stone contained in the Kaaba is the guardian angel of Paradise turned into stone. It was believed to be as clear as crystal when Abraham first built it into the shrine’s wall but through the ages, it has become black from being kissed by sinful humans. In a similar vein, Malaysian kings used to worship a block of iron fallen from the sky, and the Bedouins of Sinai believed that any sword fashioned from a meteorite made the carrier invincible. Medieval literature abounds with references to such magic stones, fallen from heaven. Although the Grail (Latin gradalis, meaning ‘wide hollowed out vessel’) in various epics is usually described as a ‘vessel of gold’ or a cup, the medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, in his epic poem ‘Parzival’ (written between 1195 and 1210), depicts the Grail as a stone ‘which fell from heaven’.107 

In modern times, shooting stars have lost their ominous meaning and are seen as bringers of good luck, hence the well-known song: ‘Catch a falling star, and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day….’. Superstitious belief dictates that a wish should always be made on seeing a meteorite, and bad luck is sure to follow at the omission of such a wish. 

Although meteorites or ‘falling stars’ were often viewed with mixed emotions, the sight of a comet has always inspired the deepest foreboding amongst humans. This heavenly body is universally recognised as a portent of disaster, having been linked over the centuries with war, famine, drought, plagues, and the death of monarchs. The comet’s association with disaster is probably because of its swift and unexpected passage through the sky, seen as disrupting the orderly regularity of the heavens. During many centuries, the beliefs surrounding the appearance of comets caused the direst notions, coupled with fanaticism – a dangerous combination indeed. 

Among the ancients, the Chaldeans alone regarded comets without fear, while amongst philosophers, the Pythagoreans – followers of the metaphysical teachings of Pythagoras founded in the fifth century BCE – seem to have had a vague idea of comets as bodies returning at fixed periods. The appearance of Halley’s comet in 43 BCE was seen as an ominous sign regarding the Roman ruler of the period, Julius Caesar, who was murdered on March 15 the following year. Similarly, a comet’s appearance is said to have foretold the Roman Emperor Nero’s downfall. In this context, the Roman historian, Tacitus, tells us that a comet was seen in the sky, when in the minds of the public, Nero’s reign had long ended, and it was time for a new ruler. During that period, there was much speculation about who his successor would be. A comet is also said to have foretold the Norman Invasion of England in 1066, which is why the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating the Battle of Hastings, depicts a large comet in the background of the famous battle scene. In 1665 the appearance of Halley’s Comet again excited a spate of catastrophic prognostications and indeed, the Great Fire of London followed soon after. 

The belief that every comet is a ball of fire flung angrily from the right hand of God to warn humankind of its sins and consequent retribution was propagated by the early Church – transmitted through the Middle Ages, the Reformation Period, and beyond. This belief aroused fanaticism and strengthened ecclesiastical tyranny. The portentous character of comets was a great source of terror to humanity and was used by church authorities as an incentive for all believers to repent.

In the third century, Origen, perhaps the most influential of the early church fathers, insisted that comets indicated catastrophes and the downfall of empires and worlds. In his writing, De Natura Rerum XXIV, Anglo-Saxon scholar and historian, the Venerable Bede,108 described comets as ‘long-haired stars’ with flames appearing suddenly and presaging either a change in sovereignty, war, plague, or floods. St. Thomas Aquinas accepted and handed down the same opinion. In one of his Advent sermons, Martin Luther (1483–1546) declared: ‘The heathen write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretoken a sure calamity’, and ‘Whatever moves in the heavens in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God's wrath’.109 Without a doubt, such pronouncements led to the superstition that no one should embark on a new project after seeing a comet.

Another sinister, ominous heavenly sign was the eclipse. Eclipses of the sun and moon, throughout history, have been attributed to the workings of evil spirits bent on robbing the Earth of light. Understandably, in ancient times, people feared eclipses, as the sun and the moon were recognised in their cosmo-conception as mighty gods and goddesses who demanded appeasement. All celestial phenomena, therefore, were surrounded by ominous forebodings and interpreted as signs of the gods.

In the past, performing sacred rituals during eclipses was customary worldwide. Through chanting, dancing, and sacrifice, the solar or lunar deity concerned was entreated to re-appear again. In many cultures, a hungry demon was thought to have swallowed the sun or moon, and rituals performed were aimed at persuading the demon to vomit forth the bright morsel. Ancient astrologers had little doubt that the relationship between the heavens and Earth were causal, producing outbreaks of the plague and various catastrophes and cataclysmic events. 

Eclipses were traditionally interpreted as death-omens of gods and monarchs. The Greeks believed that darkness overshadowed the Earth at the deaths of Prometheus, Hercules, Aesculapius, and Alexander the Great. Roman legends contended that, at Romulus’ death, there was darkness for six hours. Similarly, the earth was shrouded in darkness at Julius Caesar’s death. In Christian tradition, at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, darkness overspread the Earth from the sixth to the ninth hour. 

Both lunar and solar eclipses often sent Greek and Roman armies into great panic, especially when those eclipses occurred before or during a battle. One of the most famous of the ancient eclipses, its date accurately predicted by the philosopher, Thales (640–546 BCE), was the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE. This eclipse ended a five-year war between the ancient Lydians – an ancient people from the region of western Asia Minor – and the Medes – an ancient Persian people. Both armies, utterly terrified, stopped fighting at once, when ‘day turned into night’. The Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories mentions several eclipses as having influenced battles. One such example is the eclipse of February 17, 478 BCE, which the Persian King Xerxes witnessed shortly before his armies were led into battle against the Greeks. Soothsayers interpreted the meaning of the portent to the anxious king, explaining that a darkening of the moon by the sun’s shadow meant the destruction of Greek cities, as the sun was the symbol of the Persians, whereas the moon was the symbol of the Greeks. However, the soothsayers’ predictions of a favourable outcome for the Persians in the naval battle of Salamis proved to be inaccurate.110 Similarly, an eclipse of the moon on the night of August 27, 413 BCE, so terrified the Athenians, prepared and ready to sail into battle against the Syracusans, that they retreated – a decision that cost them thousands of lives.111

On his fourth voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus is said to have saved himself and his companions because of his knowledge of an impending eclipse, indicated on one of the many calendars he carried with him. The Calendarium, issued in Venice in 1485 by the astrologer Regiomontanus, indicated an eclipse of the moon for February 29, 1504, expected to last for one hour and forty-six minutes. Nearly two years after sailing from Spain, Columbus and his disgruntled, restless crew were stranded on the north coast of Jamaica, their ships worm-eaten and leaking. After several incidents of plundering by the crew and various disagreements with the islanders, the locals were no longer prepared to supply food to the stranded sailors. The situation was becoming untenable, and Columbus, tired and weary, was forced to find a solution. When going through the Calendarium, he noted the predicted eclipse, its exact time, and duration. He then proceeded to arrange a meeting with the hostile natives and then warned that the moon would disappear from the heavens if they did not cooperate. When the eclipse happened soon afterwards, the natives were greatly terrified, begging and entreating Columbus to restore the heavenly body to the sky. Needless to say, Columbus and his men received all the food they needed and were rescued not long after by a Spanish vessel.

At one time, eclipses were widely believed to be responsible for all the ills of humankind. Shakespeare refers to this belief in Othello: ‘O, insupportable! O heavy hour! Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration’.112 So ingrained was the notion that all eclipses foretold disease and misfortune that European astrologers traced the Great Plague, also called the Black Death, beginning in 1348 CE, to a lunar eclipse that occurred in that same year. The plague spread along the trade routes from China to Europe, where it lasted for four years and killed about 25 million people. Not only plagues, but also natural disasters and wars, such as the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, were thought by the superstitious to be foreshadowed by an eclipse. 


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App