Scientists predict calamity as “fiery comet” approaches

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Comet Pan-STARRS is now visible on the western horizon just after sunset in the Northern hemisphere. A search of the headlines finds this:

A hairy and fiery comet having then made its appearance for several days, as the mathematicians declared that there would follow a grievous pestilence, dearth and some great calamity

So reports Bartolomeo Platinus… in 1465… recalling the approach of Halley’s Comet in 1456.

Many times in history, Comets have been taken as an omen, and with the election of the new Pope in the news, one wonders.

But the passage of Halley’s comet in 1456 created headlines, not for the “mathemeticians” who predicted “grievious pestilence, death and some great calamity“, but for the Pope of the time, Callistus III. And not at the time, but centuries later. The quote from Platinus continues:

Callistus, to avert the wrath of God ordered supplications, that if evils were impending for the human race, He would turn all upon the Turks, the enemies of the Christian name. He likewise ordered, to move God by continual entreaty, that notice should be given by the bells to all the faithful, at mid-day, to aid by their prayers those engaged in battle with the Turk.

Somehow, these two reports, the appearance of Halley’s comet and the decree of Pope Callistus III for the faithful to pray during a time of Crusades, became conflated, and the popular narrative that “The Pope excommunicated Halley’s comet!” became the headline.

Though repeatedly debunked, even in popular scientific journals in the time of the 1910 appearance of Halley’s comet, even the popular astronomer Carl Sagan repeated the story as fact, ironically trying to show how other people can be gullible. And as the new 2013 Year of Comets begins, the story is still repeated.

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