The Comet that Changed Civilization – And May Do Again
On 30 September this year the first human spacecraft ever to orbit a comet was deliberately crashed onto its surface in order to get the closest possible pictures of the enigmatic celestial body. This will end its mission that began when the vessel was launched over twelve years ago. During the past two years the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe has been circling the comet millions of miles from Earth, making unprecedented close-range observations of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (named after the two astronomers who discovered it).
Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko in September 2014 as imaged by Rosetta. (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM / CC BY-SA 3.0 igo )
One of the spacecraft’s most significant accomplishments is to have taken readings of the comet’s makeup, determining that it contains some of the basic building blocks of life. Cometary impacts, it seems, may have helped start life on Earth. But comets, such as the focus of the Rosetta mission, have also posed threats to earthly life. 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is around two and a half miles across; if it hit the Earth— which thankfully it won’t— it could put an end to civilization as we know it. A comet just 500 feet in diameter is believed to have caused the Tunguska event of 1908, when it exploded over a remote area of Siberia with the force of a fifteen megaton bomb, flattening 1000 square miles of forest. But the Tunguska comet was miniscule compared to one, estimated to have been around ten miles wide, which almost collided with our planet three and a half thousand years ago.
Trees knocked over by the Tunguska blast. ( Public Domain )
Spectacular and Terrifying Ancient Comets
This comet was recorded by the Egyptians in the 22nd year of the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmosis III, who described it as a brilliant disk much larger than the full moon, adding that it was “a marvel never before known since that foundation of this land [Egypt].” Chinese astronomers, who meticulously recorded celestial occurrences for astrological purposes, also noted the breathtaking event. The ancient Mawangdui Silk Almanac, preserved in the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsh, depicts the comet as one of the largest ever observed. Not only did it fill a large part of the sky, it had an astonishing ten tails. (The biggest comet observed since the birth of modern astronomy, De Cheseaux’s Comet of 1744, had only seven.)
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The Egyptian record is found in a manuscript now in the Vatican Library, called the Tulli Papyrus, and a number of writers have cited it as evidence for an ancient UFO sighting, leading some scholars to question its authenticity. However, it would seem to have concerned a genuine event. The 22 nd year of Tuthmosis III’s reign is thought to have been around 1486 BC, which is precisely the year (by our modern calendar) that the Chinese observed the ten-tailed comet.
Impression of the spectacular ten-tailed comet recorded by the Ancient Egyptians in 1486 BC. (Illustration by Graham Phillips)
The comet must have passed terrifyingly close to our planet. Indeed, the ancient comet’s appearance was so spectacular that it seems to have had a profound influence on religions throughout the world. It seems that this unprecedented celestial phenomenon was taken to be the appearance of a new god: at this precise time, contemporary civilizations across the globe all began to worship a new deity depicted as a winged disk hanging in the sky. Examples include the Hittite god Kumarbis, the Assyria god Antum, the Mitannian god Ir, and the Persian god Ahura Mazda.
The Assyrian winged disk. One of the many similar glyphs that represented deities that appeared throughout the world after the comet’s appearance in 1486 BC. (Public Domain)
In China, a new divinity called Lao-Tien-Yeh – “The Great God” – appears at this time during the Sang dynasty and was represented by a circle with a series of straight lines radiating in a fan shape beneath and to the side of it, which looks remarkably similar to a depiction of a comet.
The symbol for the god Lao-Tien-Yeh glyph that first appeared in China during the early fifteenth century BC. (Photography by Graham Phillips)
Fascinatingly, this glyph is almost identical to the symbol for a new god that appeared in Egypt during the reign of Tuthmosis III. Called the Aten, it was represented by a circle with a fan-shaped series of lines radiating from it, just like the symbol for Lao-Tien-Yeh. Egyptologists have long assumed that the Aten glyph represented the sun, which no doubt it did when the pharaoh Akhenaten made Aten worship the state religion in the mid 1300s BC, but when it first appeared in the capital of Thebes over a century earlier it is accompanied by no inscriptions specifically associating it with a solar deity.