Since 2006, we have witnessed an ever-increasing number of scholars who support the so-called “Younger Dryas impact hypothesis“. In short, the idea is that some 12,800 years ago large pieces of a comet struck the Earth. This cataclysmic event caused abrupt climate change and raised ocean levels, obliterating numerous species in the process.
But this theory is not new. It was Edmond Halley in 1694 who first proposed that the great Biblical flood was caused by a near-miss of a giant comet. He believed that the gravitational force raised the sea levels as the comet was travelling past our planet. Since the 17th century this theory has attracted numerous bright minds but nonetheless, it remained in the domain of pseudoscience until recently.
In 1840, Halley’s flood theory had even inspired Jonh Martin to create his famous work “The Eve of the Deluge”.
Comets – the Harbringers of Doom
In our “civilised” culture, a comet hardly inspires anything more than little awe and excitement. The past was different. Comets caused fear and dread and were usually seen as negative omens. Perhaps our ancestors really witnessed something terrifying and it remained imprinted in the collective memory for thousands of years?
I wrote about this in an older article: “Myths of the ice age – memories of a cataclysm“.
Here, I would like to add another important point – even in the New Testament, comets are seen as bringers of the ultimate destruction. Various parts of the Book of Revelations (6:12-14, 8:10, 9:01) speak of comets as omens and even initiators of Judgment Day. For example:
“A great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers…” (Revelations 8:10)
It is beyond doubt that this quote speaks of the comet colliding with our planet. The real question is – was it inspired by a divine vision or astronomical calculation?
Halley’s comet – it comes back every 75 years
The first record of Halley’s comet comes from 240 BC, when Chinese astronomers noted the appearance of a “broom-shaped” star, referring to the tail of the comet. And thanks to Edmond Halley, we know that this was truly the year when Halley’s comet was visible in the night sky.
In 1705, he calculated that this comet orbits every 75 years or so. He predicted its next re-appearance, and he was right, even though he didn’t live to see it.
However, the year 240 BC is only important as the first recorded mention of the comet. In reality, the sightings of Halley’s comet are as old as humanity. The only dilemma is if the ancient astronomers knew that it reappears every 75 years, or they were surprised each time they saw it.
As it re-appears every 75 years, I am inclined to believe that at least some ancient cultures had known its orbital period before Halley’s re-discovery. I find it hard to believe that the early astronomers missed this fact but knew about much more complex phenomena and were able to predict the eclipses and create elaborate calendars, as those of the Aztecs and the Maya were.
Fire ceremonies of the ancients
It is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the fire ceremonies of the ancient world. There is hardly a culture that didn’t worship it, and in many cases, fire was at the very centre of religious teaching. And while the fire was not always seen as a destructive force, it was always seen as the force that commands respect. In Vedic India, Agni, the fire god, was also the purifier, transformer and the bringer of warmth that sustains life. Similar ideas existed in Zoroastrianism, famous for its fire temples.
In Europe and many other places of the world, bonfires had the same purpose. A “bonfire” is a compound word, coming from the words “bone” and “fire”. Some claim that this name is a relic of pagan human (or animal) sacrifices.
What is certain is that the fires are lit with the idea of purification and protection from evil forces. Moreover, they are usually connected to an astronomical event, such as the solstice or equinox. These festivals usually take place every (New) year, and the bonfires often represent the Sun.
However, the Aztec New Fire ceremony follows a different logic. It is a festival that took place every 52 years, marking the synchronisation of two different calendars. One of these calendars was solar, while the other one was based on the cycles of Venus. For the Aztecs, these 52 years were an equivalent of a century.
Hoping for a good start of the new cycle, the Aztecs would fast and perform various rituals, including self-mutilation and destruction of old household items and religious idols. They believed that the Sun might not shine again if their ceremony fails.
The mystery of the “Burned house horizon”
Burned house horizon is an archaeological term for a mysterious practice of Neolithic South-Eastern Europe. On a vast territory, from the Adriatic Sea to the Caucasus, these highly advanced cultures created the first super-towns of Europe.
But interestingly, during whopping 4,500 years (6,500-2,000 BC), they had been burning their settlements to the ground every 75-80 years. Similar to Aztecs, they often left their household items and religious figurines to burn with the house.
At first, archaeologists believed these fires were accidental or traces of destruction left by the foreign invaders. However, as the data grew, it became clear that there is virtually no settlement without evidence of destruction by fire in regular intervals. Moreover, it seems that the fires were intentional, as additional burning material (such as hay and wood, pictured above) needed to be added in order to reach the hight temperatures recorded on these sites.
In conclusion, it remains a mystery what made these people burn entire towns and villages, only to rebuild on top of them. And while the scholars came up with numerous theories, to my knowledge, none of these theories relates to astronomy. I wrote this article intending to contribute in that sense.
Burned house horizon and the Halley’s comet
Inspired by certain similarities, I started this research to find a pattern that would connect the Aztec New Fire ceremony with the house-burning European practices. In other words, I thought that there might be a pattern between the movement of the Sun, Moon and Venus, that repeats every 75-80 years, similar to the 52 years of the Aztecs.
Unfortunately, there is no such pattern. The least common multiple for their synodic periods is nowhere near 75 years.
But then I had a small eureka moment. I realised that 75 years period also relates to the orbital period of Halley’s comet!
This made me think, what if the ancients remembered the catastrophes caused by a comet? How did they behave when they saw Halley’s comet flying menacingly above their heads, as they most certainly did?
And finally, as all ancient cultures believed that their fire rituals could affect the Sun, was the same logic applied to comets? What if the burned houses and objects served as a “sacrifice” for the world to be purified and saved from total destruction?
Perhaps some of the strange Neolithic pottery decorations represent comets? Here are some examples listed by Maria Gimbutas. She labels them as “comet-like”.
This is, of course, just a theory. But as the orbital period of Halley’s comet is regular, this is also a theory that can easily be tested. It would be interesting to see what the archaeological record has to say. Do the burned levels in these settlements belong to the same years when the Halley’s comet was visible?