The superstitions and beliefs about comets.

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Thesuperstitions and beliefs about comets.

Thelives of the people of Nantucket were surrounded by the unpredictableterrifying forces of the sea. These forces laid down the main reasonbehind the Nantucketers leading a superstitious life. When thetwenty-member crew planned and set out for South Pacific fromNantucket, they did not have a clue of what awaited them. The ordealsuffered by the crew is somehow likened to the mythic eventssurrounding the sinking of the titanic ship. It would emerge laterthat a comet was seen, which portrays a bad omen according to thepeople of Nantucket. This paper carries out research on connectionbetween the horrific experience of the crew members aboard theWhaleship Essex and the superstitions surrounding the occurrence. Italso presents a research on the current understanding of theoccurrence of the comets.

Settingout for South Pacific

Steppingaboard the Whaleship Essex felt like the best experience in theentire life of the fourteen-year-old boy, Nickerson, just like forany other Nantucket boy. From the beginning chapter of the story, itwas a thrilling moment for a Nantucket boy to board a ship and a shipas the Whaleship Essex. The experience would allow Nickerson toexplore what it feels like being in the sea, which had been anendless wait. The Whaleship Essex was among the many Whaleships fromNantucket in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the crew on boardintending to ship whales and tap economic benefits from them(Philbrick 23). The prices for whale-oil were on a steady rise.Although the economy of the rest of the world was on the verge ofsinking into depression, Nantucket had the opportunity to be countedamong the rich states in America by tapping on the benefits presentedby the rising whale-oil prices (Philbrick 33).

Despitethe fact that the Whaleship Essex was old and relatively small, thepeople of Nantucket viewed as a lucky ship because in most cases, formore than a decade, the ship returned with whale-oil enough to makethe state a wealthy one. Besides this, basing on its locationalongside a sea, Nantucket similar to the seafaring towns of theperiod had a set of beliefs and superstitions. The community had anobsession with signs and omens with such issues being held with highregard.

Theomens and superstitions of the Nantucket community

Beinga seafaring community, Nantucket was surrounded by an obsession toomens and signs, whose reputation impacted on their lives greatly.After the Whaleship Essex left out for South Pacific, it was attackedand sank by a whale at the middle of the South Pacific. The ordeal ofthe events is similar to the mythical explanations surrounding thesinking of the Titanic (Philbrick 67). Talks began to evolve thatduring the repair and outfitting of the Whaleship Essex in July, acomet was witnessed in the sky that night. Since the early times, theappearance of a comet was interpreted to signify that an unusualevent was about to happen. The newspapers during that time had theheadlines confirming that indeed the appearance of a comet signifiedthe occurrence of an extraordinary event.

Thepeople at the shipping and the wharves offices had more thanspeculations on the signs and omens in line with the beliefs of thepeople of Nantucket community. Apart from the appearance of thecomet, throughout the summer and the spring, an astounding animal hadbeen seen, a serpent. The serpent was described to have black eyesresembling that of a horse, and a body fifty foot that looked likebarrels string floating on the water. At such an instant, any sailor,especially the age of Nickerson must have thought for a moment if itwas the right time, to jump out of the voyage for safety (Philbrick88).

Itis believed that the people of Nantucket had enough reasons to besuperstitious. Their daily lives revolved around the terrifyingforces of the unpredictable sea. The unpredictability stemmed fromthe constant shift of the shoals network. For instance, off theharbor mouth was the Nantucket Bar in which, as much as the coming toand from the island seemed simple, was rather a distressing and acatastrophic lesson to the seamen. For example, during winter, thestorms portrayed the most violence with wreckages being reported on aweekly basis. The island had unidentified corpses of seamen buriedafter being washed on the wave-flogged shores (Helvarg 34).

Fromthe above readings from the book, inthe heart of the sea,the people of the Nantucket community had beliefs and superstitionson their lives drawn from the uncertain and unpredictable environmentin which they lived, that is the sea. The events surrounding variousunpleasant happenings were related to previous observations precedingthe events. This made the Nantucket community develop superstitionsand beliefs in line with the preceding events before the occurrenceof a tragedy. For example, the appearance of the comet during therepair of the Whaleship Essex relates to the sinking of the Essex atthe middle of the South Pacific. The crew also saw a large serpentthat also relates to the tragedy of the sinking of the WhaleshipEssex. Because of these instances, it can be concluded that theappearance of comets is associated with a bad omen.

Researchon the beliefs and superstitions about comets.

Thearticle by Guillemin &amp Glaisher is a credible source because itpresents the information about superstitions and beliefs of comets inthe ancient times. In all times and almost all countries, theappearance of a comet is viewed as a sign of a bad omen. When a cometis seen, it foretells the occurrences of unpleasant, destructive, andfatal events expected to pass in the near future (Guillemin &ampGlaisher 2). According to the Ancient Chinese books and information,it was shown that the arrival of comets resulted in disastrous eventssuch as mysterious deaths of whales, seamen, wars, lack of necessaryingredients, and removal from the throne of a powerful leader.

Theuniversality and ancientness of the belief about the appearance ofcomets probably originates from the Seneca’s opinion (Guillemin &ampGlaisher 8). The appearance of a comet is usually viewed as a warningfrom gods. The appearance of comets usually comes alongsidecatastrophic problems such as the submersion of lands or earthquakes.There is a good prevalence of popular superstitions as a result ofthe appearance of a comet. For instance, comets have been observed toannounce the occurrence of war, plaques, and in a worse situation thedeaths of citizens of the nation that observed the comet.

Variousastronomers have documented the different astronomical events in theancient times that have resulted in a sudden violent mayhem on theearth. From the Chinese data, it is evident that close to ten peoplelost their lives because of the meteor shower of 1994 (Guillemin &ampGlaisher 18). Again, historical chronicles have also mentioned thatthe occurrence of a meteor shower in Italy, in 1511 resulted in themysterious deaths of animals and birds. A ball of fire, similar tothat of a rocket, appeared resulting in huge waves, although the shipremained safe. This is according to the reports of the New YorkTimes.

Thebelief about comets has stretched to the religious set up. Variousreligions have the belief that the end of the world would bepredicted by the appearance of a comet. The belief is growing rampantwith many religions adopting this belief. In close to two thousandinstances in the world, people have experienced severe panic due tothe appearance of comets because of the superstitions and beliefsassociated with them forcing them to take anti-comet pills to easetheir tension.

Recentstudies about comets

Itis evident that in the ancient times, the appearance of comets wasviewed as a bad omen resulting in catastrophic events. The appearanceof the night visitor on the skies was mysterious to the people andwas equally a frightening experience. The work of Impey refuted theclaims by presented the comets as a natural occurrence that ispredictable. The source is credible because it provides relevant andreliable information on how comets were discovered and identified tobe a natural phenomenon. The author was sure to give an explanationon how the comets were discovered and identified as predictable andunderstandable occurrence thus refuting the superstitions surroundingthe appearance of the comets as an evil omen. I am in agreement withthe findings of Impey. This is because he brings out the logic inunderstanding comets in a clear manner. The author also went ahead topresent facts on the nature of the comets and the circumstancessurrounding the public appreciating the facts about comets and thusrefuting claims on the superstitious beliefs about them.

Later,the claims about superstitions surrounding the occurrence of cometswere identified as baseless superstitions and beliefs by EdmondHalley, an English astronomer (Impey 2). After carrying out athorough study of the orbits, the astronomer contributed greatly tothe invention of the emergence of the Newton’s law of the gravity.As he undertook a study of the Newton’s gravitational theory, healso studied new methods of identifying orbits. He was in a positionto discover that the comets travel along elliptical and long orbitsaround the sun. He also discovered that there are particular cometsthat appear and reappear several times. After making calculations onthe orbits of 24 different comets, he was in a position to identifythat certain four comets thought to be different shared the sameorbit. From his study, he was able to predict the next occurrence ofa comet.

Fromthis discovery, it was observable that the movements of the cometswere predictable. It was identified that the comets are regularvisitors on typical orbits. This discovery worked a great deal inhelping dispel the superstitions and beliefs that the occurrence ofthe comets brings along evil and bad omen (Stewart 26). Stewartexplains the impact the occurrence of the comet during the timepredicted on the change of the perception by public about the natureof the comets. Astronomer Halley had predicted that the next cometwould occur in 1759, and during the same year, the same was observed(Impey 17). The author is crucial in this study because he brings outclearly the ideas of astronomer Halley in helping understand thenature of comets and this refuting the superstitions that it bringsabout a bad omen. I am in agreement with the findings of Stewart.This is because the findings of the author are in line with thestudies surrounding the theory and discovery of comets. The weaknessof this study is that there are instances in which the occurrence ofthe comets were unpredictable. It also does not provide a clearexplanation on the coincidence of the appearance of the comets andnatural calamities such as earthquakes.

Beforethis discovery, the comets were observed as mysterious and randomvisitors bringing with them bad omen to the community they appear.The astronomer was able to link separate events to one object thusrevealing a pattern in nature for the comets. His study alsodisplayed the mathematical description to explain the pattern, theelliptical orbit followed by the comet, and from that, he was able topredict successfully the next pattern and appearance of the sequenceImpey 10). The discovery by this astronomer was critical in cementingthe idea that nature was a predictable and an understandablephenomenon for the people of the 18thcentury.

Thefindings of Impey are similar to the works of Stewart. Stewart,similarly to Impey elaborates on how the occurrence of 1759 aspredicted by the astronomer Halley was relevant and critical inrefuting the belief that the comets were mysterious objects bringingabout evil omen to the community. Similarly to Impey, Stewart wasalso able to bring it out clear that the comets were natural objectsthat could be understood and predicted. These findings were criticallike those of Impey in helping clear the doubts that beliefs andsuperstitions about the nature of comets were baseless. The weaknessin both cases arises from the fact that there are still someoccurrences of comets that are not predictable yet there was noexplanation about the same. Again, the occurrence of comets alongsidenatural catastrophes was not discussed.


Thesuperstitions and beliefs surrounding the appearance of the cometswere universal in the ancient times for different states. Thesenations believed that the appearance of the comets would signify ofan impending catastrophe. These beliefs were similar to the people ofNantucket. The sinking of the Whaleship Essex is believed to haveoccurred because a comet had been observed before the ship set outfor South Pacific. However, the appreciating of science helped inrefuting these superstitions surrounding the occurrence of comets. Afamous astronomer, Halley, was able to prove that the occurrence ofthe comets was an understandable and predictable phenomenon. He wasable to prove to the public his findings by predicting an occurrenceof a comet that was in line with his prediction. It is, therefore,from these findings that the superstitions and beliefs surroundingthe appearance of comets were baseless. It, however, remains unclearon the coincidence of the occurrence of the natural catastrophesafter a comet had been seen.


Guillemin,Amedee &amp Glaisher, James. TheWorld of Comets.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2010. Print

Helvarg,David. Rescuewarriors: The U.S. Coast Guards, America’s forgotten heroes.New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. 2010. Print.

Impey,Chris. `Early Observations of Comets`.&nbspAstronomy&nbsp1.2(1997): 1-12. Print.

Philbrick,Nathaniel. Inthe Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. NewYork: Viking Press.

Stewart,Philip. `Science and Superstition: Comets and the French Public inthe 18thCentury`. AmericanJournal Phys.54.1 (1986): 1-16. Print

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