The Augsburg Wunderzeichenbuch – A Mid-Sixteenth Century Book of Miracles

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 52 (Comet mit einem grosen Schwantz, 1401) “In the year A.D. 1401, a large comet with a peacock tail appeared in the sky over Germany. This was followed by a most severe plague in Swabia.” — The Book of Miracles (f°74), ca 1552

You may consider this post as something like a page from a scrapbook on the artistic records of historical comets and other celestial phenomena.

The New Year in our current tradition begins with the first day of January which is named after Janus.  In Roman religion, the animistic spirit of doorways (januae) and archways (jani). Janus and the nymph Camasene were the parents of Tiberinus, whose death in or by the river Albula caused it to be renamed Tiber The symbol of a gateway or doorway is indeed apt. However, most commonly we associate Janus with the ability to see into the past and future. I believe that every new beginning deserves a glance at the past, to see how we got where we are. Animistic spirit doorways are what we pass through when we discover new ways to communicate our experiences and the authors and artists of The Augsburg Wunderzeichenbuch have done just that, The paintings do not attempt to provide a faithful rendering of a physical sighting. Instead, the comets are wildly expressive of their perceived nature.

The simple and miraculous truth is that we are literally made of stardust. The heavens have had a vital role to play in all known civilizations. The comets shown here did, in fact, coincide with earthly events.

“The figure of a Fearful Comet.” John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Skywatching used to be a far more common practise, not least because the skies were clearly visible and without the modern levels of light pollution. In many cases, such as the examples given here from Whether we look to the past or the future we see signs that assist in prediction and make sense of extraordinary occurrences. Dramatic celestial events, even when feared as apocalyptic nevertheless elicited a sense of profound awe. The images of comets are magnificent, even if considered portents of doom. Some are from Biblical accounts imagined in reference to life in the 16th Century.

Courtesy of The Warburg Institute Library The School of Advanced Studies -University of London.  The book contains 167 colored representations of miraculous signs (portents) in the media of gouaches and watercolors  The work is attributed to Heinrich Vogtherr and Hans Burgkmair the Younger.

On Christmas day 1704 a great light appeared in the sky of Catalonia. It was a meteorite of a kilogram of a rocky type that crashed near Catalonia. It was collected in the Scientific Miscellany of Josep Bolló, who made the drawing, describing it as Signe Magnus,  “And as we have observed, it can be said that it was an omen for the miseries and calamities that has suffered and suffers all the Kingdom of Spain, and more particularly the Principality of Cathalunya.”

Tokens of Impending Doom

An image of Halley’s Comet taken in 1986. Credit: NASA

First of all, the title is part of a quotation from Manilus, one of the most respected astrologers of his time. This is a rather different kind of article.  It’s a short introductory piece on the nature, history and reputation of what must be the best-known comet

The long history of this object and the events associated with its arrival are less well known. It is the latter I wish to address, after providing some essential history, including how the comet got its name. The comet we know as Haley’s Comet has been visiting us for 200,00o years, It’s a once in a lifetime celestial spectacle which last occurred in 1986 and the next predicted perihelion will be July 28, 2061 .

It was Edmund Halley, a close friend and colleague of Isaac Newton who calculated that the comet that was to bear his name was the same comet that repeatedly returns to the vicinity of the earth in a predictable pattern of time. Halley was indebted to Newton’s physics and it is perhaps one the greatest ironies that Newton practised astrology, while Hally considered it nonsense and was greatly puzzled how his brilliant and learned friend could succumb to such an ‘irrational’ pursuit. Halley once confronted Newton, asking him how he could believe in such things. Newton famously answered; “because I have studied it sir and you have not.”

Edmond Halley

Halley published his findings, “A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets” in 1705, cataloguing what he had discovered from researching historical records of 24 comets from 1337 and 1698. Three of those observations were strikingly similar in relation to orbit and other parameters. Halley proposed that the same comet appeared to be returning to Earth again and again.

Based on the appearance of the comet in 1531, 1607 and 1682, he was able to predict that the comet could return to Earth in 1758.  He wrote ““If it should return, according to our predictions,” he vowed, “impartial posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.” Halley died long before that in 1742, nevertheless it was natural that the comet would bear his name. The comet returned on Christmas day in 1757.

We know that observations of the comet had been made by Babylonian astronomers in the third century BC, It had been recorded by the Chinese and later the Japanese and throughout the European Middle Ages. It was of varying brightness. One report stated that the comet appeared to be half the size of the Moon and just as bright. Ancient Greek texts reveal the earliest recorded sighting of Halley’s comet, 2,500 years ago

1607-skeletons with comet

I will focus on three events that coincided with a visit from the famous Comet in which the world was radically changed in one way or another. Halley’s Comet has been plummeting through the solar system for approximately 200,000 years. Comets had always had a sinister reputation according to ancient astronomers and astrologers alike. Halley has lived up to the reputation as a harbinger of massive changes in established order, including its coincidence with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, described by Josephus a devastating attack by Ghengis Khan, the fateful and successful invasion of  England by William the Conqueror. Halley is in fact included in the Bayeux tapestry.


Babylonian tablet recording Halley’s comet

Ian Redpath writes: “A comet looks like a portent, and it is not surprising that people always regarded them as such. Writing 2000 years ago, the Roman astrologer Marcus Manilius summed up the prevailing opinion: ‘Heaven in pity is sending upon Earth tokens of impending doom’. Included in his list of cometary ills were blighted crops, plague, wars, insurrection, and even family feuds. In short, anything could be blamed on comets, and usually was.” (A Brief History of Halley’s Comet)

Josephus provides us with a vivid image of the comet and what ensued: “like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war” (The Wars of the Jews J. BJ 6.288)  The comet was Halley’s and the writer’s sense of horror is unmitigated.

Roman soldiers brought back a Menorah and other holy relics from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

This event and other associated with a visit from the comet is of incalculable importance. It was the end of the temple elements of Judaism which has not been restored to this day. The Roman victory was massive, leaving the Jewish population in a state of humiliation and disarray.

Alireza Salzberg writes “Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple. The story of the founding of Yavneh represents the birth of rabbinic Judaism, a way of life focused on Torah and Jewish law, rather than Temple worship or political sovereignty.” (Judaism After the Temple) The singular event of the temple’s destruction and desecration radically altered the path of Judaism for the next two millennia.

Turning to the Battle of Hastings: “at that time a star appeared in the north-west, its three-forked tail stretched far into the southern sky remaining visible for fifteen days; and it was portended, as many said, a change in some kingdom”.(attributed to William of Jumiege).

Halley’s Comet appeared above England 24 April 1066. It was immediately interpreted as signifying an event of considerable significance. It was believed that it was a divine symbol, a warning that the kingdom was in great danger. The main elements of the Norman invasion are well known. But it is sometimes forgotten that this was the most brutal battle ever fought on English soil. Needless to say, with a Norman king on the throne, the country would never be the same again, for better or worse.

Comet lore is such that they are regarded as sufficient omens unto themselves. Most of the usual astrological considerations take a back seat. While it is true that not all visitations of Halley’s comet presaged disaster and mass destruction, there have been more than enough to assure it’s sinister reputation.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 32 : des hommes observent la comète de Halley

But spurring on the Norman invasion of the British Isles wasn’t sufficient for Halley’s Comet Its return in 1222 augered far worse violence.  Genghis Khan considered the comet as his own personal star. The trajectory of the comet was westward and this inspired Genghis to travel west, instigating an invasion of southeastern Europe. Millions of Europeans were butchered, their towns and cities sacked. The comet always seems to favour the aggressor. It is hardly surprising that the visit of a comet (they did not yet know it was the same one) struck terror and foreboding in populations.

There are of course dozens of other examples which lend substantial support to the ancient idea that comets are signs of devastation of all kinds. However, not least is the awe-inspiring 200,00 years of predictable returns which speaks of cycles longer than we usually consider of something that had appeared to be ephemeral. Further, the date roughly coincides with the emergence of modern human beings, making it something of a shadowy companion to humanity itself.

Prise_d’Alamût_(1256) Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Division orientale. Supplément persan 1113, fol. 177v

When Halley’s Comet returned in 191o, it brought forth fear of an apocalypse because Earth would pass through a small part of the tail. The spectroscopic studies of comet tails conducted by Sir William Huggins revealed that among the many organic molecules found in comets was lethal cyanide gas. Speculation became hysteria in some cases, convinced that the humanity stood a very good chance of being asphyxiated by cyanide molecules. Newspapers fueled the panic, people sealed off their chimneys and doorways. There were many suicides, strange new remedies were offered for sale and oxygen sold for high prices.

Apparently, many people also confessed to crimes they had committed because they believed they would soon be deceased in any case.

Of course, every year has its share of disasters and political strife at least somewhere in the world. Nevertheless, 1910 is mostly remembered as the calm before the storm of WWI  or the sinking of the Titanic. Although the details were entirely spurious, it is fair to say that the Comet was a sign of the events in the terrestrial world – that it somehow mirrored mundane events, rather than being the cause of them, I will concede that some of the other instances may require some reflection.

Legends of the Fall & the Ascent of the Soul

Lucas Cranach -  Der Garten Eden

Lucas Cranach – Der Garten Eden

There was a comment left by one of my readers remarking on the fact that phenomena such as eclipses and comets are invariably seen as negative events or even evil ones. There is a reason for this, and for good or bad, it is something with which every traditional astrologer needs to make their peace. The topic could easily fill many volumes (and does) but it can also be told quite simply for our immediate purposes. This article is likely to pose as many questions as it answers, but I have tried to show various avenues of inquiry for further research.

Since Eve ate apples, the stars have been far less friendly.  John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost provides us with more than one passage about how the stars were turned, but the followed encapsulates it all very well. The post lapsarian cosmology comes into being immediately after the apple incident:

While the Creator, calling forth by name
His mighty Angels, gave them several charge,
As sorted best with present things. The Sun
Had first his precept so to move, so shine,
As might affect the Earth with cold and heat
Scarce tolerable, and from the north to call
Decrepit winter, from the south to bring
Solstitial summer’s heat. To the blanc Moon
Her office they prescribed; to the other five
Their planetary motions and aspects,
In sextile, square, and trine, and opposite,
Of noxious efficacy, and when to join
In synod unbenign; and taught the fixed
Their influence malignant when to shower—
Which of them, rising with the Sun or falling,
Should prove tempestuous. To the winds they set
Their corners, when with bluster to confound
Sea, air, and shore; the thunder when to roll
With terror through the dark aerial hall.

(From Paradise Lost  Book 10.).

Uriel with Sword of Fire by Walter Huacac Santa Cruz

Uriel with Sword of Fire by Walter Huacac Santa Cruz

The Fall changed all of creation, not just humanity After Adam and Eve were forced out of Paradise, an angel with a flaming sword guards the east and the Tree of Life with a flaming sword. This of course mirrors the new celestial restrictions. Adam and Eve. cannot return to the Garden – they must move forward into the world. The stars can still guide them in more ways than one, but they are now, as it were, the flaming swords protecting access to the Empireum.

After the Fall, humanity is in the Sub lunary Sphere and the seven spheres are bounded by the greater malefic. It is no coincidence that Saturn is associated with obstacles and limitations. Beyond Saturn are the Fixed Stars. He will not allow an easy passage. Existence in the the Sub – lunary sphere is subject to corruption, generation and delusions of all kinds The sphere is comprised of the four classical elements.

Buddhists would refer to this state of consciousness as Avidyā, symbolized by a person who is blind or wearing a blindfold.  It is ignore – ance in its true senseIn this state, we are  unaware of our true nature. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave where the cave dwellers believe the shadow play before them to be the real thing and in fact all there is. The one who unchains himself to turn toward the light of the Sun, outside of the cave. Essentially, you will remain in a state of illusion until you cast off the mind forged manacles.

There are many traditions that seek to win the Celestial Garden, such as Cabala, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and of course the Christian and Jewish faiths themselves, At the risk of over simplifying, these paths all strive for enlightenment and the Buddha tells us that the Enlightened don’t need astrology because they are no longer subject to cause and effect. All major religions and a good many philosophies subscribe to the belief, either stated or employed. Plato’s Doctrine of the Forms is very illuminating and will perhaps make a good starting point in understanding the traditional cosmology.

Ptolemaic cosmology diagram, showing stars as 8th sphere, and transcendent prime mover as 9th

Ptolemaic cosmology diagram, showing stars as 8th sphere, and transcendent prime mover as 9th

Islam rejects the notion of a Fall in the sense of original sin, but a Celestial Garden is the reward of the pious amd Adam and Eve lived in the Garden if Eden; the departure from the other Abrahamic religions in that Islam inteprets Adam as a prophet.

Stars play more than one role in Islam. Allah is referred to  as “He Who is the Lord of Sirius, “(Qur’an, 53: 49) while the Kaaba is oriented with Canopus and has a meteorite that is the stuff of pilgrimage. Modern Muslims tend to think that the reading of stars is shirk (attributing a partner to God,) by considering that the planets and luminaries compel us to act.  Essentially the same complaint was made by many Christians and for the same reason.

The history of Islam and its impact on traditional Western astrology is immense and the art is supported by the Qu’ran according to Muslims with whom I have spoken. There are two surahs that come to mind, but there are many more: “It is He Who maketh the stars (as beacons) for you, that ye may guide yourselves, with their help, through the dark spaces of land and sea: We detail Our signs for people who know. (Surah Al-An‘am, 97) ” This can be read to mean guidance of many types, including astrological.

Four_Angels guardian

Four Guardian Angels -Islamic

The second is this one : “He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the sun and the moon; and the stars are in subjection by His Command: verily in this are Signs for men who are wise. (Surah An-Nahl, 12)” It is important to note that not only did Islamic scholars serve as conduits of Greek thought, including Hellenistic, but Middle Eastern traditions as well, such as Pre-Islamic Arabian and Persian, Almost all the star names we use are either Arabic or Persian. It is almost certain that Islamic astrologers were also exposed to Indian astrology. Our astrological roots are very deep, various and rich.

Furthermore, in all of these traditions there is a strong sense of having lost, or not yet attained, Paradise. Spiritual progress requires work ever since the Fall however one sees that and  to whatever metaphorical degree of understanding. The core trope is ubiquitous.

Finally the Yusuf Ali translation of 67:5 in the Qu’ran. we read: “And we have, (from of old), adorned the lowest heaven with Lamps, and We have made such (Lamps) (as) missiles to drive away the Evil Ones, and have prepared for them the Penalty of the Blazing Fire.” The evil ones are usually referred to as Jinn or “shaytans” in the plural. The former can be good or evil and are spirits of smokeless fire.  They are invisible unless they chose to be and live thousands of years. The “missiles” are commonly regarded as meteorites or comets, but also associated with the stars themselves who serve as guides and guardians.

Whether we look to Platonic myth of the Creation and Fall, the Mythos of the ‘people of the Book,’ and all major religions and most minor ones as well, there is the same theme: Creation in an ideal state which (ironically) cannot be sustained, a ‘fall from grace’ which includes all of creation and the promise of something far better than Eden. But it is conditional. Even the stars protect the inner sanctum, as it were, as well as the corresponding celestial realms – the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Islamic Eden

Islamic Eden

We could well argue that the mythos described is not literally true at all – perhaps even childish – but it has endured cross culturally for thousands of years. This may say something about the human mind or the nature of reality. Perhaps they are the same thing.  After all, cosmologies are a way to make things make sense and they remain more or less intact even before  our experiences reinforce them,

Of all the Fixed Stars used in astrology, only a handful promise good fortune. Among these are Spica, Canopus and others, but discernment is required to fully realize the benefits. It also makes a great deal of difference whether the star is ascending, culminating, setting and other considerations.

The Royal Stars of Persia, the guardians of the directions,  are all powerful, but their great benefits can only be realized by meeting certain conditions. If these are not met, they can become harbingers of very bad tidings indeed. If one is going to enjoy the blessings of Regulus, for example, one must avoid revenge or any of the lower impulses. One’s character must be equal to the task of nobility.

The Royal Stars each have an angel assigned to them as protectors of the directions . Regulus is associated with the healing Archangel Raphael, the watcher of the North. Fomalhaut, is identified with the Archangel Gabriel, the watcher of the South. Aldebaran is assigned the Archangel Michael, the watcher of the East.; to Antares, the Archangel Oriel, the watcher of the West.

This merely an expansion or extrapolation of the archetypal myth of creation, its fall and the goal of realization after traversing the spheres. Just like the conditional nature of the Royal Stars, the ascent causes the malefic to lose their power thus elevation us to a much higher version of the Garden.

The simple point, easily missed, is that we cannot ignore the cosmology that lead to the astrology we practise. It is not crucial to understand it literally at all, but neither can we neglect such a powerful archetypal system.

The stars can be guides to us, but we must not lose sight of the ultimate goal. The Neo Pythagorean schema below provides a heightened knowledge of the spheres insofar as it offers ways in which we can actively participate in the harmonies of the spheres.

pythagsource.17THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES. Shown in this engraving from Renaissance Italy are Apollo, the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical ratios.

The Music of the Spheres. Shown in this engraving from Renaissance Italy are Apollo, the Muses, the planetary spheres and musical ratios.

Passage of the Emerald Comet

comet lovejoy - photo courtesy of NASA

comet lovejoy – photo courtesy of NASA

It cannot be anything but auspicious to witness an emerald green comet  in the region of Orion at the New Year. It was detected by telescopes in August, but in astrology we deal with the visible in our science of light.  Comets or “hairy stars” have fascinated humanity since the dawn or time..

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, It will be quite visible to the naked eye later in the month, but at present we have a waxing Gibbous Moon that will be Full on 04 January 2015. Objects require much less ambient light in order to be seen. To view it look towards the late South Eastern sky beneath the feet of Orion. It will appear to pass between Canopus and Sirius, the latter being the brightest star in the sky.

The reading of comets is an ancient method of divination, almost always used in tandem with other astrological elements. For the traditional reading of comets, I will be referring to Guido Bonatti’s On Mundane Astrology Trans Benjamin N. Dykes Cazimi P. 2010. From here on in I will refer to this as BMD.

Bonatti asks us to look at the direction of the comet. If it is moving towards and / or has its head in for Taurus, “it signifies the killing of wealthy and great men in the northern part, and it signifies a multitude of differences between the wealth and the magnates and the rustics of the western parts … it signifies the bad condition of men and a scarcity of their good, and injuries of rebels against those who are in those region; which if it will appear in the west will be slower” (BMD 979).

GEEK OUT Stunning Depictions Of Ancient Comets That Scared The Hell Out Of Humans ATTILA NAGY 4 OCTOBER 2014 12:00 AM  Share 4  Discuss   Bookmark Stunning Depictions of Ancient Comets That Scared the Hell Out of Humans Long-tailed stars and mysterious glowing fireballs from the heavens were among the biggest and most fearful mysteries for stargazing humans throughout history. With the development of astronomy science, comets, meteors, meteorites and shooting stars became familiar objects of our universe, and with the advent of photography, depicting them became more precise. But before that talented artists created amazing drawings and paintings of these mysterious rocks. The holes in their scientific knowledge were often filled with imagination and superstition, leaving a fascinating pictorial legacy for us to look at today. Some of these centuries-old images were recently published by the Public Domain Review in a collection called “Flowers of the Sky.” It’s a stunning glimpse into at a time when comets and meteors delighted and terrified sky-watching humans. Enjoy. [Public Domain Review “In 1007 A.D., a wondrous comet appeared. It gave off fire and flames in every direction,” wrote Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch in The Book of Miracles in the 16th century. Stunning Depictions of Ancient Comets That Scared the Hell Out of Humans Picture: Day+Faber A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry show men staring at Halley’s Comet (c1066), and is the first known picture of the comet. Stunning Depictions of Ancient Comets That Scared the Hell Out of Humans Picture: Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons “In 1300 A.D., a terrible comet appeared in the sky… and in this year, on St Andrew’s Day, an earthquake shook the ground so that many buildings collapsed.” – The Book of Miracles Stunning Depictions of Ancient Comets That Scared the Hell Out of Humans Picture: Day+Faber “In 1401 A.D., a big comet with a tail… appeared in the sky in Germany. That was followed by a great, terrible plague in Swabia.” – The Book of Miracles

“In 1401 A.D., a big comet with a tail… appeared in the sky in Germany. That was followed by a great, terrible plague in Swabia.” – The Book of Miracles

Countries ruled by ♉.– Persia, Great Poland, Asia Minor, the Archipelago, and the southern parts of Russia, the islands of Cyprus and Samos, and the port and vicinity of Navarino.

It’s not surprising that these countries and regions would be highlighted as there is a very high possibility of conflict, particularly with the deteriorating relationship between Russia, NATO and the US. In Mundane Astrology several elements are considered to give more precise information. In this case however, we do have some confirmation rather than a prediction in the ordinary sense of the word. Southern Russia, including Georgia, Chechnya and the Ukraine, perhaps. Asia Minor esp. Turkey is part of the picture and there are strategic troop build-ups in Cyprus. Iran has been the focus if Israel and the US for quite some time.

There are nine types of comets according to Ptolemy: the javelin, the tenaculum, the measuring0ros, a miles, the lord of ascona, the morning or dawn comet, the silver the rosy and the black “and he said the first four of these are likened to stars, And all signify wars and terrors and great events in the world” (BMD 986).

Ptolemy asks us to consider the colour of the comet, but his guidelines are far from complete. Green isn’t mentioned, but by association and process of illumination, I would suggest Venus – nevertheless her benevolence is all but lost when associated with a comet. Venus would also give us a further association with Taurus.

Historically, comets have rarely if ever been seen in a positive light as the image of the comet of 1527 below will attest:  both image and  written description personify the event . The comet’s “head like a bent arm, as if it had a sword in its hand and wanted to strike. And at the point of the sword there were three big stars and from the stars sprang a cloud-coloured stream, which was longer than the comet’s tail.” – The Book of Miracles I cannot help but wonder if the three stars are the belt of Orion