Halley’s Comet comes round every 75.32 years, it last graced the skies of Earth in 1986 and will next be seen by human eyes in 2061.
The comet was named after Sir Edmond Halley (to rhyme with ‘valley’, not with ‘daily’) because he was the first person to notice the periodicity of the comet, and to accurately predict its return in 1759, after having noted its 1531 and 1682 appearances.
Before it got its modern name, the comet has also been present at certain historically significant events in human history. In 1066 Normon king William the Conqueror witnessed the comet and possibly viewed it as an omen of victory over the armies of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson. This sighting is famously recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The earliest confirmed sighting of the comet was in 240 BCE* and was recorded in the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), which was a chronicle of events kepts by the Chinese. The chronicle describes a “broom-shaped star” that appeared in the east and proceeded to move northwards.
Babylonian cuneiform tablets recording astronomical observations can help us date ancient events with astonishing accuracy because there is only one possible time frame that certain combinations of stars, planets and comets can be found. The Babylonians recorded astronomical events assiduously in their wedge-shaped writing system pressed delicately into wet clay sourced from the banks of the Euphrates river.
In 164 BCE, two scribes recorded the only surviving records of the appearance of the comet in that year. The two tablets (called BMA 41462 and BMA 41628… catchy) are fragmentary and they are stored carefully in the British Museum.
The text of tablet BMA 41462 reads:
“The comet which previously had appeared in the east in the path of Anu in the area of Zappu (Pleiades) and the Bull of Heaven (Taurus), to the west […] and passed along in the path of Ea.”
Tablet BMA 41628, which is more damaged than 41462, reads:
“of Ea in the region of the Overseer (Sagittarius), 1 cubit in front of Marduk (Jupiter), 3 cubits high toward the north.”
If you use a piece of star charting software such as Cartes du Ciel , you can discovery exactly where the stars and planets were in the sky at any particular date.
Both tablets give positions for the moon and several planets which indicates the lunar month of 21 October to 19 November 164 BCE. In addition, assuming a cubit is 2.5°, the position of the comet from Jupiter indicates that the comet probably passed perihelion (the point in a celestial body’s orbit where it is nearest to the sun) sometime between 9 and 26 November.
The significance of Babylonian Astronomical tablets will become clear in future posts about various tablets. When correlated with the regnal years of various monarchs, we can pinpoint exact year before we started using the Anno Domini System.
In a future post, we’ll discuss the VAT 4956, also known as the Astronomical Diary.
*I use BCE (Before Common Era) rather than BC (Before Christ) to avoid the religious connotations of the latter. This has absolutely no connection to the Watchtower Society’s usage of the same system, which is due their belief that as Jesus did not become anointed as the “Christ” until his baptism in 29 CE it is inappropriate to call him the “Christ” before that date.
Paul Rincon (10 September 2010). “Halley’s comet ‘was spotted by the ancient Greeks'”. BBC News.
Awake! g 3/09 p. 30 – From Our Readers (March 2009). https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/102009094
Kazuo Kinoshita – “1P/Halley Past, Present, and Future Orbits” http://cometography.com/pcomets/001p.html
Cometography: A Catalog of Comets. Series: Cometography. Vol. 1 [p. 8](August F.R. Stephenson, K.K.C. Yau, and Herman Hunger) . http://cof.quantumfuturegroup.org/events/15