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Natural phenomena occur continuously, and have done so since the Universe was formed. A river eroding a mountain, grain by grain, is a natural phenomenon, as is the replacement or destruction of land by the sea, and the flow of air from the tropics to the poles and back. However, among the continual flow of natural processes, it is the "events" that stand out. These range in scale from the cosmic – the transformation of a galactic nucleus into a quasar – to the stellar – the outbursts of novae and flare stars – to the planetary - ice ages and mountain building episodes. The range of natural events then descends the global scale, from continental earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and extreme seasons, to provincial storms and floods and local hailstorms, tornadoes and landslides. Below the local scale events reach a level on which they are seldom reported; riverbank collapses, minor squalls and gusts, the flooding and draining of ponds. The magnitude of natural events continues to descend, until at last they merge with the continual flow of natural processes.

Marden Lightning
Photo: Leslie Chatfield

Many "histories of the world" have been written, but their titles have been vastly misleading. They have been actually histories of the human race, in which the events of the world upon which humanity lives scarcely receive a mention. There have been true world histories (or rather prehistories) written on a scale covering millions of years, but they can only deal with events on a global or continental scale. The details of earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, and all lesser phenomena are irretrievably lost. There are a few exceptions; it is possible to calculate the dates of past eclipses, and say, for instance, that there was (or rather, there should have been) a total eclipse of the Sun visible from the British Isles on August 28, 1184 BC; but that is all we know. We would like to know more. Was it cloudy? At what time did the eclipse begin and end at a specific place? What was it like? Was there in fact an eclipse at all? It would be useful to know these things; they would be of great assistance in studying the motions of the Earth and Moon, and the processes at work inside the Sun; but we never shall. We know that Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh was an active volcano 325 million years ago, but we shall never know the precise months and days of its eruptions.


These events occurred in prehistory, before the invention of writing. A history of the world must confine itself to the interactions between natural events and the human race, over the last few thousand years. These interactions might be physical, as in towns swallowed by earthquakes, or mental, as the human race expressed its fears about, or strove to comprehend, natural phenomena. Ancient records are not always scientific, but they are still valuable. We should be respectful of them, not believing everything we are told, but on the other hand not refusing to accept anything out of the ordinary merely because it was reported in a pre-scientific era. Dr. J. F. Payne said in 1904; "Too often, those few persons who have interested themselves in these monuments of ancient science have treated them in one of two ways. Either they have picked out something especially unlike the ways of modern thought, and held it up to scorn as showing the folly of our ancestors, or else in kinder mood they have condescended to be amused, and calling anything old and unfamiliar "quaint", dismissed it with a smile. Neither of these methods will help us to understand the ancient world."

The case of the `black horse` is instructive in this regard. According to the Chronicon de Melrose, in August of 1165, during a thunderstorm at York, "an enormous image of the Devil on a black horse charged through the sky to the sea…the tracks of this horse were seen, of enormous size, imprinted on a mountain at the city of Scandeburch (Scarborough)."

On the face of it, such an account must inspire instant disbelief, even among those striving to avoid clichés about `medieval superstition`. However, in this case, it appears that the witnesses provided an almost exact description of what they saw. Their identification may have been wrong, but that was hardly their fault. What they saw was a tornado. It was probably of a multiple-vortex structure, and the sight can be imagined in the dim light of the storm; several churning shapes of darkness, whirling themselves as they whirled around each other, with a cloud of dust and an awful roar. It takes little imagination to see in the first photograph the shape of a black horse, with a neck, two legs and a tail, galloping from left to right. The tracks of the `horse` were semi-circular marks on the ground left by the tornado; similar marks left by American tornadoes have been photographed from the air.

There was another phenomenon in the Province of York thirty-five years later, whose nature at first seems equally straightforward. Roger de Hoveden says that just before Christmas of the year 1200, five moons were seen in the sky; "one in the north, one in the south, one in the west, one in the east, and the fifth in the centre, surrounded by stars; the central moon, with its stars, made the circuit of the others five or six times." Shakespeare discovered this report when he was researching his play King John, which contains the lines, My Lord, they say five moons were seen tonight/ Four fixed; and the fifth did whirl about/ The other four in wondrous motion. But what were the five `moons`?

At first sight, the answer seems obvious. One of the moons was the real Moon; the other four were parselenae or `mock moons`, images of the Moon produced by reflection and refraction in an ice-crystal cloud miles above the earth. This explains there being four; one pair each side of the Moon 22 degrees away, and the second pair each side 46 degrees away, in accordance with the optical properties of ice-crystals. The cirrostratus clouds, which produce these optical phenomena, are often too tenuous to be visible, and would not hide the stars.

One problem remains. The five `moons` could not have been optical phenomena, because one of the moons moved. Parselenae do not move, except with the slow motion of the real Moon. Roger de Hoveden is quite specific; "the central moon, with its stars, made the circuit of the others five or six times."

This report illustrates how little we still know about natural phenomena. There is much that is still unexplained about them; not UFO-type paranormal mysteries but mysteries of the natural world. Ball lightning is the most obvious example; its mystery is so intractable that many scientists have resolved the problem by saying that there is no problem; ball lightning does not exist. But ball lightning does exist.

One of these mysteries is the rumour of cosmic disaster that haunts the dawn of history. What events lie behind the myths of the Deluge, of Phaethon, of Typhon? A huge disintegrating comet bombarding the Earth with meteorites, say some; disturbances in the motions of Venus and Mars, say others. Others say that it is curious that the supposed catastrophe should have occurred just before there might have been an unambiguous historical record of its occurrence. However, this is rather arbitrary; there have been gigantic volcanic cataclysms, on a scale exceeding anything recorded, in recent prehistoric times, and no-one claims they could not have happened because there is nothing similar in the historical record. The Taupo volcanic explosion in New Zealand was the largest for several thousand years, and probably affected the entire world; but it happened about AD 186, when New Zealand was uninhabited, so there is no written record of the blast cloud that rose 30 miles high, or the debris that, in a few minutes, covered an area a hundred miles across.


The cosmic catastrophe occurred in 1369 BC, according to Napier and Clube. Intimately associated with it is the object called Typhon. Pliny the Elder (b. AD 23) said that Typhon was a terrible comet, "seen by the people in Ethiopia and Egypt, which the King who reigned in that age named Typhon. It resembled fire, and was twisted like a wreath, hideous to the sight; and not to be counted a star, but truly a ball of fire." In mythology, Typhon was "a monster of the primitive world…described sometimes as a destructive hurricane and sometimes as a fire-breathing giant. He is described as a monster with a hundred heads, fearful eyes, and terrible voices; he wanted to acquire the sovereignty of gods and men, but, after a fearful struggle, was subdued by Zeus with a thunderbolt." The 17th century scholar Rockenbach, who claimed to use only the earliest and most trustworthy writers, said of Typhon in his De cometis tractatus novus methodicus (1602); "In the year of the world 2453…a comet appeared which Pliny also mentioned in his second book. It was fiery, of irregular circular form, with a wrapped head; it was in the shape of a globe and was of terrible aspect. It is said that King Typhon ruled at that time in Egypt...certain (authorities) assert that the comet was seen in Syria, Babylon and India, in the sign of Capricorn, in the form of a disc, at the time when the children of Israel advanced from Egypt to the Promised Land, led on their way by the pillar of cloud during the day and by the pillar of fire at night." Lydus, a 6th century Byzantine astrologer, in his treatise De Ostentis, also says that Typhon was a comet; "…the sixth comet is called Typhon after the name of the king Typhon, seeing that it was once seen in Egypt and which is said to be not of a fiery but a blood-red colour. Its globe is said to be modest and swollen and it is said that its `hair` appears with a thin light and is said to have been seen for some time in the north. The Ethiopians and Persians are said to have seen this and to have endured the necessities of all evils and famine."

If Typhon was a comet, it must have been enormous, perhaps of a magnitude exceeding any comet in recorded history. Possibly its appearance originated the fear of comets which lasts even to the present day. But why should comets inspire fear? As Carl Sagan says, "Rarely have so many diverse cultures, all over the world, agreed so well…Everywhere on Earth, with only a few exceptions, comets were harbingers of unwanted change, ill-fortune and evil." The fact of comet-fear has received little attention. Modern astronomers find it only irritating. Peter Lancaster Brown speaks impatiently of the `semi-hysterical overtones` in the European records of the great comet of 1264. In 1750, Dr. Thomas Short wrote; "Next to Earthquakes and Eruptions of Volcanoes, Comets have been deemed most frightful Meteors and Prodigies in all Ages, and taken for certain Presages of most desolating Calamities…" A fear of earthquakes and volcanoes is understandable; but why comets? They merely appear in the sky, with no visible effect upon the Earth. Aristotle himself said that comets were only meteorological phenomena, engendered in the atmosphere, and had nothing to do with the heavens.

GNP CM 1180
The comet of 1180, from Stanislaw Lubieniecki, Theatrum Cometicum (1666)

Comets were feared because they were comets. The historian Nicetas described the comet of 1180 thus; "A comet appeared in the sky; like a coiled snake, it sometimes stretched out and sometimes bent back on itself. Sometimes, to the horror of the onlookers, it opened an enormous snout, as though greedy for human blood, it was about to drink its fill." Nicetas` onlookers obviously feared that the comet they saw was about to cause a catastrophe; but, as comets came and went, the idea that comets caused disasters was transformed into the idea that they merely announced the imminence of earthly disasters, of which there was always a plentiful supply.

How did comet-fear begin? If it originated with Typhon, then perhaps that body interacted with the Earth in some catastrophic way. The Roman astrologer Campester, according to Lydus, was sure of this. He was certain that should the comet Typhon again meet the Earth, a four-day encounter would suffice to destroy the world. This is a curious remark. It implies that Typhon caused a world catastrophe without directly impinging on it, and that the next encounter would also not be a direct contact.

But was there a catastrophe, cosmic or otherwise, at the dawn of recorded history? The Egyptian priests who spoke to the Greek student Solon 2,600 years ago were quite definite. According to Plato, they described "…the many and manifold destructions of generations that has occurred and will continue to occur. The most violent were caused by fire and water, lesser ones in a thousand other ways. The report that Phaethon, the son of Helios, once put horses to his father's carriage, but was unable to keep it on his fathers course, with the result that he set everything on fire and, having been struck by lightning himself, perished, is related as if it were a fairytale. What is true is the occurrence of a shifting of the bodies in the sky which move around the Earth and destruction after long intervals of everything on Earth by violent fire."

Immanuel Velikovsky, in his notorious book Worlds in Collision, decided that the Typhon comet approached the Earth about the year 1495 BC, during the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. As Typhon drew near, a hail of meteorites from the comet's tail bombarded the Earth; this was the hailstorm mixed with fire and accompanied by loud noises described in Exodus. As the Earth penetrated deeper into the comet, there was darkness; then, as the comet's body neared, an earthquake shook the globe, followed by a world-wide hurricane and ocean tide. At the same time was seen a battle in the sky, between a vast luminous globe and a dark column of smoke. This, according to Velikovsky, was the comet Typhon, and the luminous globe was its nucleus; a nucleus of planetary dimensions; in fact a nucleus almost as large as the Earth, which was to be captured by the Sun and become the planet Venus.

Most people have found this scenario difficult to accept, and with good reason. When one considers Venus` conventional planetary appearance and almost circular orbit, it is almost impossible to believe that only a few thousand years ago, according to Velikovsky, it and the planet Mars were careering erratically round the solar system, passing close to the Earth and in the process stopping its rotation and starting it up again in the opposite direction. Velikovsky was too ambitious. Instead of contenting himself with presenting evidence that a cosmic catastrophe had occurred in the past, he was eager to work out all the details. Thus Venus must be expelled by Jupiter, and 52 years after the Exodus catastrophe, it must return to halt the rotation of the Earth so that the Sun stands still in the sky during Joshua's siege of Jericho.

In The Cosmic Serpent, Victor Clube and Bill Napier gave their interpretation of the Typhon comet. They see it as a genuine comet, exceptionally large and active, which entered an orbit that produced a series of relatively close approaches to the Earth. The comet began to break up, producing smaller cometary fragments and a cloud of debris that spread along the comet's orbit. Meteor showers are produced in this way, as the Earth passes through dust spreading along the orbits of decaying comets; but the debris from the Typhon comet was more than dust. Bolides, blazing like Phaethon falling from heaven, plunged into the Earth's atmosphere and exploded; even larger meteorites exploded near ground level or struck the earth and sea with devastating results. The comet Typhon, with a nucleus about 20 kilometres in diameter, would at its nearest to Earth have attained a magnitude of –12, approaching that of the Moon. "It would have appeared as an intense yellow spot of light surrounded by a circular coma probably larger than the full Moon, with a tail stretching across a large part of the sky…" Clube and Napier assume two encounters with the Typhon comet. "The first in the third millennium BC was probably world-wide and precipitated the Flood; the second in the second millennium BC was apparently confined to the eastern Mediterranean basin." They suggest that the `cup and ring` rock carvings of Neolithic age in Britain show cometary debris from Typhon (or perhaps a swarm of meteors entering the atmosphere). A carving from Traprain Law, now in the National Museum of Antiquities, Scotland, may show an image of Typhon itself. Clube and Napier also suggest that the stone circles of the British Isles, most of which were constructed just before 1300 BC, may have been used to observe the motions of Typhon, in an attempt to predict when it might again be close to Earth. (The Ring of Brogar stone circle in Orkney has an isolated monolith nearby called, for some unknown reason, the Comet Stone).


Even if a close approach of Typhon produced no impacts, the sight of bolides, perhaps brighter than the Sun, exploding in the atmosphere must have been terrifying. Ancient Chinese records of `fireball storms` give an idea of what such events must have been like. Meteor storms are well known, but the meteors involved are but `shooting stars`; fireball storms are something else. A Chinese record of May 22, 12 BC, says; "At the hour of rifu (3 – 5 pm), the sky was cloudless. There was a rumbling like thunder. A meteor with a head as big as a fou (an earthenware pot), and a length of some ten-odd shang (one shang equals 12 degrees), colour bright red and white, went southeastward from below the Sun. In all directions, meteors, some as large as basins, others as large as hens` eggs, brilliantly rained down. This only ceased at evening twilight."

Clube and Napier suggest that the Typhon comet's nucleus had a diameter of about 20 kilometres. The nucleus of Halley`s Comet, as shown in photographs from the Giotto spaceprobe, is only 15 km. by 10 km. in dimensions; but the periodic comet Schwassman-Wachmann I, which has an unusual near-circular orbit just beyond Jupiter, has a nucleus about 40 km. wide, and the giant comet of 1729, which reached perihelion at the distance of Jupiter’s orbit but was visible to the naked eye for six months, may have a nucleus more than a hundred kilometres across. The anomalous asteroid Chiron, which may be an extinct comet, is about 350 km. across.

Giotto image of the nucleus of Halley’s Comet

There is another possibility. Perhaps Velikovsky was right when he said that Typhon was a comet with a nucleus of planetary dimensions. But it was not Venus. Perhaps (this being the vital word) Typhon was a rogue planet, intruding from interstellar space. If Earth-sized, it might be covered with a deep frozen primordial atmosphere which would volatilize as it approached the Sun. Thus the rogue would be transformed into a comet; a comet with a planet-sized nucleus and a correspondingly enormous coma and tail. As the rogue swung round the Sun, the Earth plunged into the tail. Typhon itself was still millions of miles away, but the tail was so vast that it could affect the Earth even at this distance. First came a fall of red dust, as in Exodus; "All the waters that were in the river were turned to blood", or in the Finnish Kalevala, when, in the days of a cosmic upheaval, the world was sprinkled with red milk Then came the darkness, which lasted several days. Exodus; "And there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days." According to Caius Julius Solinus, "Following the deluge which is reported to have occurred in the days of Ogyges, a heavy night spread over the globe for nine consecutive days." Avilia and Molina reported the traditions of New World Indians that after a "cosmic collision of stars", the Sun did not appear for five days. The Iranian book Bundahis describes "a war between the stars and the planets" which resulted in the world being dark at midday as though it were in deepest night. According to Ovid, after Phaethon`s disastrous ride across the sky, "one day passed without the appearance of the Sun."

Then the Earth emerged from the tail and its inhabitants were able to behold the comet Typhon. Even if Typhon had no physical effect upon the Earth, even if it passed a million miles distant, a comet with a nucleus of planetary dimensions would have been a terrifying spectacle, fearsome enough to be a lasting source of myth. The enormous coma would have appeared as a globe or disc at an even greater distance, and if Typhon passed close enough to the Earth to cause earthquakes and tidal effects, the spectacle would have been overwhelming. Possibly the intruding globe in the sky was taken for the Sun, and thus gave rise to the tradition told to Herodotus by the Egyptians, that "on four several occasions, (the Sun) moved from his wonted course, twice rising where he now sets, and twice setting where he now rises." A Chinese record states, "In the lifetime of Yao the Sun did not set for ten full days and the entire land was flooded."

Typhon retreated; but it was no longer a free planet. It had been captured by the Sun, and was now in a cometary orbit. Fifty-two years later it returned. Once more there was another Sun in the sky, as Joshua was besieging Jericho. Perhaps there were other passages; Typhon appearing at intervals of about 52 years, not passing close enough to cause catastrophe, but with its enormous coma and tail terrifying at even a great distance, and the source of comet-fear. The early Mexican scholar Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (c. 1568 – 1648) wrote that according to ancient tradition, the multiple of 52-year periods played an important role in the recurrence of cosmic catastrophes. He said that once only 52 years elapsed between two such catastrophes. The natives of Pre-Columbian Mexico expected a new catastrophe at the end of every period of 52 years.

Eventually, Typhon did not return. Perhaps it was expelled from the solar system; perhaps it was perturbed into an even more elongated orbit, one with a period of thousands of years, raising the possibility that it might return one day. The ancient observers no doubt wondered what had become of Typhon. Like most comets, it would be seen as a morning and evening `star` as it passed round the Sun, and perhaps was thus associated with Venus, the brightest object in the sky, but for the Sun, Moon and Typhon. Marcus Varro wrote; "There was seen…a surprising prodigy in the heavens, with regard to the brilliant star Venus…Castor affirms that this fine star changed its colour, size, figure and track…Adastrus of Cyzicus and Dion the Neapolitan refer this great prodigy to the reign of Ogyges." (Ogyges was the most ancient of Greek mythical kings. During his reign, supposedly in about 1764 BC, there was a deluge which left Attica waste for 200 years). Hyginus relates how Phaethon, that caused the conflagration of the world, was placed by the Sun among the stars. "It was the general belief that Phaethon changed into the Morning Star." A Chinese astronomical text from Soochow says that in the past, "Venus was visible in full daylight and, while moving across the sky, rivalled the Sun in brightness." The pre-Columbian Mexicans called Venus "the star that smoked", a phrase they also used to describe comets. We suggest that Typhon passed apparently (and perhaps actually) close to Venus on one of its perihelion passages, and that descriptions of Typhon, after it had ceased to appear, became those of Venus.

Thus speculation. There is ample field for this when discussing natural phenomena. Many happen, but leave no evidence of their occurrence save in the accounts, if any, of those who, usually by chance, happened to see them. Very often, those who wrote about a natural event were separated by several removes from those who saw it, and often the witnesses found it difficult to comprehend what they were seeing.

David City tornado

Tornadoes demonstrate this. They are comparatively rare, and before the age of mass communication, a tornado was something outside most human experience. During a storm, a force would descend from the clouds, leave a trail of destruction, and then disappear after only a few minutes. Those some distance away might see a column let down from the clouds, in the form of a dragon or serpent, changing shape constantly; others nearer might glimpse a cloud of fragments whirling with a terrifying roar; but most saw nothing at all. They would recall only the destruction, and the sound. Machiavelli thus described a tornado which crossed Italy on August 24, 1456; "From…confused clouds, furious winds, and momentary fires, sounds issued, of which no earthquake or thunder ever heard could afford the least idea; striking such awe into all, that it was thought the end of the world had arrived, that the earth, waters, heavens, and entire universe, mingling together, were being resolved into their ancient chaos." Those who actually saw a tornado struggled to find words to describe it. One in Ireland in 1054 was "a tower of fire" surrounded by `birds`; a tornado in Wiltshire in 1761 "had the appearance of a volcano…attended with great noise"; one in Spain in 1800 first appeared as "a very fantastic figure, with arms, feet, and a long tail. The resemblance of a very large serpent, of a sky blue colour, was soon after plainly discerned…which extended itself so far as to touch the ground."If tornadoes were an excessively rare phenomenon, their very existence might still be in doubt. After all, what reliance could be placed in such obviously exaggerated accounts? The description of the Spanish tornado, for instance, appeared in the Times, which took it from the `Paris Papers`, who in turn took it from the Journal of Madrid, who took it from "the Curate of the village and several respectable inhabitants". An account at least four stages removed from the original is obviously suspect. One of the purveyors could have invented the whole thing, and in any case it was probably merely a severe thunderstorm viewed with superstitious terror. `Sky blue serpents` are so evidently the products of vivid peasant imaginations…

Ohio, April 11, 1965; "The beautiful electric blue light that was around the tornado was something to see…"

Of course, many accounts of natural phenomena are exaggerated, some are just difficult to believe, and some are fiction. In 1861, a person calling himself `Augustus H. Denham` wrote a letter to the Times describing the fall of an "aerolite of extraordinary size" near Lancaster. A London mineral dealer excitedly telegraphed to offer £100 for the meteorite, only to receive the terse reply, "All bosh – no such person known – no aerolite". On April 2, 1750, an earthquake was felt in Liverpool. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine of April 1750, after the shock, one person saw in the air "multitudes of blood-red rays converging from all parts of the heavens to one dark point." This lasted 15 minutes. On February 24, 1759, an earthquake was felt in Cornwall. According to the Annual Register of 1759, one George Thomson, Esq., "went out to observe the air and saw multitudes of blood-red rays converging from all parts of the heavens to one dark point…the Phaenomenon disappeared in 15 minutes." What are we to make of this? Was the same phenomenon seen on both occasions? The identical descriptions must make the 1759 observation very dubious. We suspect that some eighteenth-century journalist was enlivening his account of what was only a slight earthquake with a mysterious phenomenon in the sky stolen from an earthquake nine years earlier; and yet we are not quite sure. On August 23, 1750, an earthquake shook Nottinghamshire. Ten days earlier, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine for August, 1750, a remarkable aurora had been seen, "that met together at the zenith (in a point) and appeared very red". Then there is the drawing of an aurora seen from Guildford on October 24, 1870, which shows a multitude of red rays converging to a point near the zenith. Perhaps the 1750 and 1759 phenomena were so similar that they really did need the same words to describe them.

The transmission of accounts from one writer to another also provides ample opportunities for distortion, inaccuracy, and invention. In his 1945 book Hurricanes, Ivan Tannehill described one of the worst natural disasters in human history, when on October 7, 1737, a cyclone and storm surge killed 300,000 people at the mouth of the Hooghly River in the Bay of Bengal. Tannehill got his information from H. F. Blanford`s Indian Meteorologist's Vade Mecum (1876), but without mentioning that Blanford suspected the casualty figure to be `somewhat excessive`. Blanford got his information from H. Piddington`s Sailor's Hornbook for the law of storms (1848), but made two unexplainable changes; the date of the storm was altered from 11th October to 7th October, and the distance the storm travelled was changed from 60 leagues to 60 miles. (60 leagues are about 180 miles). Piddington obtained his facts from J. R. Martin's Notes on the medical topography of Calcutta (1837); Martin said that the loss of life was 300,000. Martin claimed to have obtained his information from an account in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1738, but in fact copied it from an unknown but unreliable source. The Gentleman’s Magazine account actually says that the storm was on September 30 (This is equivalent to October 11 in the Julian calendar then in use in the British Empire). The Gentleman’s Magazine says that "Cattle…Tygers and Rhinoceroses" were drowned, as well as "an innumerable Quantity of Birds", but the only human casualties it mentions are the crews of various ships and three men who were eaten by a crocodile. An official record of the East India Company says "that by the violent force of the Wind the River overflow`d so much that a great quantity of Rice was quite Spoil`d…and near 3,000 Inhabitants were killed". It seems that Martin has single-handedly turned this storm into one of history’s greatest disasters.

Then there is the problem of Dr. Thomas Short. Dr. Short, who lived in Sheffield and was a Fellow of the Royal Society, published in 1749 his immense two-volume work A General Chronological History of the Air, Weather, Seasons, Meteors, etc. Dr. Short worked on this for fifteen years, and "it is certainly the most extensive research of its kind in any language". He gathered together most of the historical records of natural phenomena, and said, "these scraps of history lay scattered in a vast multitude of authors". According to C. E. Britton, "his labour in hunting up obscure sources must have been prodigious." Unfortunately, some of Dr. Short's sources appear to have been not merely obscure, but unknown. He records many events in the first millennium of the Christian era "of which it seems impossible to find any mention in history until they appear in Dr. Short's treatise". He notes a rain of blood in London in AD 4, a hurricane which destroyed Westminster in AD 18, and a city in Somerset swallowed up "name and all" by an earthquake in AD 103. As Britton says, "All such entries are probably quite fictitious and it would be very interesting to know where the doctor acquired this mass of unhistorical information."

It is almost inconceivable that Dr. Short should have corrupted his life’s work by filling it with material which he knew to be untrue, and we can only conclude that some unknown, who knew these events to be fictional and had probably invented them personally, foisted them upon the uncritical doctor. Yet, once again, we are not quite sure. Britton still felt obliged to include Short's doubtful events in his Meteorological Chronology, just in case. It also seems that some of Short's events were Continental, and not, as Britton seems to have assumed, British. He describes Short's record of a whirlwind in AD 841 as `unhistorical`; but Short says his source was the Chronicon Madgeburgensis, though he omits to mention that the whirlwind was in Europe. For the year 1013 Short describes a "Whirlwind or hurricane from the West, throwing down Houses, and tearing up Trees by their Roots. Thunder and Lightning in May." Once again, the doctor gave no source or place for this event, and Britton was unable to find a reference either; but the annals of Quedlinburg in Germany describe a tempest that destroyed buildings on May 15, 1013.

Hittite winged disc

Before human beings could write, they could draw, and the earliest records of natural phenomena are pictorial. Here, also, caution is essential. A favourite representation of the Sun God among the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Hittites was a `winged disc` or `winged globe`, and several modern astronomers have suggested that the wings are intended to represent the solar corona as seen during a total eclipse at a period of sunspot minimum, when the corona has the appearance of two luminous plumes on each side of the eclipsing Moon. A Hittite monument at Saktsche-gozu shows a very corona-like `winged disc`, and in 1893 Mrs. M. L. Todd asked, "Did not these primitive peoples, seeing this type of…corona during total eclipses of the Sun, naturally infer that the coronal extensions were the wings by which the Sun-god flew…from one part of the heavens to the other on his daily round?"

However, the solar corona is not easy to observe. The only certain reference to it in antiquity is by Plutarch, who says, "…the Moon sometimes hides the Sun entirely…but a certain brightness is apparent round the rim, which does not allow the shadow to be deep and absolute." Present-day observers anticipate an eclipse, and are prepared for the corona; but if a solar eclipse is unexpected, it is possible for it to be 90 per cent of total and yet pass unnoticed. Anyone who did notice something amiss and was watching the Sun at the moment of totality would be too dazzled to see the corona. Others, surprised by the sudden extinction of the Sun, might have other preoccupations than noting the form of the corona, which in any case might not have the winged look of solar minimum.

The earliest pictorial records of natural phenomena date back to the art of the Palaeolithic period. A prehistoric carving from Fratel in Portugal shows two rayed circles, which seem to be stars or suns. However, they seem to be rather large for stars, and the question arises as to why the artist should have wanted to depict two suns. Perhaps (this being the word we should always bear in mind) this is the first known representation of an optical phenomenon; the real Sun and a `mock sun` or parhelion. At Pala Pinta de Carleo, two `suns` are shown against a starry background; possibly the Moon and a `mock moon`. A fossilized tortoise from Russia is said to have the Great Bear and the North Star inscribed on its shell. A pebble from Polesini in Italy, inscribed with the outline of a wolf and a number of pockmarks or carved dots, is said by Ivan Lee to show various constellations of the summer sky 15,000 to 25,000 years ago.

In the Neolithic or Late Stone Age, from 5000 to 2000 BC in Europe, art became abstract. This means that even more caution and qualification is required when seeking out possible depictions of natural phenomena. The passage-grave at Dowth in Ireland has a carving of seven `suns` - circles with rays, surrounded by an outer circle. The thought that these might show the Sun surrounded by an ice-crystal halo immediately springs to mind, but, although the designs are known as `sun-signs`, we cannot even be sure that they were intended to represent the Sun. The `star stone` from a late Neolithic building at Tal Qadi, Malta, is divided into five segments, within which are `star` motifs (asterisks), short straight lines and a crescent (in a segment of its own). The consensus among archaeologists is that it may have been used as "some kind of astronomical chart"; but, as the `stars` are not arranged into constellations, it would have been useless for any purpose except to show that the night sky has stars. Perhaps (again) it depicts a meteor shower among the stars and a crescent Moon. However, Gudmond Schutte identified cup marks on stones at Venslav, Denmark, as possibly showing constellations or star maps. In 1930, Nature reported that L. MacLellan Mann had interpreted markings on two stones at Langside and Cleuch, near Glasgow, as having astronomical significance. The markings consist of a series of rings, arcs and cup-like depressions. "Some of the groups of cups are shown to resemble the Sickle in Leo and (more doubtfully) a star-group in Scorpio." Mann said also that he calculated that there had been an eclipse on March 28, 2983 BC from markings on the stone itself, and afterwards found from German astronomers that there had been an eclipse on that date. "He states that he obtained the year by his interpretation of the system of wheel-like markings on the stone, which he takes to be cycles of years."


The most mysterious Neolithic carvings are the "cup-and-ring" marks. These are found on free-standing boulders or rock surfaces, and they are found all over the world; often in solitary places near the sea, and often concentrated in a particular area. There are cups, cups with rings, cups with concentric rings and tails, circle patterns and dots. What the markings were intended to signify is unknown, but Evan Headingham said, "The appearance of these designs all over the world…indicates the fundamental nature of the impulse to create these simple abstract forms." But are they abstract? Jean McMann mentions the "comet-like tails" of some cup-and-ring marks in Argyll, though not suggesting that the marks actually represented comets.

But if the cup-and-ring marks with `tails` are representational, then they most resemble comets. R. W. R. Morris, who spent fifteen years studying the cup-and-ring marks of Scotland, refers to some of them as "comet-like" figures. As noted previously, Clube and Napier suggest that they depict the break-up of the super-comet Typhon into a family of smaller comets; such a spectacle would have been seen all over the world. The group of long-period comets known as the Sungrazers includes about a dozen comets moving in almost identical paths; many of these comets have broken up during perihelion passage, and they are "clearly fragments of some giant comet deflected into the current orbit passing close to the Sun." (Dr. K. Hindley). On August 1, 1889, Brooks` Second Periodic Comet (1889, v.) threw off four fragments; two were very faint and soon disappeared, "but the other two brighter ones were miniatures of the main body, each having a nucleus and a tail." (G. F. Chambers). Possibly, rather than comets, the cup-and-ring marks represent a `fireball storm` or a shower of meteors; although such a shower would have to bombard the Earth for over 24 hours for it to be visible all over the world.

We should note that many other explanations have been put forward for cup-and-ring marks, including maps of forts, star charts, prospectors` signs and early writing, and that these "geometric and abstract motifs are the most difficult to understand and the most vulnerable to fanciful interpretations".

A stone at Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, shows cup-and-ring marks, and also another ancient symbol that has been associated with the close approach of a giant comet; the swastika. Before the Nazis laid their hands upon it, the swastika was a benign symbol "known to almost every culture on the planet." Thomas Wilson in 1896 called it "the earliest known symbol", although what it symbolises is unknown. Schliemann, who discovered swastikas in the ruins of second-millennium BC Troy, thought they were intended to depict rotation, but he had no hypothesis as to what might be rotating. In the more ancient swastikas, such as the one at Ilkley Moor, the arms are often curved, not bent (the `ogee` swastika). Carl Sagan suggests that the swastika represents a rapidly rotating comet nucleus with four active streamers. The comet would have had to pass very close to the Earth for such to be visible. Perhaps, once again, the swastika is the symbol of the super-comet, Typhon.

In the 1970s, excavations of the No. 3 Tomb at Mawangdui, near Changsha, China, uncovered an illustrated textbook of cometary forms, printed on silk, part of a larger work on clouds, mirages, haloes and rainbows. It was compiled about 300 BC. 29 types of comet are shown, classified by appearance and by what each portends. The illustrations are elegant drawings of conventional comets; except for the last, Di-Xing, the "long-tailed pheasant star", which is in the form of a swastika.

One might also suggest that the swastika is the symbol of another natural phenomenon noted for its rotation; the tornado. A pot from pre-Columbian Arkansas, where tornadoes might be more familiar than comets, shows an `ogee` swastika with its arms extended into a spiral. Sagan, without suggesting that swastikas might be tornadoes, said, "a rotating…cometary nucleus might look very much like a whirlwind."

It must be concluded that depictions of natural phenomena, other than the Sun, Moon and stars, are very rare in ancient art. A wall painting about 8,000 years old, discovered at Catel Hayuk in Turkey, shows an unmistakable erupting volcano. An Egyptian stone pillar of about 2500 BC shows the rising (or setting) Sun as a semicircle coloured blue above and green below, possibly as a result of seeing the `green flash` at sunrise and sunset. Indian pictographs in Arizona, showing a starlike object near a crescent may (and the word is may) represent a conjunction of the Crab Nebula supernova with the waning Moon which occurred on July 5, 1054. No-one seems to have drawn the naked-eye markings of the Moon until Leonardo da Vinci, and we must wait until the sixteenth century for the first unambiguous depictions of most natural phenomena. The oldest surviving original drawings of the aurora were made in 1563; an aurora illustration was in print before this, in a German pamphlet of 1527. Waterspouts are depicted in a 13th-century manuscript by Thomas of Cantimpré*, but the first drawing of a tornado dates from 1587.

*Thomas de Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum (circa 1240), Bibliothéque Municipale de Valenciennes, MS 320. Thanks to Pavel Voronin for this attribution.
Further research by Pavel Voronin shows that this image is of a solar eclipse, not waterspouts.
See here.
GNP Pare comet
The aurora of 1527, from Ambroise Pare, Des Monstres et Prodiges (1582)

Why should natural phenomena be rarely represented? For most of history they seem to have been regarded with terror, or at least unease. Even apparently harmless spectacles such as the aurora borealis often inspired fear. The famous surgeon Ambroise Pare said that the aurora of 1527 "was so horrible and terrifying, and it aroused such fear among the populace, that some died of fright as a result, while others fell ill." The living world of nature was something human beings could empathise with and were a part of; even dangerous wild beasts obviously had thoughts and emotions like ourselves. Events on the earth and in the sky by contrast could not be comprehended by analogy with human experience. They were disturbance in the natural order, stirrings of primordial chaos, indications that perhaps the Earth was not the well-crafted habitation for humanity that God intended it to be. Sometimes the cycle of day, the basic rhythm of the Universe, was interrupted by an eclipse; the Sun always returned, but who could say that it would always do so? If the sky could be transformed into fire and blood by an aurora, then why not the earth?

The idea that natural events were portents and warnings was in one sense a comforting one. It made natural phenomena comprehensible and gave them a purpose. One could now look at the sky and see, not unknown mystery, but an indication of events to come on earth.

The blood-red lights and luminous spears of the aurora obviously portended war, and the portent was always fulfilled. Some of the interpretations seem desperately contrived to us now, but those who made them were reasoning in a scientific manner, using the hypothesis that the sky represented the earth. This hypothesis was at once understandable, and the art was easy to acquire. Thus, in 1619, when "a kind of blue earth" fell in Scandinavia (probably volcanic ash from Hekla), it was interpreted as "a warning by God against the fashion for blue kerchiefs." In 1760, as the funnel cloud of a tornado, which did not touch the earth, extended across the sky at Oxford, "an old woman, having observed that the expansion of the vapour…gave it the appearance of a rod, pronounced that it was a scourge to the nation." In 1858, the Earl of Malmesbury described Donati`s Comet in his diary, and added, "Everyone now believes in war."

In fact, if natural phenomena were not portents, then they could be of no interest. Raphael Holinshed, writing his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1577, knew that "the common doctrine of philosophy" was that eclipses and other prodigies were "mere natural". If so, then they were "of no great admiration…observing them to be ordinary accidents, they are overpassed and nothing regarded." But Holinshed was not convinced by the philosophers; "...the position is not so generally delivered, as is constantly believed...And therefore it is a matter worth the marking, to compare effects following with signs and wonders before going; since they have a doctrine in them of no small importance." Gradually, the opinion of the philosophers prevailed, but the theory of portents is not extinct.

The complaint often made is that the prosaic findings of science have destroyed our sense of wonder at the natural world. The reverse is true. Science replaced terror with poetry. While all natural events were portents, all were like volcanic eruptions or tornadoes, beautiful but terrible. Science banished the terror from many phenomena, but the beauty remained. It offered a new challenge; to discover not what natural events represented, but what they were.

As Bernard le Bovier Fontenelle said in 1686: "When the heavens were a little blue arch, stuck with stars, methought the universe was too straight and close; I was almost stifled for want of air; but now it is enlarged in height and breadth, and a thousand vortices taken in, I begin to breathe with more freedom, and I think the universe to be incomparably more magnificent than it was before."