Most of us only get to see a comet once in a lifetime.
But a select few manage it twice.
There’s only one comet visible to the naked eye which pops in fairly regularly. It’s a short-period comet, tearing crazily round the galaxy the opposite way to all the planets, visible to us every 75 0r 76 years or so. There are brighter and more spectacular comets but they might only call in every millennium or so.
But when Halley’s Comet does appear it always causes a stir on this parochial little planet. Someone always stops saying ‘Oooooh” for long enough to write about it. Take Babylon, for example, 164 years before Christ. Not only did they observe it, they managed to chip out a serviceable observational report in cuneiform into the bargain.
The last 30 sightings have been painstakingly recorded. The record of sightings reads like a Who’s Who of civilisations: Pliny The Elder, in Ancient Greece:, in the Chinese chronicle Records of the Grand Historian, on the coins of Armenian king Tigranes The Great, the Talmud, the Nuremberg Chronicles, the Annals of Ulster.
There have even been tenuous whispers that the Bethlehem star was our old friend, Halley’s Comet, making his regular calls.
Many years later, in 989AD, a tiny boy of five or six years old in the English Cotswolds gazed up into the sky. And there it was; the comet with its tail, haring across the night.
We’re all doomed, the little boy thought: and sure enough, a set of Danish raids in the area decimated many communities, including the monastery at Malmesbury. But the boy and the monastery survived the cataclysm. His name: Eilmer.
Eilmer of Malmesbury was a rum ‘un.Perhaps the comet had gone to his head. He joined the Benedictine monastery, but he did give the impression of being rather a square peg in a round hole sometimes.
Like the day he got a bee in his bonnet about Icarus.
He, like the rest of us, knew the story of Daedelus and Icarus, how the son used the wings fashioned by the father to soar too close to the sun.
But unlike the rest of us, he felt compelled to test it out. Without the aid of a safety net, if there were even safety nets back at the turn of the first millennium.
He fashioned a set of wings, and he climbed to the top of Malmesbury tower – which looks like this –
And he jumped off the top.
I kid you not.
This is what happened: he stayed airborne for about 15 seconds. The wings fixed to his hands an feet assisted him in flying a furlong – just over 200 metres to you or I. Everyone went, “Ooooooh!”
And then he crashed.
He broke both his legs, and amidst the agony he was heard to observe that it would have been alright if he had just designed a tail as well.
Unbelievably, the moment his legs were ship-shape he began planning a second flight with a tail. But the Abbott of the day put paid to the scheme, sharpish.
When he was an old, old man, Eilmer saw his old adversary, the comet, one more time. And a historian of the day records him actually addressing it: “You’ve come, have you? – You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.”
He was right, in a way.
Look carefully at the Bayeux Tapestry, the chronicle of the coming to England of William The Conqueror. In one frame, the nuns embroidered the most astonishing event: a comet soaring through the sky, observed by Harold and his men.
For the Anglo Saxons, it was the end of supremacy. England would change forever in the very year the comet sped over: 1066.
That Bethlehem Star. It is a star of great moment.