Everybody Say “Oooooooh!”

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.

Halley’s Comet.

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.


43 thoughts on “Everybody Say “Oooooooh!”

  1. I wondered if you’d be touching on Patrick Moore’s insight’s into Halley’s comet as I started reading. I can’t find the clip I’d thought of, but found this instead

  2. Love anything relating to astronomy, comets are so interesting and the frequency of Halley’s and historical events on earth are always a source for various stories. As an aside, one of my most frequent and realistic dreams as a kid was the ability to fly by running so fast and just leaping into the air, soaring for a 100 feet or so. Unfortunately, my dreams never blessed me with wings or I would have really been dangerous.

    1. The wish to fly: I have flying dreams too, Lou. Mine are not so much focuse on speed and distance: flying is like swimming. I love Douglas Adams’ definition: he says it’s really easy to fly. the Trick is to aim at the ground, and then miss.

  3. I remember seeing the Hale-Bopp comet of 1997 very clearly in the night sky, close to the horizon, when living in Bristol, not bad considering light pollution. Halley’s comet last appeared in 1986, but I was less successful then and could never spot it. Probably looking in the wrong place. It was supposedly very faint…

    The Bayeux Tapestry image of Halley is wonderfully cartoon-like but still suggests something awe-inspiring now; I remember pointing it out on a school trip to France in the early 1980s, but my charges’ reactions were rather mixed, from mild interest to incomprehension.

    The story of Eilmer at Malmesbury is wonderful, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t been dramatised for TV: what a great programme that would be! I suspect that Eilmer’s story may have inspired a similar tale about the mythical king Bladud of Bath who is supposed to glided from the top of the temple of Apollo in London; unlike Eilmer he didn’t survive, becoming a British Icarus.

    Anyway, great post!

  4. Interesting story. I have been reading about the Plantagenets which are just a little bit later. I am always amazed at how hard life was back in those days. Life didn’t seem as valued.

  5. Dear Kate, as always you continue to introduce me to historical facts and myths that tickle my funny bone and make me so glad to be a human being on this planet at this time. I won’t be alive when Halley next zooms by overhead, and I didn’t see him in 1986 or whenever the last time happened, but just seeing the embroidery on the tapestry filled me with wonder. Oh the verities and varieties of humankind. Peace.

  6. Lovely post as always, but I couldn’t help but wonder what element testosterone harbors that makes one jump off a building with pseudo wings. Very few estrogen-makers tend to attempt similar feats.

    1. Yes, seen the ISS pass over about three times now; the TV weatherman on the BBC Wales always tells us when it’s visible in the early evening passing overhead. It’s very humbling to see.

      1. There’s a handy iPad app which gives the date and the time. It also mentions the Soyuz. This week is a good one for seeing both in the early evening. On some days both are passing over twice in the space of a couple of hours.

  7. The top of that tower cannot be any different from the edge of the Grand Canyon, where the people who most often die are 1. male and 2. drunk.

    I missed the comet the last time around. My friend was supposed to pick me up in the middle of the night, and he slept through the alarm. I waited for an hour in every shred of warm clothing I had, because it was the coldest night of the year.

  8. I’m amazed Eilmer of Malmesbury survived the crash.Perhaps the resident Cadfael patched him up, but still…

    Halley’s Comet also marked both the birth and the death of Mark Twain. Not such a momentous occasion as the arrival of William the Conqueror, but in the U.S. literary world a big deal. Twain predicted the year of his own death: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”

  9. I did see the comet in 1986. It was almost a requirement given the age of my children at the time! And I think somewhere in the recesses of my mind I’ve heard the thought that Bethlehem’s Star may well have been this famous comet. But I’ve certainly forgotten and not given it much thought in years. The Bayeux Tapestry is lovely and does seem to portend a coming change. Breathtaking!

  10. We were in SA last time Halley’s Comet came around. Though faint, we had a better view than most of the world.

    Jeremy Paxman drives me mad on University Challenge, every time he makes a point of correcting the pronunciation of ‘Halley’s’. You’d be surprised how often it comes up.

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