In the first part of this article last month I introduced Robert Grant Haliburton and his researches into the ancient Festival of the Dead that coincides with our modern day celebration of Halloween. Upon discovering the universality of a similar festival held at the same time each year in cultures around the world, far removed from each other in time and space, Haliburton naturally asked what could be the ultimate cause for this phenomenon, which, he realized, was something unrecognized by the scholarship of his day. He logically surmised that it was based around “some visible sign, or mark, that nature had supplied—such as the rising of some constellation.”
Through a study of ancient calendars and the etymology of Egyptian, Chaldean, Hebrew and Arabic names for the month of November, he understood that the constellation in question was the Pleiades, known in the Classical world as the Seven Sisters, around which there was a rich mythology. Actually, the Pleiades are not usually considered a constellation itself, rather it forms a part of Taurus the Bull, specifically occupying the position of the bull’s shoulder in most traditional representations. The Pleiades is a young star cluster about 444 light years from the Earth.
In the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere Taurus, and hence the Pleiades, rises at sunset in Autumn. Usually this first appearance of the Pleiades in the eastern sky just after sunset occurs from mid to late October. Another way to think about it is that the Sun and the Pleiades are directly across from each in the sky, 180 degrees apart. This also means that as the Sun is rising in the east in the morning the Pleiades are setting in the west. So, Haliburton came to understand that the Pleiades did actually serve as a calendrical marker in many ancient cultures.
But there was more to the Pleiades than their relatively straightforward function as a regulator of the annual calendar. One obvious circumstance that follows from this timing is that around midnight, the Pleiades would be culminating at the local meridian. In other words to an observer in the northern hemisphere, during late October and November, the Pleiades would be seen directly south at midnight, occupying the position of the keystone in the Royal Arch of the zodiacal band or plane of the ecliptic. You can easily confirm this for yourself by simply going out at this time of the year at midnight and facing due south. To an observer in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere the Pleiades will be between about 60 to 75 degrees above the southerly horizon. Towards the end of November and into early December the Pleiades would be further to the west at midnight but still clearly visible.
But what has this to do specifically with Halloween, or a Festival of the Dead?
Here is where Haliburton’s discoveries transcend mere academic interest, for in the course of his research he was led to a startling realization. As he relates:
“A remarkable fact . . . was incidentally forced upon my attention: that the memory of the deluge was by the Mexicans, the Egyptians and the Jews associated with the same time of the year, and by the two latter nations as well as in Greece…and with that day I had found some very peculiar superstitions connected, in the Pacific Islands as well as among most ancient nations. Among the Aztecs as well as the Egyptians, the deluge was commemorated at the beginning of the year of the Pleiades, i.e. when that constellation culminated at midnight.”
This was indeed a remarkable fact. The memory of the deluge was associated with the same time of year and with the Pleiades by multiple cultures around the world over a time span of millennia. How could this be explained? As most semi-literate people now know, the story of a great world destroying deluge was by no means limited to the Biblical story of Noah but was prominent in some form or another all over the ancient world. What was the connection between the deluge tradition and the Pleiades?
The answer to this question was provided by astronomer Stansbury Hagar in the year 1931. In a contribution to the journal Popular Astronomy for the August-September issue of that year Hagar discussed traditions from pre-Columbian Mexico that had recently come to the attention of the academic world.
“Before the arrival of the first Spaniards in Mexico, over 400 years ago, and probably much earlier, the Mexicans told of certain stars called Tzontemocque or Falling Hairs, which fell from heaven to earth with the Lord of the Dead. Their fall was commemorated annually in the Quecholli festival, said to have been held towards the end of October. This festival, and the falling of the stars, was associated with the end of the world.”
“Certain stars called Tzontemocque or Falling Hairs which fell from heaven to earth with the Lord of the Dead!” If you have been a regular reader of these columns over the last couple of years you should instantly see the significance of this tradition. The reference to falling stars associated with the end of the world couldn’t be more blatant! We might recall that amongst the eyewitnesses to the great Tunguska cosmic event of 1908 were many who believed that the end of the world was upon them. Hagar goes on to divulge more details about the meaning of these traditions of ancient Mexico.
“The Lord of the Dead governed the Festival of the Dead preceding the Quecholli, during which the spirits of the dead were supposed to return to earth from the land of Souls in the sky. No doubt they were believed to have been accompanied by their deity whose fall is mentioned in the ritual. On sheet 8, of the Mexican Vaticanus 3773, and in the Borgian and other codices, these Stars of the Falling Hairs, are depicted falling from the sky to the earth accompanied by many other stars, further identified by the conventional star symbols beside them.”
I think most readers with even a modicum of astronomical awareness will have no difficulty seeing here a reference to a meteor shower. The imagery is powerful. The Lord of the Dead accompanied by many other stars, falling to Earth, is a very compelling representation of a meteor stream in association with its progenitor comet. Remember, meteor streams are the byproduct of disintegrating comets. Hagar points out that the Vaticanus Codex antedates the first entrance of the Spaniards and preserves traditions that were ancient at the time the Codex was inscribed. He is finally led to conclude that
“From these facts it seems reasonably certain that the Tzontemocque were November meteors, whose falling hair referred to the fiery trails left behind them…But the Mexicans seem to have distinguished between the different meteor groups, for they refer to the fall of a Tzontemocque on the day One Eagle which pertains to Taurus and would seem, therefore, to refer to Taurid meteors. The end of the world would naturally be associated with the memory of one of the great meteoric showers during November, when all the stars seemed to fall from the sky.”
The implications of these insights are immense. If we take at face value the obvious meaning of this tradition it would lead us to believe that in the Quecholli festival is preserved the memory of an immense destruction wrought upon the ancestors of the pre-Columbian Mexicans by a great meteor shower. But if that is, in fact, the case, what about other cultures that associated the legend of a great deluge with the Pleiades?
Astronomers recognize multiple meteor streams that cross the path of the Earth throughout the course of her yearly circuit about the Sun. These meteors are the remains of comets that have orbited within the inner solar system and have decayed over time, strewing their orbital path with the debris formed by their progressive disintegration. When Earth passes through one of these streams the result is a meteor shower whose elliptical trackway takes the stream around the Sun and typically out beyond the orbit of Jupiter, and back again. Many meteor streams still have their associated comet within the orbital pathway. For example, the famous Comet Halley generated the Eta Aquarids meteor stream, the Perseids are the product of the fragmentation of Comet Swift-Tuttle, and so on.
Observers looking into the direction of the approaching stream, that is, looking upstream, will notice that the stream seems to emanate from a particular point in space. This point is called the ‘radiant’ because all of the approaching meteors give the impression of radiating from that place. The paths of the individual meteors are actually parallel, the appearance of radiating from a single point is an illusion of perspective, much as the parallel rails of a railroad track appear to converge in the distance. The name of the particular meteor stream is derived from the constellation within which the radiant point is located, so, for example, the Leonids are named for the constellation Leo, as that is the star grouping from which the stream appears to emanate. The Geminids are named for the constellation Gemini, and so on. Of course, it must be kept in mind that the meteor stream is not really originating from any particular constellation, rather, its’ flight path is juxtaposed upon the backdrop of the constellations. So, obviously, the Taurid meteor stream, which the Earth crosses twice each year, is named for the constellation Taurus, the Celestial Bull.
But here is where it becomes interesting. The radiant point of the November Taurids is almost directly juxtaposed upon the Pleiades, almost like a “bulls eye,” creating the illusion that the Taurid Meteor stream is emanating from that unique star cluster. And this event, when the meteors of the Taurid stream intersect the path of the Earth, occurs in late October and early November just at the time when the Pleiades are standing prominently overhead.
So what do astronomers know about the Taurid meteor stream? Is it possible that this stream of cosmic debris was responsible for a major cosmic encounter event? Is it possible that such an encounter could have instigated human mass mortality? Is it possible that the memory of this event is preserved in the form of numerous festivals and observations from all over the ancient world commemorating the dead? Is it conceivable that this tradition still survives today in the form of Halloween?
And a final note: once again, the cosmos tries to get our attention. At the time I wrote Part One of this article introducing the idea of a major cosmic impact by comet or asteroid being behind the origin of the ancient Day of the Dead, and hence, Halloween, object 2015 TB145 had not yet been discovered. By now millions of people have seen the murky images of this “dead comet” with its skull like visage as it made a close Earth passage on Halloween, Oct. 31, 2015, passing just outside the orbit of the Moon.
If it had struck the Earth, moving at its measured velocity of 22 miles per second, life would have suddenly become drastically different for a large percentage of Earth’s population. The force released upon impact would have been equivalent to roughly 50 to 100 of the largest hydrogen bombs ever tested by the U.S. all exploding at once.
At 1300 feet in diameter object TB145 was some 60 to 70 times more massive than the Tunguska object of 1908. If it had struck the Earth, moving at its measured velocity of 22 miles per second, life would have suddenly become drastically different for a large percentage of Earth’s population. The force released upon impact would have been equivalent to roughly 50 to 100 of the largest hydrogen bombs ever tested by the U.S. all exploding at once. It could easily have caused death in the tens of millions if it struck in a populated region or caused major tsunamis if striking the ocean. Some 10,000 square miles of land would be utterly annihilated. The global economy would suffer a shock from which it would take years to recover.
The threat of cosmic impact is very real, folks. Our ancestors knew this and the Cosmos is constantly reminding us. Whether this knowledge portends disaster or opportunity is up to us.
– Randall Carlson
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