Astronomy Myths and Legends: The Ides Of March/ Easter Special
I know that at this point, my lack of posting might make you wonder if I myself am mythical, but after a two week hiatus, I’m back, so I’m doing a double whammy about two of the holidays I missed- The Ides of March, and Easter!
Part One, The Ides Of March
“When beggars die there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” Julius Caesar, Act II Scene ii.
Shakespeare’s famous play describes all kind of odd celestial phenomena before the murder of Julius Caesar on March 15th, 44BC, when he was stabbed in the public forum by Roman aristocrats. Roman historians and poets alternately claim that there really were comets that appeared at the time of his death, and at the celebration of his deification in 29 BC. The great poet Virgil claims that at Caesar’s death there were not only comets, but eclipses and strange blood-like drops in the sky:
Who dare say the Sun is false? He and no other warns us when dark uprisings threaten, when treachery and hidden wars are gathering strength. He and no other was moved to pity Rome on the day that Caesar died, when he veiled his radiance in gloom and darkness, and a godless age feared everlasting night. In that same hour did sinister filaments cease to appear in ominous entrails or blood to flow from wells or our hillside towns to echo all night with the howl of wolves. Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen.
-Virgil, Georgics, Book 1.
No other historians claim that a comet appeared before Caesar’s death, but surprisingly, even the most far-fetched sounding of these celestial events could conceivably happen! I will now examine the historical claims and compare them to real astronomical phenomena, so you can imagine what it might have been like to see these cosmic omens of doom. Whether they all actually happened on March 15th, 44 BC is not the issue here; I’m just trying to say that, incredible as it sounds, you could see things that appear to be the stars dropping blood in Rome around this time period.
But Could It Happen!
The Comet- Well, the existence of the comet is easy enough to prove. First of all, we have an account by the Roman historian Seutonius that claims that a bright comet appeared after Caesar’s godson Augustus consecrated a temple in Caesar’s honor. Both men made an effort to portray the comet as Caesar’s spirit returning as a divine star, which is why Augustus commissioned a coin that year that depicts the comet as “Caesaris astrum” or “Caesar’s Star”, as you can see below.
To be clear, there is a small chance that there was a comet visible around the death of Caesar- Chinese astronomers did observe a comet in 44 BC, although the available data seems to suggest it appeared in mid May rather than March. You can read more about this fascinating topic in the book: The Comet Of 44 BC, and Caesar’s Funeral Games by John T. Ramsey, and you can preview it here.
The Eclipse- Unfortunately, there is little historical or astronomical data to confirm that there was an actual eclipse in 44BC (Ramsey 194), but so many historians and poets mention it, that there must be some basis in truth. Ramsey suggests that the darkness of the sky was actually an eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius, as Virgil mentions in the passage I quoted earlier. If this is the case, the sky would have looked like this:
“Stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood”
Now here comes the coolest part of all: some of the sources claim that the sky wept blood, and that flashes of light occurred around the time of Caesar’s assasination. Given the right conditions, this could totally occur! I’m basing this on a real life case when in 2011, A COMET ACTUALLY HIT THE SUN! This caused a massive solar flare, which in turn, caused a special type of solar explosion called a coronal mass ejection (CME). This kind of explosion sends high energy particles into the Earth’s atmosphere, which causes massive auroras. Hence, the amazing colors that look like dewing blood.
Here is a video of the comet, which hit the Sun May 10th, 2011:
and here is an image of a CME from Earth:
Quite impressive, don’t you think?
In any case, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there were plenty of weird astronomical events going on during the time of Caesar’s death, but then again, this year has had plenty of surprises so far, and the world hasn’t ended yet (knock on wood).
Part 2: A special Easter Egg
With the little time I have left, I thought I’d explain a little about how, like all holidays, there is a deep connection between astronomy and Easter.
Easter is actually connected with the moon and the planet Venus. The name comes from the pagan goddess Ēostre in Saxon-German mythology. She explains the biggest mystery that we’ve all wondered at during Easter- “What’s with the eggs?” The answer is that to amuse children, the kind goddess turned her pet bird into a rabbit, which was still able to lay eggs that she gave to her young friends as gifts.
Like many female deities, Ēostre is a manifestation of the bright planet Venus, who returns in the Western sky after the Vernal Equinox, the time of year when the Sun passes over the Earth’s equator, giving the Northern and Southern Hemispheres equal light and darkness. Ironically, it was Julius Caesar who set the date of the Vernal Equinox as March 25th, while Pope Gregory changed the date to more closely coincide with the Paschal Moon- the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. If you’d like to know how to calculate the date of the Paschal Moon yourself, visit this website: http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/astronomy/Easter.html
Here’s a video of the Full Moon on March 31st, 2013. As you can see, it appears to be red because of spectral interference:
As you can see, the history of Easter is insanely complicated. I could probably go on for days about Venus’ significance as a sacred feminine, and the symbolism of her return in the sky as the Morning Star, after being submerged in darkness for three months. I could also explain how the Council of Nicea in 325 AD tried to fight Jewish and pagan influence in determining the date of Easter, and I could even hint at the dark suggestions I’ve read about the possible connection between the deaths and resurrections of Jesus Christ, and Julius Caesar, but that would probably take years of study and reporting. Suffice it to say that Easter has a complex and fascinating history, and it is connected with some of the most ancient of religions.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you’d like me to expand any of these ideas, let me know and I’ll continue working!