Tea and musings around liminality

Yesterday I sat at a table lit by the golden light of the late spring sun, enjoying the feel of a soft breeze contradicting the warmth of sunlight on my skin while the glorious sound of birdsong gently caressing my ears in the café at the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre. On the table was a lovely pot of tea and a home-made fairy cake (small ‘cupcake’) topped with vanilla buttercream icing and my journal-sketchbook into which I would be recording my thoughts and observations. This was a treat after picking up a batch of mugs that I’ve had printed with a piece of my artwork and a short greeting for my lovely year 11 class who are leaving on Thursday. That will be a day filled with tears and joy, a liminal moment for the pupils as they stand on the threshold of the next phase of their life. The leavers’ assembly being an opportunity to mark this transition point, a liminal point, with celebration, with laughter and with the memories of experiences.

The view from the window was of the neglected graveyard attached to St Peter’s Church which falls away towards the valley bottom as the café abuts the eastern edge of the graveyard and I realised that I was sat at a liminal place, but not one of one phase of life to another. This liminal place marks the boundary between the living and those who have passed out of this earthly existence.

As I realised this, a pair of magpies flitted from tree to tree, their tails twitching as they settled on branches, and sunlight on their plumage revealing the iridescent purples, blues and greens that are so often missed. A solitary cabbage white butterfly careened from plant to plant, it’s pale colour standing out against the brown tangles of brambles and the bright greens of spring growth, signs of life surrounding the memorials of those long dead.

Magpies are associated with bad omens, and one such superstition is that if you see a single magpie on the way to church then death is close (myth-making at blogspot). Considering that many churches have a graveyard around them or close to them, then that is quite true! I love magpies and the other members of the corvidae family of fine feathery friends, despite their gloomy reputations.

As one thought bounced to another, I realised that I too, was at a liminal point in my life as I continue to work on unravelling the tangles of the past through journaling, meditation, self-hypnosis, gratitude and pennies-dropped-epiphanies as I’m becoming more aware of the inner critics and their continual sussuration of negative messages about me. I’m learning how to dis-empower them, little by little, and I may be approaching a turning point for myself in how I view myself and what my beliefs are.

The grave markers were splotched with lichen and algae, patterns reminding me of growths of penicillin on laboratory agar plates or stale and mouldy bread. Tumbled tangled brambles wrapping round them, seemingly pulling them down, down, down into the ground, the Earth reclaiming what had been taken from it, and with it the memories of those long passed. Despite the pull of time and neglect, the taller columns and headstones bravely rose above the tangles, holding their heads up high in the sunshine, proud of their leprous appearance, suggesting age and longevity, that they remember even if the living no longer do.

Others, however, seemed to be surrendering to the gradual depredations of time. Their sharp leaning stance, the first phase in laying down, showing an acceptance of their fate. No one alive who remembers them, who cares for them enough to tend to the memorial of a life once lived. The connections between the present generation and the past generations fading and weakening with time as symbolised by the tumble-down state of the gravestones. This was reflected in the laughter and chatter of the living enjoying beverages and vittles in the bright, warm, life-giving sunshine. The proximity to the necropolis and it’s visible symbols of death, funerary rites, and grief having no effect upon the high spirits of the living.

Perhaps that is because a wall, a visible boundary separates the activities of the living from the area of the dead. If we were to dine and party on their graves, perhaps we may feel differently, irreverent perhaps; an attitude maybe not unique to our own culture or time. I saw this video about dining with the dead in Georgia on the BBC news website earlier this week, and an example of how different cultures approach death and the places of the dead and how rigid and solid the boundary between us, the living, and our deceased friends and family are.

Death is, essentially, a great leveller; the great and the good lie alongside the poor and meek. Only the memorials tell us who is who,and only a skilled osteologist would be able to tell which was which were their skeletons disinterred and separated from any clothing, jewellery or other funerary offerings that they were interred with. To most of humanity they would be the remains of people, equal in death as they were not in life. Given enough time, all return to the Earth, return to what we were created from, very few leaving traces that will last for centuries, millennia or the aeons of time.

Traces remain in the bones that remain of their lives; hardship, luxury, adversity, ease all leave their marks in the bones. As the flesh decays, as memories fade, so do the individual stories of each person’s life, the stories that make each of us unique. The funeral monuments may tell us about them, there may be hints of their life in written records, but so much about them, such as whether they were kind or cruel, loving or neglectful, are lost.

Gloomy thoughts? Not at all! I like what the we can learn of our ancestors from their funerary rites, from records, from stories still held in the memories of the living, maybe experienced first hand or tales handed down through the generations. It matters not whether they are iron-topped tombs of the magnates of Blaenavon or the ring-barrows of a person from the Bronze Age, or the fossilised remains of our distant relatives. For many, we can only make educated guesses about their life and times, sometimes more educated than others when written records exist.

Of course, the choice of a place for cemeteries is a story in itself. In ancient times where a lot of effort was expended to bury a few in monuments such as cairns, ring barrows, cists, long barrows, then they weren’t just plonked in the nearest available place. The choice of place had meaning, just as the choice of place has meaning to us whether it’s where we go on holiday, where we choose to live and experience life. We choose places that give us meaningful experiences, be they linked to happy or sad times. The same is true when we choose places for funerary rites, whether we choose them ourselves before we die or whether we choose them for our loved ones who have passed away. My father’s cremains were buried beneath a sapling plum tree in a country lane where he used to collect all kinds of fruits and plants to make wine from. A friend’s father’s ashes were sprinkled from a bridge to return to the sea which he loved and sailed while serving in the Navy. Another friend’s father’s ashes are to be buried with his brother, if permission can be gained from her aunt.

If we take time and care to choose an appropriate resting place for the physical remains of our loved ones, I’m sure our ancestors did so too, even though it may not have seemed so to us as in many cases we have no ideas of their beliefs and the practices that stemmed from them. Nor do we know for sure why certain people were accorded such seemingly prestigious and important funerals, whether they were the great and the good or whether their deaths had a different meaning and the funeral a different purpose than commemoration and a reminder of our connections to the people of the past, to our ancestors, to those who have shaped the society we life in at any particular point in history.

I couldn’t help but wonder what stories the land could tell us if we could access it’s memory. I’d love to know what events the stones beneath my feet have witnessed in their long aeons of existence. What lovers’ trysts and promises. What betrayals, joys, toils, griefs. Whose feet have passed over them and what is the story of the lives. I don’t just want to know about the great and the good, people whose lives are most probably fairly well documented. I want to know about the ‘ordinary’ people as well. Everyone has a story to tell, everyone’s life experience is unique to them due to their unique perceptions, beliefs, actions, reactions and personality, and what thoughts and beliefs they had about themselves and others.

Perhaps the land, the position of the cemeteries, their relationship to the use of the land in the past and the present, the stories told about the land, it’s people all serve to keep alive the memory of the ancestors, aiding in remembering their stories and the stories previous generations and in so doing keeping the ancestors alive, in memory, and our connection to them stronger. The scape surrounding the cemetery becomes woven into the stories of the recent ancestors and the myths of the more ancient ancestors, acting as aide-memoires to the tales. Each feature in the land around the cemetery is not devoid of emotion, of meaning, and for each feature these would change as the time of day, the season of the year and the weather changes. We interact with these scapes through the feelings and meanings and the way that we make use of them and that induces a feeling of belonging to them. Ideas such as these are propounded by archaeologists such as George Nash.

I realised then, how much I’d enjoyed writing my thoughts, how going to a different place other than home allowed me the inspiration I needed. It’s also brought up links between things that are occurring in my life at present, and that will help to unravel any tangles knotted by the inner critics in the past.

Llandaff Ghost Walk

Llandaff Ghost Walk

On Friday night, 20th April 2012, I went on this walk with some friends and others. We had an absolutely brilliant, spellbound time I must say and I would recommend it to anyone who is in the area of Cardiff, Wales, UK.

Jim, the guide, was knowledgeable in both the history, legends and spooky occurrences in the area and he was willing to talk and share information and experiences with one and all.

Peter, his mate, who brought up the rear to ensure no one got lost or left behind in the darkness or who would escort those of a more nervous disposition back to their car(s), was equally as knowledgeable and willing to share tales too.

It was chilly in the twilight, the sky was clear and there would be no moon that nigh as we gathered around the cross that stands on the road above Llandaff Cathedral, a beautiful building, inside and out.

However, our walk would take us to the land to the north of the Cathedral,along the edge of a field to the banks of the River Taff, along a road back to the Cathedral, through the cemetery and to the Bishop’s Palace.  As the night gathered around us, we used torches to light our way as we walked from storytelling point to storytelling point, but the torches were put out as the stories were woven from fact, legend and personal accounts in a spellbinding way.

I’m not going to share the tales we were told, nor any experiences we all had and that would spoil the walk for any who wish to take it, but I would really recommend it if you have a love of stories, of history or of local legends and folklore, or are looking for a different way to spend a couple of hours of an evening.  Wrap up well though, and wear sensible shoes, and take a torch.


Lammas

Today is Lammas, a name that derives from the Old-English hlafmaesse, which means ‘loaf-mass’.  August 1st is also known as Lughnasadh or Lughnasa, particularly among the modern Pagan community, and you can find loads about it on the world weird web.

Anglo-Saxon church records from the ninth century onwards show that that Lammas was the festival of ‘first fruits’ with wheat, corn and bread to celebrate the corn harvest.

The first ripe cereals were reaped and baked into bread which was consecrated at a church upon that day.  A book of Anglo-Saxon charms advised that this holy bread be divided into four pieces, each of which was crumbled in a corner of a barn in order to make it a safe storage-place for the harvest about to arrive there.

Certainly, the arrival of the time when the first harvest could be gathered would have been a natural point for celebration in an agrarian society, and the importance of the first day of August was already so well established by 673 that Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus decreed that the annual synod of the newly established Church in England should be held then.  It seems very likely that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date.

Although not one of the official quarter days, Lammas was a regular day for paying rents, settling debts, and changing jobs and houses.

It’s position in the year also contributed to its key role in the organization of rights to common lands.  Where common or church land was rented out by the half-year, or where common strips of land were apportioned annually, Llamas was often the time that the business was carried out.

Lammas was also a popular day for fairs, for example at Exeter and York, and local feasts and revels, such as at Combe Martin in Devon.  Temporary rules and regulations were in force during the time of a fair, it was important that everyone knew when the fair opened and closed, and impressive civic processions and readings of proclamations were often reported, along with the use of highly visible symbols that were displayed while the fair lasted.

Another name for Lammas is ‘the Gule of August’, and this phrase was in use from at least 1300; it also was in use in Old French and Medieval Latin.  One suggestion is that ‘Gule’ derives from the Welsh ‘gwyl’, or ‘feast’, but it’s not clear why or how Norman English or Old French picked up such a word.  It is more likely that the word is derived from Latin.  For more about this read ‘The Stations of the Sun‘.

References:

  1. The English Year, Steve Roud
  2. Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton

Lammas thoughts

The new wheat of the year and the first loaf baked with it.  Wheat and other cereal crops are one of the western world’s staple foods.  Agriculture, one of the major innovations of the Neolithic peoples, allows us to grow vast quantities to ensure we are all fed, we all have bread to feed our bodies.  How many of us take this for granted?  How many of us pause to consider those in other parts of the world who do not have enough bread to sustain their bodies, bread being an analogy for essential food?

Today is a day, traditionally, to give thanks for the harvest that will feed us, but it would be nice for us to think of those who struggle to find enough food to feed them, whether it be through environmental disasters, societal turmoil, war, or man’s inhumanity to man.  We could also send thoughts to the animals and plants who are suffering as much as mankind, often far more, through natural and man-made disasters and atrocities.

It is a time for community.  In the past, communities would come together to gather the harvests in as quickly as possible so little was spoiled and all was safely stowed away to last through the coming year.  It was a time of hard but necessary work.

This takes us back to the thoughts about those in the world and how the paradigm needs to change to a world community where we help one another to ensure all have enough for a decent life.  Take time today to consider those who do not have enough food or any other necessities of life, and consider making a commitment to donate regularly to charity to help these people, if you don’t already do so.  Of course,  the world community includes not just humans, but all other living things, and the very Earth itself, for without these life would not be possible, would it?

These are the general and worldwide issues that come to mind in connection with Lammas; but what of the more personal, more symbolic messages that come with the first harvest of the year?  What spiritual bread is there?

We all sow symbolic seeds – new beginnings, new projects, new ways of looking at ourselves, new ways to interact with people, and so on.  These seeds will germinate in fertile ground, where we nurture them, and eventually they will bear the fruit of our efforts.  Today is a day when we can look back at the seeds we planted in the spring and see what ‘fruits’ are ripe and ready to be plucked, and which need to be left to grow more before they will mature.

Another meaning is transformation.  Wheat must die for it to give us sustenance and also so that new life can spring again from it when it’s seed is planted in the Earth.  The life of the wheat is sacrificed to make way for new plants in the Spring.

So it is with our lives; we need to ‘sacrifice’ situations, projects, tasks, and so on that have reached their conclusion, let go of those that will not grow or have not germinated, and we need to do this in order to move onward, to allow new things to enter our lives.

Change is never easy, but it is necessary if we are to grow and realise our potential in all things.  Lammas marks the start of the time when we can savour the fruits of our efforts.  A time when we can experience the sweet taste of success, or the bitter taste of failure.  Either way, Lammas is the time to start to let them go from our lives as it is the first harvest, the start of clearing the land of the crops that have either matured successfully or failed for various reasons.  Lammas is the time to look within ourselves and in our lives to see where this is also the case.

This letting go of what has ended, no matter if it is a success or a failure allows a symbolic death of that which has come to its end.  This is echoed in the increasing period of night that we notice at this time of year.  The nights are drawing in, and while the days are still hot and balmy, there is a feeling of change in the world as we move to the Autumn Equinox.  Yes, nature still flourishes and grows and fruits continue to grow and to ripen, but with the first harvests we begin to see nature coming towards the end of its yearly cycle of growth, the fields being laid bare ready for sowing with new seeds.

For now we can celebrate our successes, learn from our failures, and mourn letting go of what is complete, knowing that as one thing ends something new is on it’s way, just as a bare field means new growth will come in the Spring.

Whatever you consider today, whatever you think about Lammas, enjoy the day!

Flowers, folklore and folk-medicine

Our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old –
Excellent herbs to ease their pain –
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris and Elecampane –
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you –
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars –
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in a division it goes –
(Every herb had a planet bespoke) –
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead –
Most of their teaching was quite untrue –
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door –
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore –
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

If it be certain, as Galen says –
And sage Hippocrates holds as much –
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

Rudyard Kipling


Yes, there were some dreadful examples of medicine in days long ago, yet there were also many examples of folk-medicine that did work and that we use today.

For example research in biomedical Egyptology shows that many were effective and that some 67% of the cures recorded in various papyri complied with the 1973 Edition of the British Pharmaceutical Codex. They used honey, a natural antibiotic, to dress wounds and treat throat irritations, for instance, and aloe vera was used to treat blisters, burns, ulcers and skin diseases. They also used mouldy bread to treat infections; one of the moulds that grows on bread is penicillin!

There are many more examples of cures that worked and the active ingredients are used in modern medicine. Indeed, there is a branch of science called ethnobotany or ethnopharmacology that studies folk-medicines with the hope of finding new and active ingredients to treat the plethora of diseases still suffered by humanity.

Regardless of whether they worked or not, reading and researching about the uses of plants and other materials in folk medicine as well as the theories our fathers of old had about illness is something that I find fascinating, when I have the time to dig and delve into it. I find lots of interesting tales about where the names of plants come from, so I learn more about etymology, history, folklore, legend and myth. I get to look at photographs and illustrations of the plants used, so widening my knowledge and experience of art and so inspiring me to create my own. One day, the tales may even help to inspire me to do my own creative writing, maybe poetry, about all the wonderful lore that surrounds our most familiar plants, crystals, rocks, horseshoes, and so on.

The Calendar

Time to change your calendars and diaries over!  Happy new calendar day for MMXI!

The Sun and the Year

It takes the Earth 365.24219 mean solar days to orbit the Sun once.  This is slightly more than our nominal 365 day long year, so every four days we have a leap year, with 29 days in February instead of the usual 28.  This still isn’t quite right, so the last year of every century is not a leap year unless the year is divisible by 400, which is why 2000 was a leap year but 1900 wasn’t.

There are four key points in the Earth’s yearly journey around the Sun.

The Solstices are where the Sun appears to stand still at solar noon for a few days, this means that it is in the same position in the sky at solar noon.  Solstice comes from the Latin sol for Sun and sistere which means to stand still.  Around the 21st December each year, the Sun is the furthest south from the equator in the sky and we in the northern hemisphere experience the Winter Solstice, the shortest day in the year.  Around the 21st June, the northern hemisphere’s Summer Solstice occurs, with the Sun being at it’s most northerly from the equator.  This is the longest day of the year for us.

The Equinoxes occur in between these points.  The Vernal Equinox occurs around the 21st March and the Autumnal Equinox around the 21st September each year.  On these days, the Sun is directly over the equator.  These are days where the hours of daylight and night are approximately equal, and the word equinox comes from the Latin equi meaning equal and nox meaning night.

To our modern eyes, the cycles of the Sun are important in terms of determining the seasons, the weather, agricultural practices and so on.  But that wasn’t always so.

The Moon and the Year

To early man, it was the Moon, with its cyclical waxing and waning that was the more obvious object to use to measure time and all the earliest known calendars are lunar, based on the phases of the Moon.  Indeed, the word month comes from the use of the phases of the Moon to split the year up into segments.

It takes long and complicated sums to link the cycles of the Moon to those of the Sun.  A lunar month is 29.5306 days long, so a twelve month lunar year would last just over 354 days and so is around 11 days out of step with the Solar year.  If we were to follow a lunar calendar, it would take just about 16 years for the seasons to be completely reversed.

Julius Caesar and the 1st January

Whatever the religious reasons may have been to keep to a lunar calendar, it must have been obvious that it was the cycles of the Sun that had the biggest effect upon human activity.  It was the turning of the seasons that determined when crops were to be sown, when they were due to be harvested, when the weather would be good enough to set sail, and for so many other things too, yet the lunar calendar was still in use, with all the problems of errors and corrections that needed to be made until the Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45BC.

Caesar learned of this calendar from the Egyptians.  Legend has it it was at a party thrown by Cleopatra in his honour.  The Julian calendar was based on a 365 day year, with an extra day thrown in every 4 years.  Each year had twelve months with thirty or thirty-one days, except February, and the 1st January was set as the beginning of the year.

The calendar as we know it today was now more or less in place.  It was regular, secular and based on the real movements of the Sun.

Dark Times

Emperor Constantine (d. AD377) imposed Christianity as the major religion of the Roman Empire and he placed the design of the calendar back in the hands of religious groups who were still wedded to the traditional lunar movements for their major festivals.  After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Christian church was the nearest thing to an international controlling committee and the West entered a long, dark time where scientific enquiry was frowned upon at best and considered heresy at worst.

The Gregorian Calendar

By the C16th, the western world was stable enough to attempt to reform the calendar.  The small errors from the Julian calendar had now become noticeable and annoying.  In 1582 Pope Gregory finally announced changes in the calendar to correct these faults and prevent them from happening again, including the 400 year rule for leap years mentioned previously.

He introduced what became known as the Gregorian Calendar, and ordained that 5th October should become 15th October to bring the calendar back in line with the physical world.  This was a much needed and a sensible solution to the problem of the calendar.

However, the changes were not universally accepted, especially in Protestant countries such as Britain.  The changes were declared to be a ‘Popish plot’ designed to undermine their credibility.  For more than a century following this Papal decree, half of Europe was 10 days ahead of the other half!

It took Britain until 1752 to adopt the changes, by which time it had to correct the calendar by 11 days to bring it back into line with Gregorian calendar.   Philip Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, initiated this move by introducing a Bill to correct the ‘inconvenient and disgraceful errors of our present calendar’.  This Bill was signed into law by George II on 22nd May 1752.  Chesterfield’s Act  decreed that Wednesday 2 September 1752 be followed immediately by 14 September 1752 and also that the New Year was to start officially on 1st January.

13th October 1307…

At dawn on 13th October 1307, the simultaneous arrest of all the Knights Templar in France occurred, on the orders of King Phillip IV.  This led to the suppression of the order, as well as the torture and execution of many of the Knights, including the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay.

Much mythology has grown up around the Templars, but I much prefer the solid facts!  I started a little journey around the remaining Templar sites in the UK a few years ago, a journey that has been postponed over time with recurrent car problems, but one I will finish one day, as well as to journey to other countries to visit their remaining buildings, sketching, painting and writing as I go.

As much as I enjoy legend, superstition, folklore and myth in other contexts, I seem to have problems with it in connection with the Templars.  Perhaps that is just the inner archaeologist, scientist coming out in me!

Knights Templar at www.middle-ages.org.uk

Knights Templar at Wikipedia

Comets

“Comets are long-haired stars with flames, appearing suddenly, and presaging a change in sovereignty, or plague, or war, or winds or floods.”
Northumberland Bede, De Natura Rerum c. 725AD

Ancient Beliefs

The word comet comes from the Greek word kometes which means ‘long hair’.  Our ancestors thought comets were stars with hair trailing behind them.

In ancient times, people thought comets were ‘power rays’ of supernatural beings.  They also thought that comets contained fire because they were so bright in the sky.

Some people believed comets brought curses with them.  They believed that comets caused cattle to give birth to dead calves, princes to die,  natural disasters to occur, and disease and pestilence to spread across the land.  Emperor Nero of Rome had all possible successors to his throne executed in order to save him from the ‘curse of the comet’.

Not all people believed comets were bad omens; some believed they brought good fortune.  Others believed that they carried angels through the heavens.

Not so ancient beliefs …

In 1909 and 1910, the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the skies caused panic in cities around the world. Pedlars did a lot of  business selling ‘anti-comet sickness pills’ and umbrellas to protect people from the effects of the comet.

In March 1997, the members of a cult called ‘Heaven’s Gate’ committed suicide by drinking a cocktail of poisons.  They believed that the coming of comet Hale-Bopp was a sign that it was time for them to shed their Earthly bodies so that their spirits would take flight behind the comet and so be taken to a higher plane of existence.

More about Comet Hysteria can be found here.

Halley’s Comet

The Chinese recorded sightings of Halley’s Comet as far back as 240BC.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry shows Halley’s comet shining brightly in the sky before the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Some people believed that the comet meant that King Harold of England would lose his throne to Duke William of Normandy in this battle, and he did!

Edmund Halley studied comets and developed a theory that the comets sighted in 1531, 1607 and 1682 were actually the same comet.  He successfully predicted the return of this comet in 1758, but sadly died 16 years before his prediction was proved correct.  Halley’s Comet is next due to return in 2061.

Other Cometary Scientists

In 1577, Tycho Brahe showed that comets travelled far beyond the Moon; prior to this, people believed comets travelled in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) discovered that comets travel in elliptical orbits around the Sun.  He also believed comets were members of the Solar System, like the planets, and that comets could return again and again – he was right!  Comets that are seen quite often, every 100 years or so, come from the Kuiper Belt.  Comets that we only see every few thousand years come from the Oort Cloud.

Meteor Showers

Comets leave a trail of debris behind them as they orbit the Sun.  If this trail crosses the Earth’s orbit, then at that point every year for a long time there will be a meteor shower.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year between the 9th and 13th of August as the Earth passes through the debris of the Swift-Tuttle comet.  The Orionid meteor shower occurs in October when the Earth passes through debris left by Halley’s Comet.  The Leonids, around 18th November, result from debris from comet Tempel-Tuttle which visits the inner Solar System every 33 years.

Hale-Bopp

On July 23, 1995, an unusually large and bright comet was seen outside of Jupiter’s orbit by Alan Hale of New Mexico and Thomas Bopp of Arizona. Careful analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images suggested that its intense brightness was due to its exceptionally large size. While the nuclei of most comets are about 1.6 to 3.2 km (1 to 2 miles) across, Hale-Bopp’s was estimated to be 40 km (25 miles) across. It was visible even through bright city skies, and may have been the most viewed comet in recorded history. Comet Hale-Bopp holds the record for the longest period of naked-eye visibility: an astonishing 19 months. It will not appear again for another 2,400 years.

Swift-Tuttle

This comet was first seen in July 1862 by American astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. As Comet Swift-Tuttle moves closer to the Sun every 120 years, it leaves behind a trail of dust debris that provides the ingredients for a spectacular fireworks display seen in July and August. As Earth passes through the remnants of this dust tail, we can see on a clear night the Perseid meteor shower. Comet Swift-Tuttle is noted as the comet some scientists predicted could one day collide with Earth because the two orbits closely intercept each other. The latest calculations show that it will pass a comfortable 24 million km (15 million miles) from Earth on its next trip to the inner Solar System.

Hyakutake

On January 30, 1996, Yuji Hyakutake (pronounced “hyah-koo-tah-kay”), an amateur astronomer from southern Japan, discovered a new comet using a pair of binoculars. In the spring of that year, this small, bright comet with a nucleus of 1.6 to 3.2 km (1 to 2 miles) made a close flyby of Earth — sporting one of the longest tails ever observed. The Hubble Space Telescope studied the nucleus of this comet in great detail. This is not Comet Hyakutake’s first visit to the inner Solar System. Astronomers have calculated its orbit and believe it was here about 8,000 years ago. Its orbit will not bring it near the Sun again for about 14,000 years.

Some interesting websites about comets and myth.

Comet Mythology from Astrononmy-Education.com

Comets, Meteors & Myth: New Evidence for Toppled Civilizations and Biblical TalesThis is an interesting article from space.com.