Meteors and The Popular Imagination

When we look to the sky, our imaginations soar. But for many people — ancient and modern, across wide expanse of geography and culture — the night sky has meant nightmares. And among those things of which some cultures are still afraid are oft-misunderstood meteors.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Every August around this time, our planet passes through debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. The result: the Persied meteor shower (named for the constellation Perseus, out of which the perseids seem to appear). Igniting the night sky with sudden and often striking streaks of light, these meteors — simply bits of dust and ice — will burn up in the earth’s atmosphere just as the eye catches glimpse of them. Rates can get as high as 100 meteors per hour.

Many of us will marvel at the event. Most will sleep through it. But some will actually avert their eyes.

In many parts of eastern Europe, for example, among some Slavic peoples, seeing a meteor sets one ill at ease. For it is believed that everyone has a personal star that falls upon his or her death.

Residents of the village of Carancas in Peru became convinced that they were sickened by a meteorite that fell to earth in September, 2007.

Indeed, in the Book of Revelation, such sickness is foretold when an angel blows his trumpet and a star falls from heaven “blazing like a torch.” Contaminating a third of the world’s rivers and springs, “many died from the water, because it was made bitter.” (Revelation 8:10-11)

In ancient Egypt and Greece, meteorites were thought to be of the gods, and were venerated as such. They were objects to revered, not so much as feared, but nonetheless were seen as portents of something momentous.

There is even evidence among early Native American peoples that meteors were seen as omens — of good times and bad. Among the latter were the Blackfeet of Montana who believed a meteor was a sign that sickness would come to the tribe in the coming winter. Then there were the Cahuilla of southern California that believed meteors were signs of the spirit of their first shaman, Takwich. Disliked by his peole,  Takwich was said to wander the night sky, looking for Cahuilla that had wandered from their tribe so that he could fall upon them and steal their spirit.

Most comically, the Nunamiut Eskimos and the Koasati of Louisiana believed meteors to be the feces of stars.

Still, for every tale of doom, gloom and celestial excrement, there are dozens more from cultures from all over the globe that tell of good fortune follows the sighting of a meteor. Indeed, as children of Disney, we are told that when we wish upon a (falling?) star, our dreams will come true.

So this weekend, if you decide to look to the skies, keep in mind that if there is any meaning in the sighting of meteors, it is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps better than seeing meteors are signs of good or ill from the heavens, we should instead look to celestial events as inspiration for living. For after all, we live but a short time, eventually burning out in the atmosphere of our own lives. We are not permanent. We need not live in fear of anything except that which prevents us from truly living.

Jack London once wrote: “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live… I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time” (The Bulletin, San Francisco, California, December 2, 1916).

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