THERE are some thoughts and opinions which we seem to take by inheritance; we imbibe them with our mothers' milk; they are in our blood; they are received insensibly in childhood.
We have seen the folk-lore of the nations, passing through the endless and continuous generation of children, unchanged from the remotest ages.
In the same way there is an untaught but universal feeling which makes all mankind regard comets with fear and trembling, and which unites all races of men in a universal belief that some day the world will be destroyed by fire.
There are many things which indicate that a far-distant, prehistoric race existed in the background of Egyptian and Babylonian development, and that from this people, highly civilized and educated, we have derived the arrangement of the heavens into constellations, and our divisions of time into days, weeks, years, and centuries. This people stood much nearer the Drift Age than we do. They understood it better. Their legends and religious beliefs were full of it. The gods carved on Hindoo temples or painted on the walls of Assyrian, Peruvian, or American structures, the flying dragons, the winged gods, the winged animals, Gucumatz, Rama, Siva, Vishnu, Tezcatlipoca, were painted in the very colors of the clays which came from the disintegration of the granite, "red,
white, and blue," the very colors which distinguished the comet; and they are all reminiscences of that great monster. The idols of the pagan world are, in fact, congealed history, and will some day be intelligently studied as such.
Doubtless this ancient astronomical, zodiac-building, and constellation-constructing race taught the people the true doctrine of comets; taught that the winding serpent, the flying dragon, the destructive winged dog, or wolf, or lion, whose sphinx-like images now frown upon us from ancient walls and door-ways, were really comets; taught how one of them had actually struck the earth; and taught that in the lapse of ages another of these multitudinous wanderers of space would again encounter our globe, and end all things in one universal conflagration.
And down through the race this belief has come, and down through the race it will go, to the consummation of time.
We find this "day of wrath" prefigured in the words of Malachi, (chap. iv, v. 1):
"1. For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
"2. But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.
"3. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts."
We find the same great catastrophe foretold in the book of Revelation, (chap. xii, v. 3):
"And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
"4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth."
And again, (chap. vi):
"12. And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
"13. And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
"14. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
"15. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman and every freeman, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
"16. And said to the mountains and the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb
17. For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?"
Here we seem to have the story of Job over again, in this prefiguration of the future.
The Ethiopian copy of the apocryphal book of Enoch contains a poem, which is prefixed to the body of that work, and which the learned author of "Nimrod" supposes to be authentic. It certainly dates from a vast antiquity. It is as follows:
"Enoch, a righteous man, who was with God, answered and spoke while his eyes were open, and while he saw a holy vision in the heavens. . . .
"Upon this account I spoke, and conversed with him who will go forth from his habitation, the holy and mighty One, the God of the world.
"Who will hereafter tread upon the mountain Sinai, and appear with his hosts, and he manifested in the strength of his power from heaven.
"All shall be afraid, and the watchers be terrified. Great fear and trembling shall seize even to the ends of the earth.
"The lofty mountains shall be troubled, and the exalted hills depressed, melting like honeycomb in the flame.
"The earth shall be immerged, and all things which are in it perish. . . .
"He shall preserve the elect, and toward them exercise clemency. . . . The whole earth is full of water."
This is either history or prophecy.
In the Second Epistle General of Peter, (chap. iii,) we have some allusions to the past, and some prophecies based upon the past, which are very curious:
Verse 5. "For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water."
That is to say, the earth was, as in Ovid and Ragnarok, and the legends generally, an island, "standing out of the water and in the water."
Verse 6. "Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished."
This seems to refer to the island Atlantis, "overflowed with water," and destroyed, as told by Plato; thereby forming a very distinct connection between the Island of Poseidon and the Deluge of Noah.
We read on:
Verse 7. "But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men."
Verse 10. "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up."
The Gothic mythology tells us that Surt, with his flaming sword, "shall come at the end of the world; he shall vanquish all the gods; he shall give up the universe a prey to the flames."
This belief in the ultimate destruction of the world and all its inhabitants by fire was found among the American races as well as those of the Old World:
"The same terror inspired the Peruvians at every eclipse; for some day--taught the Amantas--the shadow will veil the sun for ever, and land, moon, and stars will be wrapped in a devouring conflagration, to know no regeneration."
The Algonquin races believed that some day Michabo "will stamp his foot on the ground, flames will burst forth to consume the habitable land; only a pair, or only, at most, those who have maintained inviolate the institutions he ordained, will he protect and preserve to inhabit the new world he will then fabricate."
Nearly all the American tribes had similar presentiments. The Chickasaws, the Mandans of the Missouri, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, the Muyscas of Bogota, the Botocudos of Brazil, the Araucanians of Chili, the Winnebagoes, all have possessed such a belief from time immemorial. The Mayas of Yucatan had a prediction which Father Lizana, curé of Itzamal, preserved in the Spanish language:
"At the close of the ages, it hath been decreed,
Shall perish and vanish each weak god of men,
And the world shall be purged with ravening fire."
We know that among our own people, the European races, this looking forward to a conflagration which is to end all things is found everywhere; and that everywhere a comet is regarded with terror. It is a messenger of
[1. Brinton's "Myths," p. 235.
woe and disaster; it is a dreadful threat shining in the heavens; it is "God's rod," even as it was in Job's day.
I could fill pages with the proofs of the truth of this statement.
An ancient writer, describing the great meteoric shower of the year 1202, says:
"The stars flew against one another like a scattering swarm of locusts, to the right and left; this phenomenon lasted until daybreak; people were thrown into consternation and cried to God, the Most High, with confused clamor."
The great meteoric display of 1366 produced similar effects. An historian of the time says:
"Those who saw it were filled with such great fear and dismay that they were astounded, imagining that they were all dead men, and that the end of the world had come."
How could such a universal terror have fixed itself in the blood of the race, if it had not originated from some great primeval fact? And all this terror is associated with a dragon.
And Chambers says:
"The dragon appears in the mythical history and legendary poetry of almost every nation, as the emblem of the destructive and anarchical principle; . . . as misdirected physical force and untamable animal passions. . . . The dragon proceeds openly to work, running on its feet with expanded wings, and head and tail erect, violently and ruthlessly outraging decency and propriety, spouting fire and fury from both mouth and tail, and wasting and devastating the whole land."
This fiery monster is the comet.
[1. Popular Science Monthly," June, 1882, p. 193.
2. Ibid., p. 193.
3. "Chambers's Encyclopaedia," vol. iii, p. 655.]
And Milton speaks from the same universal inspiration when he tells us:
"A comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In th' arctic sky, and from its horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war."
And in the Shakespeare plays we read:
"Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky;
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars."
Man, by an inherited instinct, regards the comet as a great terror and a great foe; and the heart of humanity sits uneasily when one blazes in the sky. Even to the scholar and the scientist they are a puzzle and a fear; they are erratic, unusual, anarchical, monstrous--something let loose, like a tiger of the heavens, athwart an orderly, peaceful, and harmonious world. They may be impalpable and harmless attenuations of gas, or they way be loaded with death and ruin; but in any event man can not contemplate them without terror.
[1. 1 Henry VI, 1, 1.]