What Were Comets Called in Ancient Greece?

Comets are fascinating celestial objects that have captivated humans for centuries. These icy bodies, which are sometimes visible to the naked eye, have been the subject of scientific study and cultural mythology for millennia. But what were comets called in ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, comets were known as “aster kometes.” This term literally translates to “long-haired star,” which is a fitting description of the visual appearance of comets. The ancient Greeks observed comets and recorded their appearances in various texts and artworks.

One of the most famous Greek observations of a comet occurred in 371 BCE. This event was documented by several ancient writers, including Aristotle and Ephorus. The comet was visible for several weeks and was described as having a long tail that stretched across the sky.

The ancient Greeks did not understand the true nature of comets, but they often associated them with divine or supernatural events. Many believed that comets were omens of impending disaster or change. For example, the appearance of a comet was said to have foreshadowed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.

Despite their mystical associations, Greek astronomers also made significant contributions to our understanding of comets. In particular, Hipparchus (190-120 BCE) is credited with developing a method for predicting the orbits of comets based on their observed positions in the sky.

Today, we know that comets are icy bodies that originate from the outer reaches of our solar system. As they approach closer to the sun, they begin to melt and release gas and dust into space, creating a characteristic coma (or halo) around them. This is what gives them their distinctive “long-haired” appearance.

In conclusion, while comets were not fully understood by ancient Greek astronomers, they recognized them as important celestial phenomena worthy of observation and study. Their term “aster kometes” has endured through history as a poetic description of these captivating objects.