By Joseph M. Laufer


          Despite efforts in 1910 to dispel once and for all the myth that Halley’s Comet was “excommunicated” by Pope Callistus III in A.D. 1456, it persists till this day.  The legend, unfortunately, is repeated on the label of the Comet Pills produced by the Grand Rapids Museum and it even crept into the product selectory of Halley ‘s Comet Watch (because a free-lance writer was given a little too much literary freedom!).


          One should understand that from a theological standpoint, “excommunication” from a church or religion demands the prerequisite of membership in that church or religion.  So it should be obvious from the beginning that a Pope who knew his theology would not (indeed could not) “excommunicate” a comet.


          During the comet’s last visit, several authors attempted to lay the myth to rest.  In February, 1907, in THE MONTH, Fr. Gerard, S.J. wrote an article “Of a Bull and a Comet” wherein he traced the origin of the “excommunication” legend to Platina, a contemporary of Pope Callistus III, who wrote a History of the Popes.  (NOTE: A “Bull” in this context is the name given to a formal papal document).  In 1910, Father Stein, S.J., with the help of Emilius Ranuzzi, the Archivist of the Vatican, wrote a scholarly memoir published by the Vatican Press that also refutes the myth and traces its origin to Platina.


          Basically, because of the manner in which Platina described several events which occurred simultaneously in 1456 during the reign of Pope Callistus III, he laid the germ of the legend of the “excommunication” of the comet, which by continual embellishment assumed vast proportions by 1910.  Other historians after Platina added a little to the tale and the story grew according to the bend or bias of the writers.


          It so happened that Platina, in his description of the events of 1456 wrote: “A hairy and fiery comet having then made its appearance for several days, as the mathematicians declared that there would follow a grievous pestilence, dearth and some great calamity, Callistus, to avert the wrath of God ordered supplications, that if evils were impending for the human race, He would turn all upon the Turks, the enemies of the Christian name.  He likewise ordered, to move God by continual entreaty, that notice should be given by the bells to all the faithful, at mid-day, to aid by their prayers those engaged in battle with the Turk.”


          No reference is made to “excommunication” in this passage.  In order to lay the myth to rest, Father Stein and the Vatican Archivist examined the original documents (the Registi of the Popes – their bulls, briefs and other papal documents) particularly of the reign of Pope Callistus III and found no mention of the comet anywhere.  The Pope’s Bull of June 29, 1456 (issued several weeks after the comet’s brightest display on June 8) merely orders prayers and processions in order to obtain from God the deliverance of Christendom from the peril which menaced it on account of the advance of the Turks.


          To further contradict the myth, Father Stein cited contemporary documents that saw the comet as a portent from heaven foretelling the defeat of the Turks (in the Battle of Belgrade on July 22, 1456).


          These facts are summarized in an article that appeared in the JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL METEOROLOGICAL SOCIETY (Vol. XXXIII, No. 419, February, 1910) by A. L. Cortie.  Mr. Cortie quoted several of the embellishments of the myth that appeared in 1844, 1852, 1853, 1896, and 1908.  Cortie closes his article with optimism” “It is satisfact6ory that, at last, it (the myth of the “excommunication” of Halley’s Comet) has been laid to rest, for serious astronomers, by the masterly memoir of Father Stein, enriched as it is with such copious learned notes and references.”


          We are sorry to report that Mr. Cortie’s optimism and Father Stein’s scholarly work did not have the desired effect, forcing us to add our meager efforts to theirs in this year of 1985, knowing with certainty that someone else will have to do the same in 2061.


NOTE: We are grateful to Jerred Metz of St. Louis, Mo. for providing us with the basic reference material for this article.  We know that he would also wish to thank Ruth Frietag of the Library of Congress for her assistance in obtaining the material.


For an article on the Comet Pills referred to in the first paragraph of this article, refer to “Comet Pills – 1910 Revisited” in Volume II, Number 2 – May-June, 1983. 


Return to the Halley's Comet Watch Newsletter

Return to the Halley's Comet Home Page