The Luminescent Hat Invasion of 1577: The Testimony of a Contemporary Astronomer
As most readers know, I love Greek mythology, even if its adaptations in other media have tended toward the disappointing. I had high hopes for the BBC’s Atlantis, but despite strong initial ratings, the show’s creative direction faltered as it strived and failed to emulate Game of Thrones in intrigue and Immortals in visual panache. The BBC canceled the show back in January (though its last seven episodes will air, beginning next week). I learned today that Syfy is trying the same thing with its derivative Olympus, a show that earned (negative) comparison to Game of Thrones but seems, based on trailers and reviews, to be the second coming of Atlantis, with worse actors and a smaller budget. The new show even reuses the some of the same mythological figures, including King Minos, Princess Ariadne, and Medea, who appeared in the BBC version; and it takes for its theme the plot of Immortals and Wrath of the Titans, which involved ending the reign of the Greek gods in favor of human self-empowerment. I’m trying to decide whether to give the show a try simply because I’m interested in how Greek myths are represented on TV, but I am extremely wary of the negative buzz and the frankly chintzy special effects. Syfy declined to provide a press kit or publicity materials for the show to TV critics, which is a bad sign.
Anyway, today I thought I’d follow up on the great falling hat event of 1577, which I discussed a few days ago. Regular reader Hypatia alerted me to the fact that in 1578 the astronomer Helisaeus Roeslin, a rival of Kepler, wrote a passage in his book on comets, the Theoria nova coelestium meteoron, discussing this event. Roeslin was among the first to recognize that the Great Comet of 1577 was located beyond the moon’s orbit and therefore proved comets were astronomical rather than atmospheric in origin. After describing various sky signs in the opening pages of his volume, he offers some thoughts on the falling hat story, which he seems to have known from the German broadsheet that described it. I translate from the Latin:
Truly greater (an atmospheric phenomenon) was that terrible comet of 1577, and in the middle of its duration, God produced another portent that was seen in the duchy of Württemburg on December 5. That day, from immediately after the sun had risen to around the hour of 10, He devised most horrible phantasms, particularly different and multicolored hats [literally: felt caps] that seemed as though they were falling onto the earth. You will not find from such stories what you would truly see looking at this comet itself, its magnitude, the brightness of its light, the rarity of its forms; yet it may be possible to compare its movements with these (stories) with certainty.
In reviewing this new evidence, it becomes very likely (though at first I didn’t think so) that the hats were indeed related to the comet in some way, if only through exaggeration.
From this, it becomes clear that while the common folk viewed the portent as a sign from God, Roeslin considered it a consequence of the comet’s passage and though that by collecting and comparing such stories one could work out mathematically the comet’s exact position in space relative to the earth at any given time.
It’s interesting to contrast a scientist’s view of the events with the sensational popular view, given in the German broadsheet and repeated in a late edition of Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires Prodigieuses (1594 ed., at 4.7), which saw the events as a message from God and a bizarre day of luminescent headwear.
At any rate, it’s interesting that the mystery-mongers like Jacques Vallée who promote the falling hats as a “wonder” in the sky (and, in Vallée’s case, have for more than 45 years) haven’t tried to find correlating texts like this one to arrive at better conclusions.
4/2/2015 08:48:58 am
JC, if you're really interested in the pop depiction of greek myth and the ancient world in general then you may want to take a look at Juliette Harrison's blog, it's brilliant.
4/2/2015 10:23:57 am
Hey, she recommends Pasolini's "The Gospel according to St. Matthew", so she can't be that bad :)
4/2/2015 01:00:21 pm
Thank you, Jason. It was not the comet, which was at the opposite part of the sky at that time, but it could certainly be dust and parts of the comet that had been lost at its perihelion on Nov 10th, very close to the sun, estimated to be within Mercury's orbit. It could have shown up near Sagittarius/Scorpion in the morning sky.
4/3/2015 05:27:56 am
Nice find with the Helisaeus Roeslin passage.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.