In late 2019, the star Betelgeuse, which marks the right shoulder of the giant Orion, started to dim rather quickly, and while this was not an unusual phenomenon, the rate at which it occurred took astronomers by surprise. The scientific community began speculating about, and bracing for, well, the revelation of a cosmic mystery.
Around the same time, data from CCD images taken at a ground-based reflecting telescope in Hawaii, which is designed as an alert system should a random asteroid threaten the Earth, revealed a new comet entering our system, through the region of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Formally classified as C/2019 Y4, the comet came to be known as ATLAS, after the system used in its discovery (Asteroid Terrestrial Impact Laser Alert System).
It’s easy for a storyteller of the stars to relate these phenomena to one another, given that Atlas is the Titan god of the Ancient Greek world who bore the pillars of the heavens on his shoulders, but now the shoulder of the constellation of the giant had grown dim, as though the giant had slumped. Had the burden become too great to bear? Or was it time for the giant to lift the pillars off his shoulders and hand them on to Hercules, that hero of humanity through whom the Greeks prophesied their understanding that eventually, after we had long-forgotten to understand the speaking of the stars, the weight of responsibility in our relationship with them would rest on our own shoulders?
In the ensuing weeks, as Betelgeuse dimmed to 40 % of its normal value and Comet ATLAS brightened 4000-fold (from magnitude 17 to 8), excitement stirred in opposite directions, regarding something that was being lost while something else was being found. But neither thing was fully realized. After four months, Betelgeuse stabilized (March 2020), and by May, it was back to its normal brightness; while Comet ATLAS crumbled, never achieving the hoped-for glory of great comet status.
Enter Comet SWAN, which swept into view of NASA’s space-based SOHO explorer, almost exactly as ATLAS crumbled, in the early Spring of 2020. Named for the Solar Wind Anistropies camera (SWAN) aboard the SOHO explorer, Comet SWAN picked up the narrative imagination where Betelgeuse and ATLAS left off. Formally classified as C/2020 F8, Comet SWAN calls to mind the constellation of the Swan, Cygnus, which begins to rise up in the northeast in the same season as the comet’s discovery, to then sweep along the Milky Way throughout the summer, marking the northern-most point of the asterism of the Summer Triangle. Cygnus appears to fly along through the stars with wings outstretched, as though forming a mighty cross over the northern hemisphere. This appearance has earned Cygnus its alternate moniker as the Northern Cross, and though the trajectory of Comet SWAN never brought it through the region of the constellation of the Swan, the naming association between the comet and the constellation allows imaginations to arise as tentative first steps toward forming ideas about what these phenomena mean.
Like ATLAS, Comet SWAN also never achieved its hoped-for potential, dissipating not long after it reached perihelion on May 27, when it was headed toward the star Capella in the constellation Auriga, but not before Comet NEOWISE picked up the baton. Also discovered on March 27, 2020 but by another space-based telescope on a mission to detect near-Earth objects (NEO’s) through its Wide-Angle Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), this third comet of 2020 was gaining momentum where ATLAS and SWAN seemed to fail, and by June 2020, NEOWISE was rapidly increasing in magnitude to become the first of the three to survive perihelion and achieve naked-eye status.
But had ATLAS and SWAN actually failed? Or is it possible to consider all three comets, though distinct in appearance, magnitude, and orbital period, as one particular impulse ~ like a single stone skipped across the water, only in this case, it is cometary material released from the Oort Cloud, sent hurtling sunward through the heliospheric current sheet, gathering astrality onto itself in successive stages.
In her astronomical letters of 1929, Dr. Elizabeth Vreede suggested that comets are connected with the spiritual destiny of the time in which they appear, and that their appearance can have the effect of strengthening the astral body of the human being for withstanding the stresses of modern civilization. So let’s look at the timing of these three comets again.
Comet ATLAS carved its trajectory into our system from late December 2019 to late March 2020, the same time during which the novel Coronavirus flared up, named, not unlike a comet, COVID 19, after the year in which it first appeared. Its appearance and rapid spread found humanity retreating into quarantine, which sent the global economy teetering like a set of dominoes as nation after nation shuttered its doors.
By late March, the harsher realities of the pandemic emerged, and while Betelgeuse had reclaimed its steadiness, Comet ATLAS crumbled. One could imagine that by late March, the primacy of experience with the virus was giving way to the next phase, during which the potential sense of being united as a humanity against a single foe gave way to dissenting opinions about whether it was real, whether or not it was a tool being used by governments to curtail freedoms, and what was the appropriate response. This division expressed itself uniquely in national societies, where pressure had been building up regarding issues of social injustice and inequality, especially as the data suggested that marginalized segments of the population were succumbing to higher rates of viral incidence and compromised access to appropriate care than others. In the United States this imbalance, which was quickened by the virus though not caused by it, came to its most raw and devastating expression in the killing of George Floyd, revealing a mood that exists that cannot be disregarded.
While the protests and cries for social justice that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing resounded in communities throughout the US and around the world, Comet SWAN broke apart, and gave way to Comet NEOWISE, imagined here as giving greater articulation to the next stage of the 2020 narrative. Current events now come into the hands of individuals, to realize more fully each one’s role in the economic sphere and in relationship to one another with regard to standing for social justice. First steps into this sphere are not as concrete, and are particularly reliant on healthy imaginations about the future that live within individual human hearts.
It has been my intention here to suggest that these three comets are related to the three-fold social organism as described by Rudolf Steiner, to foster a further striving toward a healthy social life, wherein the true, inner nature of the human being can find fullest expression in outer life, through healthy economic, social, and cultural forms. In this picture, the virus is imagined as a great quickener in the experience of contemporary humanity, revealing the social consequences wrought by the current state of our economic relationships, in the life of rights as expressed by our systems of governance, and in the sacred sovereignty of our freedoms as individuals in the cultural sphere. The comets, then, can be imagined as having been sent into our system to sweep up the chaos and astrality that has been released in this quickening. Vreede writes, “Human beings receive what they need from the cosmos in order to become self-reliant and independent.”
The Comet ATLAS, as giant, can be imagined as the will nature of being human, and its appearance was simultaneous to a stirring in the global economic sphere, where we would awaken to association rather than competition; likewise, Comet SWAN can be imagined in relation to the feeling life, especially as demonstrated by the communities that bear the cross of social injustice and that seek our awakening in the rights sphere; and now Comet NEOWISE coming into naked-eye view during the weeks of the soul’s summer dreaming, when in dreamlike quiet the thought life must rest content, while new organs of perception gestate, for meeting the world anew when we awaken through the rise of meteoric iron cast into the system through the Michaelic Perseid meteor shower come August.
A snapshot of planetary aspects further augments this imagination:
In January 2020, the great line up of the planets Saturn and Pluto with Mercury, Sun and Moon, as well as the attendant predictions about what it could mean, activated the will toward the future.
Just after Spring Equinox, in March, it was as though a chalice to support the feeling life was formed when Venus and Mercury came to greatest elongation on opposite sides of the Sun at New Moon, just days after the waning crescent had passed the morning gathering of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. Though not visible to the naked eye, Pluto was also nearby, and was joined by Jupiter in the same degree of the zodiac on March 27 (when Comets SWAN and NEOWISE were “born”), and just as Saturn crossed over the degree of zodiac where it will meet Jupiter in Great Conjunction several months from now, at Winter Solstice. As Rudolf Steiner described in his lectures on the “Spiritual Individualities of the Planets”: Mars, Jupiter and Saturn may be called the liberating planets; they give the human being freedom. On the other hand, Venus, Mercury and the Moon may be called the destiny-determining planets.
By the beginning of June 2020, the planet Venus completed the formation of its first pentagram since its Transit eight years earlier, when it came
to conjunction with the Sun June 3rd, 2020, just three days after Whitsun. This macrocosmic gesture by Venus, which is particularly active in the etheric body of the human being, was followed a few weeks later by a meeting of Venus with the waning Crescent Moon, as though the pentagram was now being handed on to the microcosmic, or “sub-lunary” sphere of the Earth.
Then the Sun stood still, and the Moon swept into its arms, causing an annular solar eclipse known dramatically as a ring of fire eclipse. Solar Eclipses allow a release of unbridled astral forces into the greater cosmos, where it just so happens NEOWISE is now active, as though gathering up the “ash” of these unbridled forces and bearing them to the Sun for moulding into new impulses. “We can grasp the nature of the Sun only when we know something of its nature of spirit and soul. In that realm it is the power which imbues with warmth the element of necessity in destiny, resolves destiny into freedom in its flame and, if freedom is misused, condenses it once more into its own active substance. The Sun is, as it were, the flame in which freedom becomes a luminous reality in the universe. And at the same time the Sun is the substance in which, as condensed ashes, misused freedom is moulded into destiny~until destiny itself can become luminous and pass over into the flames of freedom.” Rudolf Steiner, “Spiritual Individualities of the Planets”.
As I write, Jupiter has made its annual opposition with the Sun, and Saturn approaches the same aspect, just a few days from now. The two gas giants are relatively close to one another in the sky, as they will be throughout the Summer into the Fall, on their way to their once-every-20-years Great Conjunction at Winter Solstice. This conjunction has the mood of annunciation about it, as though the spiritual world has sent its herald, or, many heralds, into the realm of our experience, announcing that a migration is underway, only it is not a migration from one geographic location to the next, but a migration in consciousness. This experience can be likened to passing through the eye of a needle, as my friend and colleague Brian Gray described it, but though such an image may seem at first to impose confinement that can inhibit us in the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, the inverse may actually be more true~that the greater my sense of association in the economic sphere, of justice and equality in the rights sphere, and of freedom for others in the cultural sphere, the more room I make for all of us to migrate into the new.
While there are many ways to interpret these phenomena, building a bridge to the cosmos out of current events allows us to realize our speaking into the celestial environment, where our activity in the social organism as a humanity, in community, and as individuals can serve to nourish the powers that wait on our noble deeds, thereby strengthening our capacity to realize our higher nature, described as Spirit Man in spiritual science. New ways of being in the economy, in the rights sphere, and as creative individuals that hold the temple of the body and the life of the other as sacred in the cultural sphere, are dawning. At dawn, the forces that held sway through the night give way, and though these old forces, once released, seek to wreak havoc, the comets are at work, gathering in any unleashed, unbridled astrality unto themselves, extending the life of opportunity for humanity to boldly awaken.
“What matters is that impulses connected with evolution as it moves towards the future shall work upon and awaken slumbering powers in the human being. Prophecies may or may not be accurate in every detail; what matters is that powers shall be awakened in the human being…the raison d’être of prophecy does not lie in the appeasement of curiosity or the thirst for knowledge, but in the impulses it can give to work for the sake of the future…in this striving for awareness of the future a seed has formed, not for the appeasement or the cravings for knowledge or curiosity, but as fire for our will.” ~Rudolf Steiner “Prophecy Its Nature and Meaning.”
~Mary Stewart Adams
You may listen to recent podcasts about the comet and other phenomena of the night sky here.