For reasons only known to my subconscious, as I was strolling the other morning, I thought back to the grand conjunction last winter, and how so many people wondered “What does it mean?” What significance, other than being a really neat astronomical event, did it hold? Was it a good omen, a warning, a sign of something Great about to happen? Astronomers and some clergy got irked at all the to-do, because conjunctions like that are not as rare as they seem, and people were “losing the meaning” of the event, whatever that was supposed to mean (varied between astronomer and clerical denomination.)
Alas for the experts, mankind has been looking for hints about the future, or about decision making, ever since Og observed a shooting star and took it to mean something, back in the days of Neandertal vs. Cro-magnon. As a species, we don’t like uncertainty, so we look for clues and hints as to what might be coming. We count stripes on wooly-worms to determine the length of winter and how hard it will be. We make note of the weather the first 12 days of the year, to see how wet or dry the next 12 months will be. We make wishes on the first star, or on shooting stars. We use cards, or yarrow stalks, or fruit peels, or tea leaves, to try and see into the future or to guide decisions. We watch birds in flight, or animals on the move. As a species, we are superstitious, even those of us who are more inclined toward science than to “woo.” We avoid walking under ladders, or always dress in a certain order when we have a big test or presentation or something. And that’s in the “rational, post-Enlightenment” part of the world.
Reading birds is where we get the term auspix, or augury, and thus auspicious. The Romans looked at bird innerds, watched flocks of birds in flight, or observed feeding chickens to see what the future might hold. Some groups read the future in eggs, although exactly how varies from place to place and over time. Certain birds were considered ill omened, like a rooster crowing at the wrong time, and might signify a coming death, or misfortune. If one flew across your path, you would be well advised to turn around and at the very least try a different path. Better might be to go home and wait another day to depart, if possible.
Comets, novae, noctilucent clouds . . . all have been seen as ill or good omens. Haley’s Comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Chinese records. Several diaries from just before the outbreak of the Thirty-Years War describe burning lights in the sky, noctilucent clouds and a comet. “Fire in the skies” or “war in the heavens” what did they mean? Looking back, everyone knew – terrible war, and hunger, and plague. In 1066, after the Normans won, of course the comet meant that Harold Godwinson had been an oath-breaker who usurped the throne, and William of Normandy was just and blessed for claiming what was rightfully his. No one asked the Saxons or Welsh their opinion, one suspects.
People look for signs in smaller things. The Rule of Three – three bad things in a row and then you’re OK for a while. If you button something out of order, undo it all, then redo it all, or you’ll have misfortune. “Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger, sneeze on Tuesday, sneeze for a stranger . . .” If a bird flies into a house, someone will die. Shapes in tea-leaves. Finding a penny, or a pin, and picking it up. Don’t walk under a ladder. Do make a wish on the first star, or on a shooting star (but don’t tell anyone your wish). Use something like a Ouija board, or Magic Eight Ball (“future uncertain”) to divine the future, or decide what to do. Horoscopes? Tarot? Rune tiles? We want to know what’s coming, for good or for ill.
But don’t step on a crack. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.