In 1557, the third edition of French physician and mystic Michel de Nostredame’s Les Prophéties was going to print. Better known as Nostradamus, there is no similar work of alleged prophecy that has remained so popular and had such a cultural impact, and Les Prophéties has remained available in print now for five centuries.
Although Nostradamus managed to garner tremendous fame, he was not the only scholar of his day who took pen to paper with prophetic visions and sensational occult lore. 1557 also saw the publication of another work that has taken on near-mythical status in the ensuing centuries by one of Nostradamus's contemporaries, Conrad Lycosthenes, who published the first edition of his Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, or “Chronicle of portents and prophecies.”
Published in Basel, Northwestern Switzerland, Lycosthenes’ famous work was notable for its mishmash of oddities and legendary beings, peppered with images and accounts of things in nature which, although little understood at the time, actually had real-life counterparts. Particularly noteworthy is the appearance of a rhinoceros rendered by Albrecht Dürer in the Prodigiorum, which became one of the most widely-referenced images of the creature for its time (and even for centuries thereafter).
It was not the only image from the Prodigiorum that has become noteworthy or novel. Another famous image from the text accompanies an entry that tells of an unusual comet that appeared over the Arabian Peninsula in 1479. The account (given in medieval Latin) describes the comet as having a sharp beam and various distinct sharp points or protrusions, with one resembling a scythe in shape and appearance. The account notes that in April of the same year the sighting of this celestial wonder took place, the Peace of Olomouc, a treaty between Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and King Vladislaus II of Bohemia was signed, which brought the two-decade-long Bohemian–Hungarian War to a close.
The image that accompanies this entry has garnered much attention over the years for its superficial similarity to a modern rocket-type aircraft, with a scythe positioned lengthwise across the body of the comet. On account of its rocket shape, the “comet” of 1479 depicted in the Prodigiorum has been likened by some to being the first artistic depiction of a UFO. Scholars correctly counter this notion on account of the fact that the Latin account captioned alongside the image explicitly refers to the object as a comet.
However, without making the assertion that the object is instead some variety of structured aircraft, it would be fair to say that almost any unusual object seen passing through the sky during this period would likely have been called a comet; there were notable appearances of great comets (that is, those which are exceptionally bright) perhaps as early as 372 BC, and notable appearances during the Middle Ages in 1402 and 1556, but none which would fall specifically within the year of 1479. Other possible interpretations of the object may include a meteor or any number of naturally occurring atmospheric phenomena, which were similarly represented as anomalies in broadsheets and wood cuttings of this era.
It is also not surprising that a scythe would have been associated with the comet, as traditional symbolism associated with the scythe includes death, as well as justice (hence why anthropomorphic representations of death as a “grim reaper” usually display him carrying a scythe). Many world traditions held the view that comets are omens of death and destruction. It is possible that this could be associated with cultural memories of asteroid impacts or airbursts in ancient times, which would have firmly planted the notion that such aerial visitors warned of potential destruction.
On an unrelated, but interesting note, Nostradamus gives us the following passage early in his prophecies, published around the same time:
A scythe joined with a pond in Sagittarius
at its highest ascendant.
Plague, famine, death from military hands;
the century approaches its renewal.
As with so many of Nostradamus’ “predictions,” much is left open to interpretation here, and the fact that the scythe is mentioned joining “with a pond in Sagittarius” does not appear to be in any way related to the strange aerial object of 1479. A more likely interpretation among followers of Nostradamus would have been to associate this passage and its mention of a scythe with the red flag of the Soviet Union, which depicted the crossing of a gold hammer and sickle beneath a star. Given this interpretation, the mention of “Plague, famine, [and] death from military hands” takes on greater historical relevance.
As for Lycosthenes and his account of a rocket or UFO-like “comet” over Arabia in 1479, it is always tempting to project our modern ideas—and technologies—onto the past. However, time has shown this to be a bad idea, particularly in the case of claims about UFOs dropping in and making appearances in medieval and Renaissance art which, to any theologian, would quite obviously have more mundane interpretations. Comet or not, the aerial object of 1479 is certainly odd-looking, but it will take more than a 16th-century woodcut to provide the smoking gun for medieval visitations to Earth by extraterrestrial spacecraft.