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The surprisingly gruesome mythology of meteorites

Written by Beulah | 24th January 2020

Throughout history, cultures have revered and feared the beauty of a falling star. This has led to a number of surprisingly gruesome theories springing up about where meteorites came from, why they fall, and even what they’re made of (blood-sucking worms, anyone?). A million lightyears away from Disney characters wishing on a star, here are some of our favourite myths about meteorites.

Medusa’s severed head

The Perseids are an abundant meteor shower that occurs annually between 17th July and 24th August. The meteors can be found at the centre—otherwise known as the radiant which is the point a meteor shower starts from—of their namesake constellation: the constellation Perseus. Readers familiar with their Greek myths will recognise Perseus as the legendary Greek hero who turned his enemies to stone by holding up Medusa’s severed head. It's this exact moment–Perseus brandishing a woman's severed head–that the constellation depicts. Which is only the second-most gruesome association of The Perseids.

The saint who was roasted alive

Catholics see The Perseids as representing “the tears of Saint Lawrence”; suspended in the sky all year and then falling back to Earth on 10th August (during The Perseids’ peak). Saint Lawrence was an early-Christian martyr who was roasted alive on a gridiron (a set of parallel beams that form a grid), as a punishment for helping the poor. It was during this roasting that Saint Lawrence was claimed to have said “I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!" After that, what other option did the church have but to make him the patron saint of cooks and comedians?

The constellation Perseus, the top right star is Medusa's head

Stars as heralds of death

Walt Disney did a lot to rehabilitate the night sky’s image when his 1940 adaptation of Pinnochio introduced the world to Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s unforgettable song: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’. Before Disney got involved, however, there were several centuries of humans associating meteors and meteorites with death. The Yolngu Aborigines, for example, used to believe that when they died they were taken away by a mystical canoe. After arriving safely in the spirit land, the dead would send the canoe back to earth as a shooting star for their loved ones to see. 

Blood-sucking fireworms

Slightly less savoury meteor myths included those of The Swabians in Germany who thought that meteors signalled a year of good fortune – unless you saw three meteors in one night, in which case death was upon you. Some ancient cultures believed meteors to be a display of anger from their gods. The Kawaiisu tribe of Northern America feared meteors that would start high in the sky and fall down to the horizon, for they were a sign sickness and death would come to the tribe. While in Siberia, falling stars were seen as ‘blood-sucking fireworms’.

Although most societies no longer believe meteors have a spiritual side, meteorites (the term for meteors that make it to earth) still hold a very special status. They come from parts of the universe we’ll likely never see up close, and they give us a peek into their fascinating stories.

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