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Portents and Omens at Election Time


Is history repeating itself with the current political hurly-burly? Martin Hickes looks to the stars…….

ASTROLOGY has long been viewed by many as being the quack cousin of the ‘proper’ science of astronomy, but when it comes to political change and the stars, to the poetic imagination at least, it seems there really is nothing new under the sun.

Since Shakespeare’s day, to writers and some stargazers, the heavens have long been the abode of portents and omens and harbingers of political upheaval.

Viewers in Yorkshire will be able to wake up to the curious heavenly conjunction of the planet Venus – the brightest of the planets -  nestled just alongside the new, waxing  or renewing crescent moon on Sunday May 16.

Both bodies will be close enough to appear to almost ‘kiss’ in the sky of the early morning   - and to observers in the southern hemisphere, the most brilliant of planets will appear from behind the returning moon.

Those who read portents into such signs will no doubt make much of such, but perhaps not for the first time in history, are the stars proving to be prophetic when it comes to political machinations of earth?

Modern science has little if no truck with such ‘coincidences’, but history, literature and poetry are littered with celestial omens and portents reflecting or predicting changes for kings and those in power.

The planet Jupiter  - which some online twitters and pseud ‘sooths’ have, perhaps conveniently, been observing ‘shadowing’ the waning crescent moon since the election on May 6 -  has long been associated in lore as being the ruler of the heavens, with a direct link to mankind’s machinations.

And while strictly pooh-poohed by astronomers, new moons and conjunctions of major bodies and other curious astro happenings have always presaged change and union in mythology.

Halley’s Comet appearance in 1066 is well known, presaging the downfall and rise respectively of Harold and the rise of William the Conqueror.

The Roman leader Constantine the Great, according to legend, famously saw a vision in which either a cross or a fish was emblazoned above the sun in the sky.

A loud, steady voice then allegedly told him, In hoc signo vinces ("In this sign you will win"). He used the sign as a standard in battle successfully bringing Christianity to the Empire.

The later Elizabethans were even more fearful of the heavens, believing a direct relationship existed between the movement of the ‘celestial orbs’ and the affairs of men.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  is packed with celestial omens and portents presaging his downfall as are King Lear and Hamlet.

At the time of Julius Caesar’s first performance, Elizabeth I, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a political strife similar to that of Rome might break out after her death.

But perhaps the most resonant story from history is that of Edward IV, the leader of the Yorkist faction in the deadlock of the War of the Roses.

Locked in the bitter power deadlock of 1461, he witnessed the unusual sight of three ‘sundogs’ – or two false suns and the genuine sun – rising in the low dawn before the  decisive battle of Mortimer’s Cross.

Shakespeare’s play Henry VI Pt 3 – has it that his witnessing of the event – known to astronomers as ‘parhelion’  - spurred him on to a decisive victory which would change the course of history.

In Act Two Scene One of Henry VI Pt 3, Edward (then the Earl of March) and his political ally and ‘Kingmaker’ Richard Neville,  Earl of Warwick exclaim:

“Dazzle my eyes or do I see three suns?

“Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun;
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But sever'd in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, see! they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vow'd some league inviolable:
Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun.
In this the heaven figures some event.”

Historians and writers surmise Edward and his Yorkist troops took the the ‘triple sun’ as a portent of good luck  - a ‘Trinity’ in highly religious times and also as an emblem.

It was not until later that they adopted the famous white rose, hence Richard’s III’s reference to the glorious sun of York at the start of the eponymous play.

History also, perhaps portently, recounts how Warwick, Edward’s ‘Kingmaker’, - the wealthiest and most powerful lord of his age - later turncoated and sided with the Lancastrians to propel them to power.

Edward had ruled with Warwick’s support but the pair was unable to agree on policy.

Warwick jumped ship and helped to restore Henry VI, only to be crushed in battle by his own machinations, and his original master, and the course of history changed forever.

Whatever the outcome of the current political strife, perhaps there is nothing new under the sun? Old Bill Shakespeare, where are you when we need you?



  • Sunday’s conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus will be visible in the east from after dawn on Sunday May 16, and will be most striking around 9pm in the west.
  • Jupiter and Venus are of course miles from the moon, but the ‘flat’ appearance of the night sky can give the appearance of astro bodies joining or ‘tracking’ each other to earthly observers.
  • Properly called a parhelion, a sundog occurs by chance when sunlight bends through a high, icy haze in the atmosphere. On either side of a faint halo around the sun appear two bright—sometimes very bright—spots, the result of refraction.
  • Astrology and astronomy are two quite distinct disciplines and their proponents have historically often been poles apart.