Immanuel Velikovsky argued famously, based on his interpretation of ancient sources, that Venus had emerged from Jupiter as a comet, interacted with the Earth and Mars in the second and first millennia B.C., and then finally settled into a nearly circular orbit of the Sun.
Four new lines of reasoning support a revised and enhanced version of this theory.
First, instead of the various unpersuasive suggestions that Velikovsky and others have made for how a cometary Venus could have emerged from Jupiter, we should consider the possible consequences of the immense gravitational field of Jupiter, which pulls into the giant planet a stream of asteroids and comets such as Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994. A plausible scenario would have an initially dark, cold proto-Venus, pulled by Jupiter’s gravity from the outer solar system shortly before 2500 B.C., pass close to Jupiter yet manage to escape its gravitational field. We can term this the Peripheral Passage of Jupiter by Venus, and we can assume that extreme tidal forces from Jupiter’s gravitational field created tremendous heating and a great cometary tail visible to observers on Earth.
This would account for the curious stories of the ancient Greeks, that Athena (Venus—eventually Aphrodite replaced Athena in this role) was born from the head of Zeus (Jupiter), and of the ancient Hindus, that Shukra (Venus) emerged from the mouth of Shiva (Guru or Jupiter). According to Greek myth, Zeus turned the pregnant Metis into a fly who zipped into his mouth. She gave birth to Athena inside of him, and then Athena emerged from his head on the opposite side from his mouth. In effect, a Greek observer spotted proto-Venus when it was approaching Jupiter as tidal friction heated it up to incandescence, and the Greeks called it Metis (this interpretation postdates Velikovsky).
We also now know that Athena was originally A Fena, The Phoenician, referring to the brilliant comet rising in the East.1 So, too, the Roman Venus (evidently originally Fenus, The Phoenician). Velikovsky misinterpreted the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus myth to mean that Venus had been explosively expelled from Jupiter itself. His scientific critics rightly considered that bizarre and unacceptable, so his reputation suffered and his other valuable contributions were ignored.2
Proto-Venus would have been large and dense enough to maintain its integrity in the gravitational and magnetic fields of Jupiter, though the entire planet would have become molten. This Venus would possess a set of elements different from those of Jupiter itself. This scenario would also resolve the paradox that Venus is old (the proto-Venus) and yet its surface features appear young (shaped by its Peripheral Passage).
The Peripheral Passage explanation overcomes the three chief objections—escape velocity, elemental composition, and heat generation—to the assertion of Velikovsky that Venus emerged as a comet from Jupiter. The issue of the Jovian origin of Venus has been perhaps the leading criticism of Velikovsky’s theories (it was #1 on astronomer Carl Sagan’s list) as well as a key reason for denying validity to ancient accounts, many in mythical form, as sources of astronomical, climatic, and geological information.3 These objections held particular importance because the whole theory depended on the reported emergence of a comet-like Venus from Jupiter, which seemed outlandish and not credible to critics. Now that this emergence can be seen to have a commonsensical, scientifically plausible explanation, the credibility of the ancient observers, who after all were eyewitnesses, must rise accordingly; and therefore their other stories must be examined more carefully as potential sources of important information. In short, some ancient myths are fanciful; others contain important truths.
The story of Metis ties into a more general theory of the terrestrial planets of which an appropriately modified version of Velikovsky’s theory forms part. Peripheral Passage could also account for two specific roles that Jupiter played in ancient myth: as father of the gods (such passages of various initially invisible celestial bodies near or touching Jupiter could have been viewed as births) and as hurler of thunderbolts (the energy generated by Jupiter’s active processes could have caused gigantic lightning bolts visible from Earth to leap onto objects passing nearby).
The Black Drop
Second, the Black Drop observed during the transits of Venus across the solar disk appears to be the residual tail of the comet/planet. On ingress from the solar limb, the Black Drop stretches out behind Venus; on egress, it appears in front of the planet. During transit, it is not visible. A residual comet’s tail on Venus would be shifted by the solar wind from trailing the planet at ingress, to standing away from the sun during transit (thus only the disk of Venus would appear), and finally to preceding the planet at egress.
The Black Drop is usually ascribed to various optical effects. One 18th-century observer said it made the planet look “like a nine pin”. Drawings by observers make the Black Drop appear exactly like a small tail. The effect was originally thought to be related to the atmosphere of Venus, but the Black Drop was subsequently found to be too large. Mercury, which has no atmosphere, also has a Black Drop when transiting the sun; and it is clearly visible from a space-based telescope, so this effect is not an artifact of the Earth’s atmosphere. This suggests that either the Black Drops of both planets are caused by some extra-atmospheric optical effect or that both planets possess remnants of comet tails (Mercury could have captured some of Venus’ tail during a close encounter).
Presumably, the motion of Venus would make the tail (Black Drop) shorter at egress than at ingress, which could be measured; it is possible that skewing of the tail could be detected in transits that cut very obliquely across the Sun; and there might be some way to detect the tail as it stands away from the surface of the planet during transit. Or a sensitive telescope might detect a residual tail even when Venus is not transiting the Sun. Venus also possesses a much-studied gas tail that extends as far as the Earth’s orbit, so this also needs to be investigated in reference to the Black Drop.4 A recent explanation of the Black Drop based on a Mercury transit observed from an Earth-orbiting telescope is that the effect is caused by the combination of the point-spread function of the telescope and “solar limb darkening”.5 According to the cometary tail hypothesis, the solar limb darkening is not a cause of the Black Drop but an effect of the residual comet tail.
Findings from an investigation of the Black Drop may also help resolve the question of the Ashen Light, faint luminescence on the night side of Venus first reported in 1643. Since the Ashen Light appears in roughly the same location opposite the incoming solar wind as would a cometary tail, it may be caused by chemical reactions within a residual tail of Venus. Presumably the strong glare of the solar orb prevents us from seeing the Ashen Light during transit by making the Black Drop appear blacker than it would otherwise be. Both the Black Drop and the Ashen Light appear to have become harder to detect over the years since the early telescope astronomers spotted them. This would be consistent with the diminution over several centuries of a residual comet tail.
Images from the European Space Agency’s Venus Express in 2013 show that a slowdown of solar wind activity leads the ionosphere of Venus to extend itself in a teardrop-shaped, comet-like fashion out to at least 12,000 km. In effect, observation of the Black Drop and the Ashen Light might depend on the intensity of the solar wind at the time of viewing.
Third, although present-day Venus is very spheroidal, its center of mass is displaced from its center of figure by 280 meters in a way that appears to have been the result of tidal locking during Peripheral Passage of Jupiter. In ancient times Venus was depicted as ovoid, e.g., in Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound and in the depiction of Egyptian goddess Sekhmet.
This striking shape can readily be explained as the consequence of the pull of Jupiter’s gravity on the passing, molten Venus during tidal locking. The comet-planet evidently came close to being torn in two. The anomalous, very slow retrograde rotation of Venus (which, however, is rapidly shifting toward prograde) can likewise be powerfully explained as a result of tidal locking to Jupiter.
Fourth, a new interpretation of iconographic evidence also deserves attention.6 In the photograph from Abu Simbel of Pharaoh Ramses II and his consort Nefertari appear what look like the comet Venus and its two-pronged tail in Nefertari’s headdress, and the smaller Mars with its two imperfectly round moons and its own tail, presumably of dust stirred up by an encounter with Venus or borrowed from Venus’ tail, in the headdress of Ramses II. What is the age of this sculpture? How could the ancient Egyptians have seen the moons of Mars with the naked eye? How could these headdresses be explained other than as depictions of Venus and Mars during approaches to the Earth?
In fact, in addition to these four points, an extensive array of new evidence supports the Venus theory.7
Thus it seems fair to conclude that the central issue of the Velikovsky controversy has been decided. With a single major correction regarding the origin of Venus and some lesser corrections, his argument that Venus repeatedly approached Earth has triumphed, though many peripheral issues remain open to debate.
Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history. See the biosketch at About Us.