On December 21, 2020, sky watchers were treated to a solar spectacle: the great conjunction. Created by the close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn along their respective orbital paths, the conjunction created a super-bright “star” that was visible anywhere on Earth. But not everyone enjoys this planetary light show — some see the great conjunction as a harbinger of curses or apocalyptic omens.
Is this just creative conjecture? Or are there concerning coincidences that lend credence to the notion of a cosmic curse condition? Time for some solar system mystery-solving to see if this is truth, fiction or something in between.
What Is the Great Conjunction?
Conjunctions occur whenever two astronomical objects — including stars, planets, moons or asteroids — appear close together or overlapping in the sky as seen from Earth. This happens when they have the same ecliptic longitude, also called right ascension, which seemingly puts them in the same “spot” in the sky. In fact, these objects are still usually millions of miles from each other, but from the perspective of observers on Earth, they appear in close proximity.
Planetary conjunctions occur regularly, with the trio of Mercury, Mars and Venus accounting for the bulk of these observable overlaps, either with each other or with their more far-flung solar system siblings. The rarest of all conjunctions occurs when Jupiter “catches” Saturn along its orbital path. These “great conjunctions” occur once every 20 years, but not every great conjunction is so great for those on Earth.
In some cases, the planets are close together but not so close that they form a single point of light. In others, the bulk of the conjunction occurs during the day or isn’t visible in certain parts of the world. It’s been 400 years since Jupiter and Saturn appeared this close to each other, and before 2020, the last time the planets were both less than a 10th of a degree apart in the sky and widely visible at night was March 4, 1226.
Creating the Ideal Conditions for a Cosmic Curse
While cosmic phenomena like the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction make for spectacular viewing, they also create the conditions for speculation around more nonscientific happenings. In much the same way solar and lunar eclipses were often thought to be harbingers of change or doom, so too are great conjunctions sometimes considered to be explanations for real-world events.
Consider Tecumseh’s curse. Legend has it that after Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were defeated in the Battle of Tippecanoe and Tecumseh was killed, Tenskwatawa placed a curse on then-Gov. William Henry Harrison, who went on to become president in 1840. During his inaugural speech, Harrison caught pneumonia and died a month later. Tecumseh’s curse — as it came to be known — was said to be responsible for Harrison’s fate and was blamed for the deaths of other presidents elected in years ending in zero. From Abraham Lincoln to Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy, the “curse” held until Ronald Reagan (elected in 1980) survived a 1981 assassination attempt.
The common denominator? Each of the election years ending in zero included the great conjunction, leading some to conclude that the planetary alignment of Jupiter (the Roman king of the gods) and Saturn (his father) was responsible for the death of these American leaders.
If You Don’t Succeed Tri, Tri and Trigon Again
Tecumseh’s curse wasn’t the first time the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction was tapped as a source of strife. According to University of Rochester historian Laura Ackerman Smoller, medieval and Renaissance-age Europeans often connected this celestial event to apocalyptic prophecies. In part, this was because Jupiter and Saturn were the slowest moving and most distant planets yet discovered and the 20-year conjunction cycle made it easy to line up prophetic prediction with observable cosmic events.
Zodiac-based astrology also played a role in amping up the effects of these conjunctions. With the 12 zodiac signs divided into four “trigons” of three fire signs, three water signs, three earth signs and, three air signs, conjunctions inevitably aligned with the zodiac map to appear within one trigon repeatedly over three consecutive planetary meetups. After 12 conjunctions — or around 240 years — the conjunction moved into a new trigon, in turn heralding change. Every 960 years, the “greatest conjunction” occurred, which saw the pattern return to its beginning. Supposedly, these large trigonal shifts were tied to events such as the birth of religious leaders or the onset of natural disasters.
In practice, the exact dates of these events were often adjusted to better fit conjunction patterns and line up with predictions.
Let’s Get Together
Bottom line? Stay healthy if you’re hoping to see the next big great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 2080. And if you’re concerned that the 2040 conjunction will bring bad luck, take solace in the fact that the two giants won’t appear to be quite so close — and remember that planetary pairings tend to pique the human penchant for pattern predilection.
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