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Velikovsky and his Comet

Although now completely discredited, the “catastrophist cosmology” theories of Dr Immanuel Velikovsky (1895, Vitebsk, Russia–1979, Princeton New Jersey) from time to time still attract the attention of a new generation of readers, who may be discovering his writings for the first time.

Velikovsky obtained his medical degree from Moscow University in 1921 and after post-graduate studies he practiced psychiatry in Palestine from 1924 to 1939. In 1939 he went on sabbatical leave to the United States, intending to research a book on Oedipus, Akhenaton and Moses, however in the spring of 1940 (Velikovsky, 1972, p 12 and 1973, p v) he was diverted into a new area of research. He began to consider that there might have been a single causal event to explain many of the extraordinary Old Testament events including the ten plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna, the events at Mount Sinai and other astonishing biblical events, such as the sun standing still in the heavens. Within six months (Velikovsky, 1972, p 64) he had developed his “catastrophist cosmology” theory. This theory, which was to dominate his life, claimed all of these biblical events had been precipitated by the appearance of a planet-sized comet.

Unable to return to Palestine because of WW II, he had by 1942 completed the first full draft of his theories (Velikovsky, 1973, pp vi–vii): these would later be published as Worlds in Collision (1950), Ages in Chaos (1952), and Earth in Upheaval (1955). Although these books attracted a great deal of favourable public and media interest, they were criticised by many scientists who, in general, considered his claims to be unscientific nonsense.

His “catastrophist cosmology” ideas were broadly based on a natural theological approach, in which so-called biblical “miracles” tend to be attributed to naturally occurring phenomena, rather than to supernatural causes. Before the Age of Enlightenment biblical “miracles” had been accepted almost without question as examples of God using his divine powers to perform acts which were outside the limitations of the natural world. However, with the development of a more rational and scientific approach it was increasingly suggested that God may have used conventional rather than supernatural phenomena to produce these events. In adopting this approach, Velikovsky was merely following the lead of earlier writers who had also cited catastrophic events to explain extraordinary biblical events.

One of these was William Whiston (Isaac Newton’s successor at Cambridge) who believed that since God had created a perfect paradise the weather must have also been constantly perfect. This implied Paradise had only a single summery season, and so the Earth must have moved around the Sun in a perfectly circular orbit (Whiston, 1737, p 114). From Hellenic times the circle had been considered “the perfect figure” and was believed to be the orbital shape of all heavenly bodies both in the geocentric model of the cosmos and the heliocentric model of the solar system by Copernicus. However, according to Whiston, after the Fall this perfect order had been changed by the passing of a great comet. Not only had this comet forced the Earth into an elliptical orbit, which enlarged and lengthened “...its periodical time” (p 467) producing for the first time the cycle of seasons, but later, in the year 2349 BCE, the same comet had been the cause of Noah’s Flood (p 142).

Similar religiously biased ideas form the core of Velikovsky’s theories, yet while others were content to attribute the extraordinary phenomenon of Exodus to the actions of rather mundane events such as tornadoes or earthquakes, Velikovsky proposed an incredibly spectacular cosmic scenario. He claimed that circa 2,000 BCE the planet Jupiter had ejected a huge mass of material into space. This ejecta was nothing less than a completely new proto-planet, Venus, which in the form of a comet had initially travelled in an elliptical orbit from the vicinity of Jupiter around the Sun and back again, regularly crossing the orbits of Earth and Mars (Velikovsky, 1972, p 64) and that on several occasions it had actually collided with both planets, unleashing cataclysmic destruction on both.

He claimed the comet had precipitated a number of catastrophes which coincided with certain miraculous biblical events, namely:

  1. Circa 1495 BCE at the time of the Exodus (p 97) it had precipitated the plagues of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, and delivered the Ten Commandments
  2. The comet left a large number of great stones suspended in the “celestial sphere” (p 152) and some fifty-two years later (p 63) these rained down onto the Amorites, the enemies of the Israelites. At the same time “...the Earth was brought out of rotation” (Velikovsky, 1942) which caused the sun to stand still in the heavens over Gibeon, (Joshua 10:12-13)
  3. Circa 689 BCE the planet Mars, having been displaced by the comet, “blasted” the camp of the Assyrians who were besieging Jerusalem and killed 185,000 of them during the night (2 Kings 19:35).

Velikovsky (1972) claimed that the comet first approached Earth on a collision course circa 1495 BCE (p 64), at a time when Moses was demanding that pharaoh free the Israelites. When this request was refused the comet intervened and created the miraculous plagues which finally forced the pharaoh to release the Israelites. At that time, the comet “...on its way from its perihelion... touched the Earth first with its gaseous tail” (p 64) and rained down onto the Earth “...a fine dust of rusty pigment” (p 64) which choked the rivers, turned the seas, lakes and rivers a bloody red colour, poisoned the fish and brought widespread death and disease to many (Exodus 7:20-21): this was the first plague. The poisoned river encouraged an abundance of frogs and lice, the second and third plagues. The fourth plague was an infestation of “swarms of flies”: these, according to Velikovsky, were the vermin (p 371) that came from the comet. Similarly, Velikovsky claimed the hail and fire of the seventh plague, (Exodus 9:23-24) occurred when the Earth fully entered the comet’s tail and was bombarded by a great hail of meteors and enveloped in massive clouds of burning carbon and hydrocarbon naphtha gases which ignited Earth’s forests and covered the land and the seas for a period of seven years (p 71).

As the Israelites left Egypt they were accompanied by a “pillar of cloud” to lead them during the day, “...and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light” (Exodus13:21). This phenomenon, Velikovsky claimed, occurred when the Earth passed through the neck of the comet and “A tremendous spark sprang forth at the moment of the nearest approach of the comet...” (Velikovsky, 1972, p 100); this massive flow of electrical energy between the comet and the Earth shrouded the planet “ a dark column of gases which looked like a pillar of smoke during the day and of fire at night (p 91). When pharaoh reneged and sent his army after the Israelites they reached them on the shores of the Red Sea. At that time the pillar of cloud then moved between the Israelites and their enemies and enveloped the Egyptians in a cloud of darkness (Exodus 14:20). This, Velikovsky claimed, was the “angel of God” (Exodus 14:19) which held back the pursuing Egyptians while Moses arranged for the Lord to part the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21).

The Red Sea parted and the Israelites, “...went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground” (Exodus 14:22). Although the Bible claims the parting of the Red Sea was due to the presence of “...a strong east wind ” (Exodus 14:21) which blew all night long, Velikovsky suggests the actual cause was that the sea was lifted by a combination of geological upheavals and the gravitational pull of the comet. The comet then conveniently remained in place allowing the Israelites adequate time to cross the sea-floor, but then as the gravitational attraction of the comet waned, the sea flooded back, overwhelming the Egyptians, who were thrown high into the air (p 102) and completely destroyed.

Then, as the Earth approached the head of the comet there were worldwide earthquakes on a scale never experienced before or since. The entire surface of the Earth was ripped open, volcanoes erupted worldwide, producing lava flows 1.5 kilometers thick; the oceans were thrown from their beds creating kilometers high tsunamis which swept across the continents; rivers boiled or simply disappeared. Then, the Earth’s poles were reversed, the North Pole, formerly located between Greenland and North America, moved approximately 159 degrees, to become the South Pole; the axis of the Earth shifted and the Earth’s rotation was reversed (p 91). Finally, the Earth “...proceeded on a distorted orbit” (p 91), its orbital speed around the sun slowed from 260 days to 360 days. In the midst of all this devastation most of humanity perished. Above the Earth the Moon changed its orbit (p 344) and the lunar month had changed from 20 days to 29 days (p 345). In the midst of all these cataclysmic events, apparently unaffected, Moses continued to lead his people into the wilderness!

The comet then retreated from the Earth for about seven weeks (p 108) but returned briefly to produce miraculous events at Mount Sinai. It covered the mountain with a thick cloud (Exodus 19:9), produced thunder and lightning (Exodus 19:16), the mountain “quaked greatly” (Exodus 19:18), then great trumpeting noises were heard (Exodus 19:19). According to Velikovsky the comet emitted ten separate “trumpet like sounds” (p 111). Incredibly, these ten blasts were actually the Ten Commandments, and these were heard all round the world, in seventy different languages, “ that all might understand it”(p 112).

Velikovsky (1972) claimed that the comet returned fifty-two years later when Joshua and the Israelites were in battle against the armies of the Amorite kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon. First the comet showered the Amorites with “great stones” and “hailstones” (Joshua 10:11) then it temporarily interrupted the Earth’s rotation (p 60) so that the sun stood still over Beth-horon (p 152, Joshua 10:11) to allow Joshua time to finish off his enemies. The claim that the sun stood still or reversed its rotation is used several times in the Old Testament: see also Isaiah 38:8 where it is claimed “...the sun returned ten degrees”. This was at the time of the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib.

Later, in the eighth century BCE, Venus and Mars collided, causing Venus to change its course “...from an elliptical to a nearly circular orbit” (p 264). Then, some time between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE “...the earth and Mars... assumed new positions in the solar system” (p 368). In 747 BCE the displaced Mars began a regular cycle whereby it approached close to Earth every fifteen years. Between 747 and 687 BCE “ and lunar movements changed repeatedly” (p 350). The Moon changed its orbital period from 36 days to 29 days (p 345), then, at midnight, March 23 687 BCE (Velikovsky, 1942) Mars came so close to the Earth that it changed its orbital period from 360 days to 365¼ (Velikovsky, 1972, p 324, 333–344, 358). Velikovsky claimed that it was the close approach of Mars circa 689 BCE which destroyed the forces of Sennacherib who were besieging Jerusalem: “A blast from the planet Mars fell upon the camp of the Assyrians and annihilated it” (p 298). Finally, both Mars and Venus settled into their present stable orbits.

Sagan (1979) examined Velikovsky’s claims, and while he conceded “Collisions and catastrophism are part of modern astronomy” (p 105) he was generally scathing of Velikovsky’s theories, particularly with respect to the “...adequacy of the purported evidence” (p 106). Some of his criticisms were:

Other scientists have noted other weaknesses in Velikovsky’s theories:

A major problem with Velikovsky is that the catastrophic events he describes tend to be brief, isolated and poorly defined, lost in the midst of lengthy passages referring to numerous cultural myths which support his theories of catastrophes. As a result, the exact pattern of events he described is rather unclear and ambiguous. As Morrison (2001) indicated, this “...vagueness and lack of quantitative reasoning” (p 69) produces a great deal of frustration when one attempts to make sense of his various theories.

What is quite clear however is that the genesis of his theories was the claimed ejection by Jupiter of the proto-planet Venus with such force that it escaped the gravity of Jupiter to commence travelling in space as a huge comet and that in the course of its erratic travels throughout the solar system it precipitated events which formed the basis for the marvellous biblical events described in Exodus, Joshua and 2 Kings.

As an advocate of Catastrophism and natural theology Velikovsky was so determined to harmonise the irregular behaviour of this imaginary comet with these biblical events that he had to invent quite absurd scenarios. If Velikovsky is to be believed this was no ordinary comet, but rather one which possessed miraculous abilities. Not only was it able to appear and reappear, intervening at critical moments to assist the Israelites, causing death and destruction to their enemies, even causing worldwide cataclysms which destroyed most of humanity, but yet in some mysterious manner it never harmed the Israelites! This saga of cosmic catastrophes is so incredible it could only have been created by Velikovsky’s overwhelming need to provide a natural theological explanation for many of the biblical myths. In doing so he created a number of theories about the nature and behaviour of comets which have now been revealed as completely false, thus he claimed that:

It is now known that a number of major catastrophes have shaped the development of the Earth; these include at least five extinction-level events (ELE) during the past 540 million years (Ma) with the last one, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, occurring some 65.5Ma. Velikovsky’s claims that the last worldwide catastrophe occurred as recently as 2,800–3,500 years ago is disputed by all reputable geologists, for there is simply no evidence of the cataclysmic disasters described by Velikovsky.

To support his dramatic claims Velikovsky studied the records of many ancient cultures, including the Amerindian, Assyrian, Aztec, Chinese and Indians, looking for evidence of cosmic catastrophes. While most scholars considered such stories to be mere myths, Velikovsky was convinced they were eyewitness reports of actual catastrophic events. He insisted they were so reliable they were to be believed, over and above any modern scientific theories with which they might conflict. Despite this, he himself was rather selective in his own interpretation of these ancient texts for in quoting the Midrashim claim that the waters of the sea were raised up to a height of “sixteen hundred miles” he says this was not meant to be a literal figure but merely to indicate that “...the heap of water was tremendous” (p 87).

However what is often overlooked is that the existence of these myths is in itself proof that such events could never have occurred! Velikovsky gave a vivid description of how the entire surface of the Earth was ripped apart, uprooted and thrown around, with huge chasms opening up to expose molten magna which flooded the world, volcanoes erupted and the oceans swept across the continents in tsunamis kilometers high, huge meteors smashed into the Earth leaving a world totally devastated, and all that was left was “...a world enshrouded in an atmosphere filled with smoke and vapor” (Velikovsky, 1972, p 111). Such a description clearly suggests that the Earth must have been totally destroyed—nothing and no one could have survived—so who then could have written the myths which Velikovsky relied upon as evidence of his great cataclysms?

If by some rare chance, a few humans had survived, they would have emerged from the ruins to find a totally devastated world and they would have been forced to rebuild human civilization from the very beginning. Yet there is no evidence of this enormous worldwide destruction or of humans having to make a new start. Instead, we find an unbroken sequence of historical development. Even the Bible, which Velikovsky relies upon as the basis of his theories, describes how, when Moses led his people into Canaan, the land was described as flowing with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27); no mention of a ruined desolate landscape! In addition, rather than there being only a few survivors, the land was described as being inhabited by numerous peoples “...the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites” (Joshua 3:10). There were many cities in the land including Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, Eglon, Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjathjearim, so how could humankind have recovered so quickly after a worldwide catastrophe as that described by Velikovsky?

His admission that his theories were based upon his own “...reconstruction of ancient history” (Velikovsky, 1972, p 64 and 78) is particularly pertinent. It appears he not only reconstructed ancient history but also astronomy and astrophysics to fit his unique theories.

Sadly, his efforts in devising such an elaborate explanation for the extraordinary events in the Bible appear to have been completely wasted, for although he claimed the biblical accounts of the wondrous events in Exodus are “historically true” (p 380) it is now generally accepted that the stories of Moses, the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, and their escape from captivity across the Red Sea, etc. are merely folklore. As Robertson (2004) noted, the Moses story is simply a variation of the Horus myth (p 309) while the account of the actual Exodus itself is merely an analogous myth, adapted by the Israelites from other Middle Eastern sources to demonstrate that just as pagan deities had parted the Primal Sea to create the world so too the god of the Israelites had split the Red Sea to create a new nation (Armstrong, 2005, p 96).

In describing the Israelites as “slaves” Velikovsky (1973, p 24) obviously accepted the biblical account that the Israelites had been enslaved and forced to build the great monuments in Egypt. This has now been revealed as a myth for the builders of these great buildings, including the pyramids, were the Egyptians themselves. Both Ruiz (2001) noted that in the villages where the pyramid builders resided the style of the tombs is clearly Egyptian (p 217), while David (1996) who examined the ancient town Deit el-Medina, home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings from circa 1550–1080 BCE (the period covered by Velikovsky) reported that excavations at various workers’ sites have uncovered a great deal of written material which shows these workers were clearly Egyptians. There is further evidence that these were paid workers not slaves, for as Rice (1999) indicated, on one occasion during the 29th year of the reign of Ramses III (circa 1153 BCE) the workers went on strike (p 166) upset because of a shortage of food, water, clothing and the dark eye makeup necessary to reduce the glare of the sun.

Velikovsky made a number of other unlikely claims, e.g.:

While it cannot be denied that Velikovsky was an outstanding scholar, his areas of expertise did not extend to astrophysics, so it appears that lacking definite scientific evidence he simply created his own fanciful ideas and in doing so convinced himself of the existence of an imaginary comet whose actions conveniently coincided with fictional events in the Old Testament, and even though several of his wild conjectures proved to be valid, the assumptions which led to these conclusions were completely erroneous. As Gould (1977) commented, “Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan—although to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong” (p 153).

Laurie Eddie, November 2011


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