WHAT THE ANCIENTS SAW IN ST. ELMO’S FIRE
LIGHTS ON THE SEA St. Elmo’s fire is a weather phenomenon that is sometimes seen at sea during a thunderstorm, when there is high voltage in the air between the clouds and the ground. It appears in particular circumstances and is like a tall street lamp, glowing with blue flames but not actually burning. Through the centuries, this phenomenon has caused fear, curiosity, and wonder. The ancients tried to explain it with the cultural instruments and knowledge they had at their disposal.
A bronze Roman denarius (second century BC) showing Castor and Pollux on horseback, in heroic nudity, with spears and the typical pileus on their heads and surmounted by a star. © Private collection; photo by A. Andreoni
SBy Maura Andreoni aint Elmo’s fire is a bright blue or violet glow accompanying brush-like discharges of atmospheric electricity, which in certain circumstances appears as a faint light on the extremities of pointed objects such as towers and the masts of ships during stormy weather. These days, you’ll sometimes see it along electric power lines, when high voltage differentials are present between clouds and the ground underneath. The fire is commonly accompanied by a crackling or hissing noise and can also appear on leaves and grass, or at the tips of cattle horns. In western literature, there are various references to St. Elmo’s Fire: among them are the twelfth-century Latin text called Gesta Herwardi, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1611), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). This article focuses on Antiquity, when famous Greek and Roman poets were already talking about the phenomenon. Starting in the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the anonymous author of the Homeric Hymns and Alcaeus of Mytilene compared the lights to the twin brothers known as the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, running above the sea “like fast steeds”. Apollonius of Rhodes and Gaius Valerius Flaccus refer to St. Elmo’s fire in their descriptions of the journey of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. Horace mentions the sailors’ happiness when they catch sight of it at sea. Great leaders and strategists wrote about the lights as well, such as Julius Caesar in an episode of the African War. Pliny the Elder mentions the phenomenon, referring to a personal experience when he was a naval officer. We also find descriptions in the works of the phi-
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