Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dancing Fire on the Lighthouse

I love all things nautical, including nautical weather and nautical astronomy. One of the most mysterious phenomena of the ocean skies (and sometimes inland too) is St. Elmo's Fire. Yes, you've probably seen the movie with Rob Lowe, but that isn't the subject here. This post is about the real thing--tiny snippets of lightning seen during storm conditions that seem to dance atop tall buildings and the masts of ships. These also can appear on trees, airplanes, and volcanoes. For example, during the eruption of Krakatoa in Java in the 1880s, St. Elmo's Fire was seen over the volcano and dancing atop buildings and trees in nearby villages and towns. (Image below from The British Library.)
The most common sightings of St. Elmo's Fire occur on ships, old sailing rigs with masts rising high over them and plenty of rigging. Charles Darwin mentioned seeing St. Elmo's Fire on the Beagle, during the revolutionary voyage that took him to the Galapagos and set him to thinking about how life changes due to natural selection and evolution. Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed around the world with Magellan, saw St. Elmo's Fire on the ship's masts off the West Coast of Africa. Coleridge mentions them as "death-fires" in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Starbuck of Moby Dick (and coffee) fame, shouted: "Look! Aloft! St. Elmo's Lights! Corposants!"
That's another name for the phenomenon--corposants, meaning the bodies of saints. Why? Read on--
The name St. Elmo's Fire derives from Erasmus, or St. Elmo, who was the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. His image or an icon of him was carried to sea to ashore a safe voyage. Erasmus is said to have died on a ship at sea, but moments before his death he promised his shipmates he would return in a nonphysical form. Hours later, when wisps of lightning were seen on the ship's masts and in its rigging, the crew thought Erasmus had returned. The lights, or corposants, came from the resurrected and saintly Erasmus. (Below, a sailor's medallion.)
Erasmus was shortened to Elmo, probably in that predictable manner in which nautical language evolves when the roar of wind and waves at sea steals away part of a word---boatsman became bo'sun, forecastle became foc'sul, and Erasmus became Elmo.
Sailors of antiquity, especially the Greeks and Romans, were known to be superstitious and believed the dancing St. Elmo fires were the appearance of Castor and Pollux, the twin gods thought to protect ships and seamen. (These gods are known as the Gemini and have their own constellation in the night sky.) It was considered a blessing to have them aboard! The eyes of Castor and Pollux were often painted on the bow of a ship with the idea that they might help the vessel see in the darkness, or in a fog or storm.
Thus, old salts could refer to this ethereal phenomenon as Castor and Pollux, St. Elmo's Fire, or the corposants.
Scientifically speaking, these tiny discharges of electricity are produced during stormy weather when the atmosphere is highly agitated. You might think of them as glorified static electricity--way exaggerated that is! They are actually small, somewhat harmless bolts of lightning that appear reddish or blue-green. They are usually seen near the end of a storm and are attracted to tall objects in the same manner as serious lightning strikes are. They crackle and have an eerie, glowing appearance that is both frightening and awe-inspiring.
St. Elmo's Fire can be seen on lighthouses too and was reported by lightkeepers years ago when lighthouses were staffed 24/7. Lightship sailors also saw it. You might see it too if live near or spend any time at a tall lighthouse. Of course, getting a picture of this elusive phantom of storm conditions is difficult. Hence, you'll see no actual photos here of St. Elmo's Fire on lighthouses. Instead, I've opted above for JM's manipulated photo on Flicker that gives a sense of what St. Elmo's Fire might do to a lighthouse.
Of course, I had to have some fun myself with a photo. This is my version of the worst possible day at Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville, Washington! It's stormy, lightning bolts are streaking downward, and the corposants are dancing on anything and everything--the lighthouse, the roof eaves, the sea oats, even that nutty gal standing in this bad weather scene. St. Elmo, please protect her!
The typical lightkeeper of yesterday was nothing short of a sailor or fisherman who came ashore for a quieter, less dangerous job. Thus, he probably understood and respected St. Elmo's Fire when storm conditions prevailed and the atmosphere with rife with electricity. Seaman, as we know, often have trouble "swallowing the anchor" when they retire ashore. That's why lighthouse history and lore is embroidered with so many colorful nautical threads!

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