St. Elmo's Fire

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ST. ELMO'S FIRE

A natural phenomenon interpreted by Mediterranean seamen as a sign of St. elmo's protection, or as a portent of bad weather. Legends about fire reveal the spirit of each age. St. Elmo's relation to fire is an illustration of a medieval tendency to honor saints more for what they were supposed to have done for their devotees than for the sanctity of their lives. The incidents connected with fire in the legendary life of St. Elmo or St. Erasmus supposedly occurred during the diocletian persecution. He was rolled in pitch, which was then ignited; he was tortured with an iron chain and a red-hot cuirass. An angel brought him to Formiae (Italy). Such a favored person would be ideal as a heavenly protector from disturbances in nature.

Neapolitan seamen, who noticed the blue lights at the mastheads before and after storms, gradually interpreted the flashes as signs of their patron's protection. These blue, luminous flashes, called St. Elmo's Fire, occur when the atmosphere becomes charged and an electrical potential, strong enough to cause a discharge, is created between an object and the air around it. Because the saint was honored as the patron of mariners, it was believed that he manifested his protection in this manner after the storm had passed. Later Portuguese sailors adopted St. peter gonzÁlez as their patron, and to them St. Elmo's Fire became Peter's lights.

Bibliography: Bibliotheca hagiographica latina antiquae et mediae aetatis (Brussels 18981901; 1:257885. Acta Sanctorum June 1:206214. a. butler, The Lives of the Saints, rev. ed. h. thurston and d. attwater (New York 1956) 2:453454. w. watson, Early Fire-Making Methods and Devices (privately pr. Fairfax, Va. 1939).

[l. l. rummel]

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St. Elmo's Fire