Incendiary Device – An Irishman’s Diary about St Elmo’s Fire

Nicolas Poussin – The Martyrdom of St Erasmus (detail)

Nicolas Poussin – The Martyrdom of St Erasmus (detail)

 

Even by the standards of Christian martyrology, St Elmo, whose feast-day falls today, met a very grisly end.

According to tradition, he had his stomach split open and his intestines slowly extracted and wound around a windlass. So it’s a relief to learn that the story is fictional, and that so, in part, was he.

In any case, St Elmo became the go-to holy man for anyone praying for relief from stomach pains

His historical model was St Erasmus, a 4th-century Illyrian bishop also reputed to have died unpleasantly at the hands of the Romans, but by the more standard method of being broken on a wheel. Erasmus became Elmo by an Italian corruption. And as for the intestines story, that seems to have been a retro-fit to explain why windlasses always featured in his icons.

In any case, St Elmo became the go-to holy man for anyone praying for relief from stomach pains. But he was the patron of sailors too (hence the windlasses). And it’s for his association with a wondrous natural phenomenon that used to worry mariners that he is now best known.

If only one flame appeared, the Romans called it Helen, and took it as warning that the worst of a storm was yet to come

St Elmo’s Fire is a luminous flow of electric current that, in certain conditions, can be seen dancing around the tops of masts or yard-arms. It came to be considered by sailors as a manifestation of their patron, come to protect them during storms. Hence the name, and also one of its variants, Corpo Santo (“body of the holy man”), or “corposant” in English.

But of course the fire had been dancing around masts long before the 4th century.  

The Greeks and Romans already had their own mythology for it by then, one that differentiated between single and multiple displays.  

If only one flame appeared, the Romans called it Helen, and took it as warning that the worst of a storm was yet to come. Two or more flames were identified as Castor and Pollux, the mythological twins who had been famous sailors before taking on a permanent role as astrology’s Gemini.  

When they showed up, Romans believed, the worst was over.

In the modern era, naturally, St Elmo’s Fire has also been witnessed by aviators. Indeed it’s one of many possible explanations for the Hindenberg disaster, 80 years ago last month.  

Far from being alarmed, he was entranced by the spectacle, which was ended quickly by a fall of wet snow

Moments before the zeppelin caught fire, at least one witness – a Princeton professor – reported seeing a flicker of blue flame dancing along its outer spine.

But St Elmo’s Fire has been witnessed much closer to the ground too – flickering between the horns of cattle or even, sometimes, between the ears of a horse.  Two hundred years ago, in 1817, the Scottish surgeon-scientist James Braid described such a visitation, experienced while riding during a storm.  

Far from being alarmed, he was entranced by the spectacle, which was ended quickly by a fall of wet snow.  

While it lasted, he said: “I could observe an immense number of minute sparks darting towards the horse’s ears and the margin of my hat, which produced a very beautiful appearance, and I was very sorry to be so soon deprived of it.”

Less surprisingly, somehow, the phenomenon was also known to cowboys in the American west, where big skies, flat landscapes, and long cattle-horns might have been combined for electrical experiments. Thus, St Elmo’s Fire used to feature occasionally in such TV series as Bonanza and Rawhide. And it also turned up in a strange 1961 movie called The Last Sunset.

Not the least unusual thing about this film was that it centred on the misadventures of a cowhand with the supremely Irish name of “Brendan O’Malley”. Played by Kirk Douglas, he’s on the run for killing a sheriff’s brother-in-law. But before justice catches up with him, he seeks refuge at the ranch of his former lover, now the mother of a teenage daughter.

In one of the more tender scenes, during a cattle drive, he draws the hostess’s attention to a phenomenon “you could live five lifetimes, and never see again”.  

A Greek tragedy ensues in which O’Malley first falls in love with his former lover’s daughter, before learning that she’s his daughter too

She and cinema audiences are then treated to a vision of the blue-purple light dancing between the cattle horns. Asked for an explanation, he turns mock-poetic, suggesting that “a star fell and smashed and scattered its glow all over the place”.

But as the ancients would have known, the spectacle also presages a storm. A Greek tragedy ensues in which O’Malley first falls in love with his former lover’s daughter, before learning that she’s his daughter too. Luckily for everyone, Nemesis (aka the Sheriff) arrives just in time.  

Then the ill-starred cowboy martyrs himself by the traditional western method – entering a gunfight with no bullets in his revolver.