St. Elmo's fire

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St. Elmo's fire on a ship at sea

St. Elmo's fire (also St. Elmo's light[1][2]) is a weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma is created by a corona discharge from a sharp or pointed object in a strong electric field in the atmosphere (such as those generated by thunderstorms or created by a volcanic eruption).

St. Elmo's fire is named after St. Erasmus of Formia (also called St. Elmo, one of the two Italian names for St. Erasmus, the other being St. Erasmo), the patron saint of sailors. The phenomenon sometimes appeared on ships at sea during thunderstorms and was regarded by sailors with religious awe for its glowing ball of light, accounting for the name.[3] Sailors may have considered St. Elmo's fire as a good omen (as in, a sign of the presence of their patron saint).[4]


Physically, St. Elmo's fire is a bright blue or violet glow, appearing like fire in some circumstances, from tall, sharply pointed structures such as lightning rods, masts, spires and chimneys, and on aircraft wings or nose cones. St. Elmo's fire can also appear on leaves and grass, and even at the tips of cattle horns.[5] Often accompanying the glow is a distinct hissing or buzzing sound. It is sometimes confused with ball lightning.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin hypothesized that a pointed iron rod would light up at the tip during a lightning storm, similar in appearance to St. Elmo's fire.[6][7]


St. Elmo's fire is a form of matter called plasma, which is also produced in stars, high temperature flame, and by lightning. The electric field around the object in question causes ionization of the air molecules, producing a faint glow easily visible in low-light conditions. Roughly 1000 volts per centimeter induces St. Elmo's fire; the number depends greatly on the geometry of the object. Sharp points lower the required voltage because electric fields are more concentrated in areas of high curvature, so discharges are more intense at the ends of pointed objects.

Conditions that can generate St. Elmo's fire are present during thunderstorms, when high voltage differentials are present between clouds and the ground underneath. Air molecules glow owing to the effects of such voltage, producing St. Elmo's fire.

The nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere cause St. Elmo's fire to fluoresce with blue or violet light; this is similar to the mechanism that causes neon lights to glow.[8]

Notable observations

In ancient Greece, the appearance of a single one was called helene (Greek: ἑλένη), meaning torch,[9] and two were called Kastor and Polydeuces.[10] Occasionally, it was associated with the Greek element of fire, as well as with one of Paracelsus's elementals, specifically the salamander, or, alternatively, with a similar creature referred to as an acthnici.[11]

Welsh mariners knew it as canwyll yr ysbryd ("spirit-candles") or canwyll yr ysbryd glân ("candles of the Holy Ghost"), or the "candles of St. David".[12]

References to St. Elmo's fire can be found in the works of Julius Caesar (De Bello Africo, 47), Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia, book 2, par. 101), and Antonio Pigafetta's journal of his voyage with Ferdinand Magellan. St. Elmo's fire, also known as "corposants" or "corpusants" from the Portuguese corpo santo[13] ("holy body"), was a phenomenon described in The Lusiads.

In 15th-century Ming China, Admiral Zheng He and his associates composed the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions, the two epitaphs of the treasure voyages where they made a reference to St. Elmo's fire as a divine omen of Tianfei, the goddess of sailors and seafarers.[14]

The power of the goddess, having indeed been manifested in previous times, has been abundantly revealed in the present generation. In the midst of the rushing waters it happened that, when there was a hurricane, suddenly a divine lantern was seen shining at the masthead, and as soon as that miraculous light appeared the danger was appeased, so that even in the peril of capsizing one felt reassured and that there was no cause for fear.

— Admiral Zheng He and his associates (Changle inscription) [14]

Robert Burton wrote of St. Elmo's fire in his Anatomy of Melancholy: "Radzivilius, the Lithunian duke, calls this apparition, Sancti Germani sidus; and saith moreover that he saw the same after in a storm, as he was sailing, 1582, from Alexandria to Rhodes". This refers to the voyage made by Mikołaj Krzysztof "the Orphan" Radziwiłł in 1582–1584.

On the 9th of May, 1605, while on the second voyage of John Davis commanded by Sir Edward Michelborne to the East Indies, an unknown writer aboard the Tigre describes the phenomenon; "In the extremity of our storm appeared to us in the night, upon our maine Top-mast head, a flame about the bigness of a great Candle, which the Portugals call Corpo Sancto, holding it a most divine token that when it appeareth the worst is past. As, thanked be God, we had better weather after it".[15]

On Thursday February 20, 1817,[note 1] during a severe electrical storm James Braid, then surgeon at Lord Hopetoun's mines at Leadhills, Lanarkshire, had an extraordinary experience whilst on horseback:

On Thursday 20th, I was gratified for a few minutes with the luminous appearance described above [viz., "such flashes of lightning from the west, repeated every two or three minutes, sometimes at shorter intervals, as appeared to illumine the whole heavens"]. It was about nine o'clock, P.M. I had no sooner got on horseback than I observed the tips of both the horse's ears to be quite luminous: the edges of my hat had the same appearance. I was soon deprived of these luminaries by a shower of moist snow which immediately began to fall. The horse's ears soon became wet and lost their luminous appearance; but the edges of my hat, being longer of getting wet, continued to give the luminous appearance somewhat longer.

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 sorry to be so soon deprived of it.

The atmosphere in this neighbourhood appeared to be very highly electrified for eight or ten days about this time. Thunder was heard occasionally from 15th to 23d, during which time the weather was very unsteady: frequent showers of hail, snow, rain, &c.

I can find no person in this quarter who remembers to have ever seen the luminous appearance mentioned above, before this season,—or such a quantity of lightning darting across the heavens,—nor who have heard so much thunder at that season of the year.

This country being all stocked with sheep, and the herds having frequent occasion to pay attention to the state of the weather, it is not to be thought that such an appearance can have been at all frequent, and none of them to have observed it.[note 2]
— James Braid, 1817[16]

Weeks earlier, reportedly on January 17, 1817, a luminous snowstorm occurred in Vermont and New Hampshire. Saint Elmo's fire appeared as static discharges on roof peaks, fence posts, and the hats and fingers of people. Thunderstorms prevailed over central New England.[17]

Charles Darwin noted the effect while aboard the Beagle. He wrote of the episode in a letter to J. S. Henslow that one night when the Beagle was anchored in the estuary of the Río de la Plata:

Everything is in flames, — the sky with lightning, — the water with luminous particles, and even the very masts are pointed with a blue flame.

— Charles Darwin, 1832[18]

St. Elmo's fire is reported to have been seen during the Siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. It reportedly was seen emitting from the top of the Hippodrome. The Byzantines attributed it to a sign that the Christian God would soon come and destroy the conquering Muslim army. According to George Sphrantzes, it disappeared just days before Constantinople fell, ending the Byzantine Empire.

In Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. describes seeing a corposant in the Horse latitudes of the northern Atlantic Ocean. However, he may have been talking about ball lightning; as mentioned earlier it is often erroneously identified as St. Elmo's fire: "There, directly over where we had been standing, upon the main top-gallant mast-head, was a ball of light, which the sailors name a corposant (corpus sancti), and which the mate had called out to us to look at. They were all watching it carefully, for sailors have a notion, that if the corposant rises in the rigging, it is a sign of fair weather, but if it comes lower down, there will be a storm".[19]

Many Russian sailors have seen them throughout the years. To them, they are "Saint Nicholas" or "Saint Peter's lights".[12] They were also sometimes called St. Helen's or St. Hermes' fire, perhaps through linguistic confusion.[20]

Nikola Tesla created St. Elmo's Fire in 1899 while testing out a Tesla coil at his laboratory in Colorado Springs. St. Elmo's fire was seen around the coil and was said to have lit up the wings of butterflies with blue halos as they flew around.[21]

Shortly before the crash of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin's Hindenburg in 1937, Professor Mark Heald of Princeton saw St. Elmo's Fire flickering along the airship's back a good minute before the fire broke out. Standing outside the main gate to the Naval Air Station, he watched, together with his wife and son, as the airship approached the mast and dropped her bow lines. A minute thereafter, by Mr. Heald's estimation, he first noticed a dim "blue flame" flickering along the backbone girder about one-quarter the length abaft the bow to the tail. There was time for him to remark to his wife, "Oh, heavens, the thing is afire," for her to reply, "Where?" and for him to answer, "Up along the top ridge" – before there was a big burst of flaming hydrogen from a point he estimated to be about one-third the ship's length from the stern.[22]

St Elmo's fire were also seen during the 1955 Great Plains tornado outbreak in Kansas and Oklahoma (US).[23]

Accounts of Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe refer to St. Elmo's fire being seen around the fleet's ships multiple times off the coast of South America. The sailors saw these as favorable omens.

On August 26, 1883, the British warship Charles Ball sailing the Sunda Strait en route to Hong Kong came within 20 km of the exploding Krakatau volcano and witnessed a great deal of static electricity in the atmosphere, generated by the movement of tiny particles of rocks and droplets of water from the volcano's steam, which caused spectacular brush discharges taking place from the masts and rigging of the ship.

Among the phenomena experienced on British Airways Flight 9 on June 24, 1982 were glowing light flashes along the leading edges of the aircraft, which were seen by both passengers and crew. While it shared similarities with St Elmo's fire, the glow experienced was from the impact of ash particles on the leading edges of the aircraft, similar to that seen by operators of sandblasting equipment.

St. Elmo's fire was observed and its optical spectrum recorded during a University of Alaska research flight over the Amazon in 1995 to study sprites.[24][25]

The ill-fated Air France Flight 447 flight from Rio de Janeiro–Galeão (GIG) to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in 2009 is understood to have experienced St. Elmo's fire 23 minutes prior to crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. However, the phenomenon was not a factor on the disaster.[26][27]

In literature

One of the earliest references to the phenomenon appears in Alcaeus's Fragment 34a about the Dioscuri, or Castor and Pollux.[28] It is also referenced in Homeric Hymn 33 to the Dioscuri who were from Homeric times associated with it.[29] Whether the Homeric Hymn antedates the Alcaeus fragment is unknown.

St. Elmo's Fire is also mentioned in The Castaways of the Flying Dutchman by Brian Jacques.

The phenomenon appears to be described first in the Gesta Herwardi,[30] written around 1100 and concerning an event of the 1070s. However, one of the earliest direct references to St. Elmo's fire made in fiction can be found in Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516). It is located in the 17th canto (19th in the revised edition of 1532) after a storm has punished the ship of Marfisa, Astolfo, Aquilant, Grifon, and others, for three straight days, and is positively associated with hope:

But now St. Elmo's fire appeared, which they had so longed for, it settled at the bows of a fore stay, the masts and yards all being gone, and gave them hope of calmer airs.

— Ludovico Ariosto, 1516

In Shakespeare's The Tempest (c. 1623), Act I, Scene II, St. Elmo's fire acquires a more negative association, appearing as evidence of the tempest inflicted by Ariel according to the command of Prospero:


Hast thou, spirit,
Perform'd to point the tempest that I bade thee?


To every article.
I boarded the king's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I'ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.
— Act I, Scene II, The Tempest

The fires are also mentioned as "death fires" in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

About, about, in reel and rout, The death fires danced at night; The water, like a witch's oils, Burnt green and blue and white.

Later in 18th century and 19th century literature associated St. Elmo's fire with bad omen or divine judgment, coinciding with the growing conventions of Romanticism and the Gothic novel. For example, in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), during a thunderstorm above the ramparts of the castle:

"And what is that tapering of light you bear?" said Emily, "see how it darts upwards,—and now it vanishes!"

"This light, lady", said the soldier, "has appeared to-night as you see it, on the point of my lance, ever since I have been on watch; but what it means I cannot tell".

"This is very strange!" said Emily.

"My fellow-guard", continued the man, "has the same flame on his arms; he says he has sometimes seen it before...he says it is an omen, lady, and bodes no good".

"And what harm can it bode?" rejoined Emily.

"He knows not so much as that, lady".
— Vol. III, Ch. IV, The Mysteries of Udolpho

In Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, Starbuck points out "corpusants" during a thunder storm in the Japanese sea in chapter 119 "The Candles".

In Lars von Trier's 2011 film Melancholia, the phenomenon is clearly observed in the opening sequence and later in the film as the rogue planet Melancholia approaches Earth for an impact event.

St. Elmo's fire makes an appearance in The Adventures of Tintin comic, Tintin in Tibet, by Hergé. Tintin recognizes the phenomenon on Captain Haddock's ice-axe.

In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim sees the phenomenon on soldiers' helmets and on rooftops. Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, also notes the phenomenon affecting Winston Niles Rumfoord's dog, Kazak, the Hound of Space, in conjunction with solar disturbances of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum.

In "On The Banks of Plum Creek" by Laura Ingalls Wilder St. Elmo's fire is seen by the girls and Ma during one of the blizzards. It was described as coming down the stove pipe and rolling across the floor following Ma's knitting needles; it didn't burn the floor (pages 309-310). Although this description is more similar to Ball Lightning which is a different phenomena entirely.

In music

Brian Eno's third studio album Another Green World (1975) contains a song titled "St. Elmo's Fire" in which guesting King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp (credited with playing "Wimshurst guitar" in the liner notes) improvises a lightning-fast solo that would imitate an electrical charge between two poles on a Wimshurst high voltage generator.

See also


  1. It is highly significant that this was during the period of extraordinary atmospheric effects and dramatic reduction in temperatures following an earlier series of massive volcano eruptions that were, ultimately responsible for the Year Without a Summer.
  2. Braid also writes that one of his friends had a similar experience on the evening of the preceding Saturday: in which, his friend reported, he had seen " his horse's ears being the same as two burning candles, and the edges of his hat being all in a flame" (p.471).


  1. Darwin, Charles R. (1839). Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832–1836. London: Henry Colburn. p. 619<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online
  3. Eyers, Jonathan (2011). Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. A&C Black, London, UK. ISBN 978-1-4081-3131-2.
  4. Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. New York: Morrow, 2003. Print.
  5. Heidorn, K., Ph.D. Weather Elements: The Fire of St. Elmo. Retrieved on July 2, 2007.
  6. Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin, The Viking Press, New York, 1938. p. 159. Quoted text from May 1751 letter published in Gentleman's Magazine at[1]
  7. Additional reference may be made from Yale University's The Papers of Benjamin Franklin collection
  8. "What causes the strange glow known as St. Elmo's Fire? Is this phenomenon related to ball lightning?". Scientific American.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Lyd. Ost. 5; the term was also used of a special wicker basket used at the cult of Artemis at Brauron in Attica (Poll. 10.191).
  10. Homeric Hymn 33 describes a generic epiphany of these fraternal heroes, collectively called the Dioskouroi, in the midst of a storm at sea. Here they are said to rush through the air "with tawny wings" and to bring relief to terrified mariners.
  11. The Elements and Their Inhabitants
  12. 12.0 12.1 Folk-lore and folk-stories of Wales, The Sea, Lakes, Rivers and Wells, Marie Trevelyan, 1909.
  13. "Corposants" The American Heritage Dictionary
  14. 14.0 14.1 Dreyer, Edward L. (2007). Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405–1433. New York: Pearson Longman. pp. 148 & 191–199. ISBN 9780321084439.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> & Needham, Joseph (1959). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 558. ISBN 0-521-05801-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Markham, Albert (1880). Voyages and Works of John Davis. The Hakluyt Society. p. 164.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Braid, J., "Account of a Thunder Storm in the Neighbourhood of Leadhills, Lanarkshire; By Mr. James Braid, Surgeon at Leadhills", Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol.1, No.5, (August 1817), pp.471–472.
  17. "San Francisco, CA Weather Facts". Retrieved 2014-01-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 178 — Darwin, C. R. to Henslow, J. S., July 23 – August 15 1832
  19. Dana, Richard Henry Jr., (1840) Two Years Before the Mast. Chapter 33.
  20. Will With A Wisp: John Brand (1777)
  21. Childress, Nikola Tesla & David H. (1993). The fantastic inventions of Nikola Tesla. Stelle, Ill.: Adventures Unlimited. ISBN 0932813194.
  22. Robinson, Douglas. LZ-129 Hindenburg. New York: Arco Publishing Co, 1964.
  23. Storm Electricity Aspects of the Blackwell/Udall Storm of May 25, 1955 – Don Burgess, University of Oklahoma (CIMMS)
  24. Wescott et al. (1996) "The optical spectrum of aircraft St. Elmo's fire", Geophys. Res. Lett., 23(25), pp 3687–3690.
  25. "Peru95 – sprite observations over the upper Amazon"
  26. "Air France 447 Flight-Data Recorder transcript – What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447 – Popular Mechanics"
  27. "Final Report On the accident on 1st June 2009 to the Airbus A330-203 registered F-GZCP operated by Air France flight AF 447 Rio de Janeiro - Paris." Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses. N.p., July 2012. Web. 12 March 2014
  28. "Alcaeus". Wesleyan University.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Homeric Hymns 5–33". Theoi Greek Mythology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Gesta Herwardi, Chapter XXIX

External links