Mythical Monday: St. Elmo’s Fire by Mae Clair

A weather phenomenon known to sailors, St. Elmo’s fire has older roots in folklore. Often seen dancing among the riggings of a ship, these “spirit fires” or playful lights were seen as signs of heavenly intervention and a portent of the future. Occurring before storms when the air was super-charged with electricity, the lights appeared blue, violet, or bluish-white in color.

sailing-ship on moonlit ocean during storm with lightningAccording to legend if one light danced in the rigging, the ship was headed to a stormy death, but if two shone brightly, the winds would fade and the sea quiet. Another belief said descending flames meant disaster while ascending meant fair weather. Some sailors believed the lights to be the souls of departed comrades come to forewarn of danger. If a light danced upon a man’s head, he was most certainly doomed.

The ancient Greeks named a single jet of fire, Helena, and a double jet, Castor and Pollux. In the Philippines, the phenomenon is known as Santelmo, and has been rumored to chase people.

Because of the electrical charge present during instances of St. Elmo’s fire, compass readings often went awry which may be one reason why the flames were sometimes viewed as an ill omen among sailors. It’s interesting to note that the name is also derived from St. Erasmus of Formia, the Italian patron saint of sailors. For this reason, the manifestation could also be derived as an omen of good will, a sign the saint was watching over the seamen on their journey.

A plasma charge in the air, St. Elmo’s fire can also be seen on land, flickering about elevated objects such as lightning rods, streetlamps, spires and even chimneys. It’s occasionally mistaken for ball lightning, and like many elements of superstition and awe, can be viewed as favorable or ominous.

I’d love to know if you’ve ever witnessed this phenomenon.

11 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: St. Elmo’s Fire by Mae Clair

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by phenomena such as St. Elmo’s Fire and Will ‘O the Wisp. I’ve never seen St. Elmo’s Fire, but my brother had a strong experience once with ball lightning that started at the top of a tall tree and went straight down. Your post also makes me think of one of my favorite old novels of the melodrama time, St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans. Thanks for the interesting post, Mae.


    • Wow, your brother really saw something amazing. Ball lightning fascinates me as well. I even used it as a conduit for time travel in WEATHERING ROCK. And I’ve always been intrigued by the Will ‘O the Wisp, spook lights and similar phenomena.


    • They do! I remember once when DH, one of his friends, and I went early AM fishing on the bay (4 am). I was lucky enough to witness glowing bio-luminescent plant matter and small marine plankton churned up in the wake of our boat like a trail of green fire spreading behind us. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I would love to add St. Elmo’s Fire to my list!


  2. Have never seen such lights. I heard that, when planes fly close to thunderstorms, there’s often increased static electricity in the air, sometimes leading to static discharges on window frames. Your post reminds me of an 80s movie with the same title, with a young Demi Moore. I only remember it was a kind of romance, no connection to the misterious lights. A bar or restaurant was called ‘St. Elmo’s.’ Anyway, there are so many still unexplained phenomena on earth and nobody shows interest in unveiling them but are anxious to dicover other planets, as if here all’s solved.


    • I remember the movie St, Elmo’s Fire, but like you my memories of it are very vague. You made a great point that we frequently look to space when it comes to mysteries but there is so much here on Earth that remains unsolved. I love that we have so many mysteries to keep us guessing and wondering. 🙂


  3. I love that picture. I haven’t witnessed it myself but I can imagine how awe-inspiring it would be. Now I’ve got the song “St Elmo’s Fire” in my head. 🙂


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