The Mysterious Holy Body at Sea

St. Elmo and his fire had apparently appeared in the midst of a storm to offer his protection to that one crew.

Sailor’s logs provide valuable clues to sea tragedies.  At the very least, the logs are interesting reading.  The most frustrating logs are those that indicate no problem at all when whole crews are later discovered missing.  What happened?  When there was no indication of anything amiss in the log at all, investigators are stuck with trying to read between the lines of the journals.

     Sometimes a sea tragedy turns out not to be one, after all.  We are fortunate to have the log of one of Magellan’s mates after he set sail from Spain in September of 1519.  We all remember reading of the obsession Magellan had to circumnavigate the globe.

     On this 1519 voyage, Magellan had begun sailing along through a well-known and highly traveled passage.  It was a sea lane that went to the Cape Verde Islands.  These islands were an outpost off the Atlantic coast of Africa, some 300 miles distant from the mainland.

     It was well-known to sailors of the time that what lay beyond the Cape Verdes was unmapped and forbidding territory—the great unknown.  Magellan’s sailors were frightened as they began sailing into these dangerous waters.  When fierce storms advanced, rocking the boat violently, the sailors begged Magellan to turn back toward familiar territory.  He would not.  They threatened mutiny.

     We have Antonio Pigafetta’s journal to describe what happened next in the dark stormy waters, translated here:

          On an exceedingly dark night, the holy body appeared to us many times.                                                                    He stayed on the maintop for about two hours or more, to our consolation, for we were weeping.  When the holy body started to leave the maintop, we cried out for mercy.  We thought we were dead men when the sea suddenly grew calm.

     What the sailors viewed as the holy body was actually a mass of glowing globules—bluish light—in the tops of the masts.   The holy body is also known as the Saint Elmo’s fire of maritime stories.  It is actually a discharge of electrical voltage that builds up in tall, pointed objects such as masts, steeples, spires and even occasional flagpoles.  It collects in these tall objects from electrically charged, low-hanging clouds.

     St. Elmo is the patron saint of mariners, and his flaming embodiment in the masts was rumored as benevolent protection to crews of ships, but in fact, his appearance indicates danger all around because of the probability of lightning strikes wherever he appears.

      In fact, St. Elmo’s fire is believed by many to be the cause of the Hindenburg Disaster, when the seemingly friendly glow traveled the mooring rope and ignited hydrogen leaking from the airship on that May 6th in 1937

     One of Magellan’s ships did make it back to Spain on September 6, 1522.  Magellan was not on the ship.  He had been killed by a poison arrow in the Philippines on April 21, 1521.  He had been trying to convert the natives to Christianity and some were happy to convert, some were not.

     The voyage of Magellan—Fernao de Megalaes—had started with five sturdy ships.  Only one returned.  A second ship had tried to turn back through the Pacific and go that route.  It was lost forever.  The ship that had rounded the horn of Africa for a true circumnavigation did return.  St. Elmo had apparently offered his protection to that one crew.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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