Not many people experience the phenomenon known as Saint Elmo's fire. It's a kind of a plasma that creates a faint glow, most commonly during a thunderstorm. The electricity in the air discharges near the ends of sharp objects, like a ship's mast, which creates the fire. It's typically blue or violet, because of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere. But how did this glow come to be known as Saint Elmo's fire?
Who Is Saint Elmo?
Erasmus of Formia lived in the third century in Italy under the rule of the Roman Empire. He was a bishop in the Christian church, which was heavily persecuted before Constantine named Christianity as the preferred religion. Erasmus was a martyr in the church, and it's believed that the angels ministered to him throughout his ministry.
Erasmus hid at Mount Libanus for seven years before returning to the city. An angel told him to return, but there is not much information about why he needed to go back. Soldiers brought him to Diocletian, a Roman emperor who persecuted Christians. Diocletian tortured Eramus, then threw him into prison. There, an angel helped Erasmus escape.
Eramus went to Lycia, modern day Turkey, where he healed the son of an important citizen. Many people were baptized because of this miracle. The Western Roman Emperor Maximian arrested Erasmus and ordered Eramus to the temple of an idol where Eramus would be forced to worship. Erasmus refused to be quiet about his faith, and on the way to the temple, the idols fell and were destroyed. The emperor ordered that Erasmus be tortured in a barrel of protruding spikes.
Erasmus was healed from the torture by an angel. Maximian ordered more tortures. Erasmus was beaten and coated with pitch and set on fire. Amazingly, he survived. Maximian threw Erasmus into prison to die of starvation, but Erasmus escaped.
At some point in his life, Erasmus, who was also known as Elmo, preached to sailors while at sea. A storm came up and even though Erasmus was almost struck by a bolt of lightning, he continued preaching. The sailors claimed Erasmus' prayers because of the danger they were in from the storm and lightning. The glow at the top of the mastheads were a sign of Erasmus' faith, and the sailors began calling it Saint Elmo's fire.
Erasmus was recaptured in Illyricum, which is modern day Croatia. He was tortured before he died. In one legend, his stomach was opened and his intestines were wrapped around a windlass. Eramus was considered the patron saint of sailors because of the legends surrounding him and the seas.
Saint Elmo in Pop Culture
Saint Elmo's fire has been a theme in literature for generations. It's thought to represent divine judgment or a bad omen. Many of the great writers from the past referenced Saint Elmo's fire. William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Herman Melville all alluded to Saint Elmo's fire in their works. Kurt Vonnegut used the phenomenon in his masterpiece, "Slaughterhouse-Five," when the main character sees Saint Elmo's fire on the soldier's helmets.
In 1985, a movie and a song of the same name came out. The movie has been called one of the worst of all time, but the song has gone on to be very popular in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The comic "The Adventures of Tintin" also made an allusion to Saint Elmo's fire in one episode. In "Bonanza" the religious pilgrims who experienced Saint Elmo's fire at the Cartwright ranch suspected it was the work of the devil.
The feast day of Saint Elmo is in June, but you don't have to be Catholic to understand his significance in history.