St Elmo’s Fire

In the midst of a storm, [Antonio Pigafetta] writes,

“The body of St Anselm appeared to us . . . in the form of a fire lighted at the summit of the mainmast, and remained there near two hours and a half, which comforted us greatly, for we were in tears only expecting the hour of our perishing. And when that holy light was going away from us, it gave out such brilliance in our eyes that for nearly a quarter of an hour we were like people blinded and calling for mercy . . . It is to be noted that whenever that light which represents St Anselm shows itself and descends on a vessel in a storm at sea, that vessel is never lost. Immediately this light departed, the sea grew calmer, and then we saw various kinds of birds among which were some that had no fundament.”

This is not a hallucination – he is describing the electrical phenomenon known as St Elmo’s Fire – but the language tends towards the visionary, and ends with this decidedly odd seabird that lacks an anus.

Charles Nicholl, in “Conversing With Giants”, collected in Traces Remain : Essays And Explorations (2011), quoting Antonio Pigafetta, who met giants in Patagonia. Pigafetta was a supernumerary passenger on Magellan’s voyage of circumnavigation (1519-1522), one of the few who made it back to Seville.

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