Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Celestial Battles and Auroras - case study : 1621, sep. 12.

One of the most recurrent themes among celestial prodigies is the description of celestial armies and battles in the sky. The descriptions are often so detailed (soldiers on foot, cavalry, weapons, banners, etc.) that one can only wonder what did the beholders actually saw and what is the part of imagination and reality in these descriptions. In order to disentangle reality from fiction, we can sometimes rely on comparison between first-hand testimonies. It is quite rare for this timeframe to have multiple documents available for a single event and the case I present here is fortunately one of them. As we shall see by comparing these documents, perception of a same event can be quite different and modeled, consciously or not, by contamination with traditional motives and/or driven by propagandistic purposes.

The following documents all describe a celestial phenomenon which took place on the evening of September 12, 1621. Other documents relating to this phenomenon exist which shall eventually be posted subsequently but the following already offer an interesting insight on a possible link between auroras and mentions of celestial armies and battles.

The first document is a short and small-format (in-8°, 13 pages) information pamphlet typical of the French "canards" of the 16th and 17th centuries. It describes the apparition over Paris and the neighboring burgs, of "squadrons" of white clouds struggling against one another as well as a "great war-camp tent or pavilion" (grande tente ou pavillon de camp et de guerre) being assaulted by lances and arrows thrown from the same clouds. In addition to this apparition, beholders on the pont de Neuilly also witnessed, later in the evening, the appearance of a "hairy comet" (comete cheveluë). The pamphlet was written and published in 1621, most probably only a short time after the phenomenon was observed. Such accounts are often found in the prodigy literature of the 16th and 17th centuries and were largely spread among the common folk of Western Europe by the means of small leaflets. While the contents were mostly identical, the format of these leaflets did vary from country to country.

The second document (2a) is an extract from the Life of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peyresc (1580-1637), French astronomer and savant, written by Pierre Gassendi in 1641. Peyresc, being ill, could not behold the phenomenon of September 12 (even though he was in Paris at that time) and relied on the description of Gassendi with whom he had close relations. Gassendi, while describing the phenomenon which occurred in the northern part of the sky, talks about "whitish obscure pillars, set in rows (…) moving slowly from East to West" (veluti columnas albescenteis et subobscuras, alternatim sitas (…) promoverentur lentissime ab Oriente in Occidentem) as well as of "pyramids or spires (obelisks), arising from the white appearances, reaching to the top of the sky, very white: out of which there shot very thin and white vapors, as swift as lightning" (ad verticem usque pyramides quasdam, sive obeliscos valde candidos; ipsisque consistentibus, traiectos vapores, ut tenuissimos, ita candidissimos, motione adeo celeri, ut fulgetra imitarentur). While the description of Gassendi is quite different from the one related in the first document, we still find many points of comparisons. The "squadrons" of white clouds share some obvious similarities to Gassendi's "whitish obscure pillars set in rows" and the "war-camp tent" is interestingly enough comparable to the "pyramids and spires (obelisks)" of Gassendi, while the lances and arrows find a nice counter-part in the "very thin and white vapors, as swift as lightning". These points of comparison can be used to show how imagination found its way into the description of the phenomenon. Peyresc is reassured by Gassendi's description "that it was nothing but a sport of Nature" and that the accounts of armies and battles were only imaginative interpretations of a natural phenomenon.

An even more detailed account of the phenomenon was given by Gassendi again in his translation and comments of book X of Diogenes Laërtius (document 2b). There we learn that Gassendi observed the phenomenon in southern France in the region of Aix-en-Provence (Aquas Sextias) and that it was seen practically all over France at the same time (Toulouse, Montauban, Paris, Rouen, etc). Gassendi in document 2b talks about the extension of the phenomenon and says that it was seen all over France, from Rouen in the north to Aix-en-Provence in the south. The phenomenon is also said to have been as far as Aleppo in Syria which is quite unusual (but not unheard of) for such latitudes. The identification of Alepius in Gassendi's text with Aleppo has sometimes been confronted by scholars. However, a Greek 17th century chronicle (the Chronicle of Papasinadinou) indicates that the phenomenon was seen as far as the town of Serres in northern Greece: "In September of the year 1621, seven fiery columns appeared in the sky and they stood all nightlong" (see Kaftantzis 1982-1983; translation in Carapiperis 1956). Galileo's writings indicate that it was also seen in Venice.
Thus, the extent of the phenomenon seems to have concerned mostly southern and Mediterranean Europe and it is not improbable for it to have extended up to northern Syria. Worthy of note, no descriptions exist for northern Europe where the phenomenon was apparently not observed. Document 2b is also remarkable due to the fact that Gassendi actually names the phenomenon as "aurora", coined after the Roman goddess of dawn. It is considered by many scholars to be the earliest use of this term (other considers that Galileo used it a little earlier) to describe such a phenomenon, which gives this particular event a significant historical meaning.

In his Traité des Aurores Boréales, first published in 1733 (and 1754 in an enlarged edition), de Mairan studies the possible link between auroras and ancient accounts of celestial armies and battles. In addition to citing Gassendi's relation of the event (document 3a), he gives some brief remarks about the descriptions of sounds which often accompany these accounts and which he considers imaginary productions induced by the pictorial representation (document 3b). Gassendi had already noted on an ironical tone that the popular accounts of September 12, 1621 did not describe such sounds (document 2a) even though these are frequently mentioned in accounts of celestial battles. Worthy of note on this subject are more recent studies on the possibility that actual sounds may accompany auroral displays (see Keay 1980).

Considering these documents (which originate from different social and intellectual layers) as a whole, we can get a better picture of the actual event. Indeed, the popular depiction shares many common points with Gassendi's more scientific description, the former being pretty much a pictorial depiction of the latter answering to traditional motives and prodigial themes. Both, however, try to explain the phenomenon in accordance to their tradition. While Gassendi, answering to the scientific and rationalistic current of his time, tries to understand and describe the natural mechanisms behind the phenomenon, the "canard" explains it as a godly manifestation which, as a "prodigy", has obviously a meaning and consequences for the populations.

On a more historical note, it is interesting to see how the two traditions are running concurrently in this period. The popular one is trapped inside a definite system of prodigial interpretation which is well defined since Antiquity. Furthermore, popular prodigy literature was often used for propagandistic political purposes which helped to keep it inside this system. It is significant however that document 1, while still maintaining the traditional prodigial approach, mentions rationalistic interpretations. Even though the anonymous author of the "canard" refute them, albeit shyly, this most probably indicates the penetration of traditional motives and common folk literature by scientific explanation which prodigy chroniclers were less and less able to ignore.

Yannis Deliyannis


Anonymous. 1621. Les signes et prodiges, apparus sur la ville de Paris, Sainct Denys & autres lieux. Le soir du Dimanche douziesme Septembre 1621. Ensemble les diuers iugemens decertez sur ce mesme suiect . Paris : Abraham Saugrain.

Carapiperis, L. N. 1956. Some appearances of the Aurora Borealis in Greece. Pure and Applied Geophysics, vol. 35, no.1 (September 1956), pp. 139-142.

De Mairan. 1733. Traité physique et historique de l'Aurore Boréale, Paris: Imprimerie Royale.

Gassendi, Pierre. 1649. Animadversiones in decimum librum Diogenis Laertii, qui est De Vita, moribus, placitisque Epicuri, Lyon: Guillaume Barbier.

Gassendi, Pierre. 1658. Petri Gassendi Diniensis ecclesiae praepositi, in Academia Parisiensi Matheseos Regii Professoris, Miscellanea, vol. 5, Lyon : Laurent Anisson.

Kaftantzis, Giorgos. 1982-1983. Η Σερραϊκή χρονογραφία του Παπασυναδινού. Σερραϊκά Χρονικά Σύγραμμα-Περιοδικόν. vol. 9, Athens: Ιστορική και Λαογραφική Εταιρία Σερρών - Μελενίκου.

Keay, Colin. 1980. Anomalous sounds from the entry of meteor fireballs. Science, vol. 210 (oct. 3, 1980), pp. 11-15.



Source :
Les signes et prodiges, apparus sur la ville de Paris, Sainct Denys & autres lieux. Le soir du Dimanche douziesme Septembre 1621. Ensemble les diuers iugemens decertez sur ce mesme suiect . A Paris, par Abraham Saugrain, 1621. (in-8°, 13 p.)
* Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BN 8-LK7-6551 / BN 8-Z LE SENNE-6320 / BN (Arsenal) 8-H-12866.
* Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, 8 D 11007 RES P.14

[...] Il est donc à remarquer que Dimanche dernier douziesme du present Mois de Septembre, incontinent apres les neuf heures du soir, le Ciel estant fort net & serain, parurent de tres-grandes lumieres en l'air, aussi ordinaires comme lors que la Lune est en son plein, combien que lors elle fust tres-foible & au cinqiesme iour de son dernier quartier, auquel elle ne luit nullement. Entre ces lumieres ainsi extraordinaires, diuerses petites nuees blanches apparurent, lesquelles comme par escadrons separees les vnes des autres, venoient par apres a donner l'vne dans l'autre d'vne celerité prodigieuse, apres quoy disparoissans, d'autres se presentoient & aux approches enuoioyent comme formes & manieres de lances & de fleches les vnes contre les autres, de mesme que des escadrons qui viennent furieusement au choc, & apres s'estre quelque peu combattus se perdoient & ne paroissoient plus, & de tels combats furent veus depuis les neuf heures du soir, iusques sur les deux heures apres minuict. Ceux de Mont-martre & S. Denys en France, & plusieurs autres personnes qui pour lors estoient à la campagne ont dit de plus, que parmy ces combats & ces nuees blanches, qui rendoient l'air aussi clair qu'en plain Midy, parut comme vne grande tente ou pauillon de camp & de guerre, contre lequel de plusieurs nuees sortoient des lances & des fleches, qui estoient lancees là dessus, comme si c'estoit quelque fort que l'on allast assaillir & combattre, ce qui dura l'espace de plus d'vne bonne heure; puis cela aussi tost disparoissoit de mesme qu'il estoit arriué: & sur toutes ces apparitions n'y a eu fautes d'habiles hommes & d'autres qui ont voulu faire les iudicieux pour en donner leur iugement: ce qui me peut à la verité coniecturer que quelque mal futur qui menace les Orientaux de quelque trouble secret, ou du costé de la Turquie, ou du costé de l'Allemagne: Dieu vueille destourner tous ces maux de nostre France. Cela n'a pas seulement paru sur la ville de Paris, mais aussi aux enuirons d'icelle se sont veus d'autres prodiges. Quelques particuliers habitans du pont de Neuilly, gens dignes de foy & de creance, asseurent auoir veu sur les dix à onze heures du soir, ainsi comme ils estoient sur ledit pont, outre les apparitions susdites, vne nouuelle Comete cheueluë, non du tout si grande que celle qui parut en diuers pays il y a quelques annees, laquelle se vit l'espace d'enuiron deux heures & demie, au milieu de quelques nuees claires & lumineuses. [...]


Source :
Gassendi, Pierre. Vita Peyreskii = Viri illustris Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc, senatoris Aquisextiensis, vita (1641) as published in Petri Gassendi Diniensis ecclesiae praepositi , in Academia Parisiensi Matheseos Regii Professoris, Miscellanea, Tomus Quintus, Lugdunum (Lyon) : Laurentius Anisson, 1658, p. 290.

Cùm renunciata haec mors fuit, laborabat Peireskius octauum iam diem dolore renum, ac stranguria ; sub cuius initium non potuit id Prodigium perspicere, quod non in ipsis modò castris, sed Parisiis etiam, & per totam Galliam, alibíque visum, stuporem creauit. Claritas nempe insignis fuit, quae nocte sequente diem duodecimam, Borealem caeli faciem ita occupauit, vt auroram clarissimam per multas horas fuerit mentita. Id sanè mirum ; silente Luna ; sed mirabilius visum est, vaporem ea regione fusum, & ad polum vsque euectum, sic fuisse distinctum in quasdam veluti columnas albescenteis, & subobscuras, alternatim sitas ; vt cùm horizonti ad amussim forent, promouerentur lentissimè ab Oriente in Occidentem. Denique miraculo fuit, ex albescentibus attolli, breui spatio, ad verticem vsque pyramides quasdam, siue obeliscos valde candidos ; ipsísque consistentibus, traiectos vapores, vt tenuissimos, ita candidissimos, motione adeò celeri, vt fulgetra imitarentur. Haec attingo, quia Peireskius laetatus est, rem fuisse nobis obseruatam ; factúsque exinde est certior, nihil aliud fuisse, quam Naturae lusum, quem apparatum bellicum, aut Ideam exercitus multi fuerant interpretati. Addiderant sanè nonnulli visas sibi instructas acies, incedentibus peditum, equitúmque ordinibus ; ac postremò visum conflictum, cum explosione globulorum è tormentariis fistulis. Mirum, quòd non simul clangorem tubarum ; clamorémque virûm auditum depraedicauissent ; quando eadem credulitas, infirmitasque humana est, quae his sigmentis locum facit. Credibile profectò est, nisi omnia, at bene multa, quae in historiis similia exstant, ex eadem esse origine, neque ampliorem fidem mereri.

When tidings of [Henry de Lorraine's] death were brought, Peyresc was troubled with a pain in his kidneys and the strangury which lasted eight days; about the beginning whereof, he was not able to behold that Prodigy, which caused great admiration, being seen not only in the Camp, but at Paris also, and all over France. It was a remarkable brightness, which in the night following the twelfth day, was seen in the whole northern sky, so for many hours it represented the clearest sunrise. This was wonderful, the moon was not shining; but it was more wonderful to see a vapor which was shed abroad in the same quarter, distinguished into whitish obscure pillars, set in rows; being exactly perpendicular to the horizon and moving very slowly from East to West. Finally, it was a miracle to see a little after certain pyramids or spires, arising from the white appearances, reaching to the top of the sky, very white: out of which there shot very thin and white vapors, as swift as lightning. This I mention because Peyresc was glad we observed the same; whereby he was assured that it was nothing but a sport of Nature, which many interpreted to be some military preparation, or the idea of a battle. The truth is, some affirmed that they saw armies in battle-array, and cavalry and infantry marching; and how at last they saw the fight, and bullets flying out of the guns. It is surprising that they did not claim to have heard the sound of trumpets and the shouts of the soldiers, seeing how the same credulous and human frailty was the cause of the other figments. It is truly credible that if not all, yet very many such tales, related in Histories, have proceeded from the same original and deserve no greater credit.

Gassendi, Pierre. Animadversiones in decimum librum Diogenis Laertii, qui est De Vita, moribus, placitisque Epicuri, Lyon: Guillaume Barbier, 1649, pp. 1137-1139.

idque praeter aliquos alios prorsùs admirabileis motus, quaos saepiùs quidem obseruaui; at nunquam illustriores, quàm anno MDCXXI. die Septembris XII. cùm Peynerii diuerterem, quod oppidum est Aquas-Sextias inter, & Sam-Maximinum. Imminebat iam crepusculi finis, erátque caelum serenissimum, pacatissimúmque (vti & fuerat diebus antecedentibus, triduóque etiam pòst permansit) cùm, silente aliunde Lunâ, visa est subnasci quaedam aurorae species ad boream, quae & sensim attolleretur, & quibusdam interim quasi virgis, seu radiis ad horizontem rectis interstingueretur. Praetereo autem per id tempus tum nubeculas quasdam momentaneas, candicanteisque visas fuisse meridianum inter, & occasum hyemis; tum subnatum fuisse ad occasum aestatis ruborem dilutum, & formâ quasi pyramidali, seu in acutum desinente, cuius basis ad horizontem foret duodecim prope graduum, fastigium sursùm attolleretur quadraginta plus minùs gradus; ac ipsum versus aequinoctialem occasum ita incessisse, vt distinctus primùm in treis partialeis pyramidas, quarum media dilutior, siue albicantior duas extremas factas non-nihil rubicundiores secerneret, confundi posteà coeperit, ac demùm desierit, priusquàm post horae circiter dodrantem peruenisset (& semper quidem rectà horizonti insistens) ad ipsum hyemalem occasum. Cùm hic rubor desineret, albor ille Septentrionalis elatus iam fuit quadraginta & ampliùs gradus, videlicet penè ad stellam polarem; & cùm in arcus modum formaretur, occupauit heinc inde ex horizonte gradus proximè sexaginta; hoc est, parùm abfuit, quin aestiuos ortum, occasùmque attingeret, ac eius quidem tenuitatis, vt, nisi apud horizontem, vbi euadebat paullò densior, stellas transpicuas reliquerit. Coepêre exinde loco radiorum distingui manifestiùs quaedam quasi Trabes, seu Columnae alternis albicantes, & subobscurae, duos circiter gradus latae, & continenter perpendiculares; adeò vt totam illam faciem quasi striatam exhiberent. Coepit & breui circumferentia quasi fimbria quaedam discerpi; ac tunc quaedam ex ils columnis, quae & circa medium, & albicantiores erant, coepêre quasi erumpere, ac intra vnius circiter minuti horarii quadrantem ad verticem propè ita promoueri, vt fierent quasi pyramides, quae in fastigium desinentes, non priùs euanescerent, quàm post horae minuta quatuor. Erat iam hora circiter nona; cùm alboris arcu incipiente decrescere, seu deprimi; coepêre intra productas istas, constanteisque pyramidas, emergentes quidam ex suppositis, iisque candidis columnis, candidissimi fumi transuolare, vndoso quidem, sed celerrimo, fulgetrorúmque instar, motu, ad ipsum vsque earum fastigium, in quo planè euanescebant. Durauit id spectaculum, & pulcerrimum quidem, vel ex ipsa specie serenitatis, pyramidas, fumosque illos interstinguentis, per horam propè integram, & quovsque albor depressus ad decimum circiter altitudinis gradum fuit. Sub id tempus exortus est ad ortum aestiuum albor alius, sed obscurior tamen, & supernè non-nihil rubeus, viginti gradus circiter altus, ac tantumdem circiter latus (neque arcuatus tamen) lentéque incedens in boream, & versùs occasum. Distinctae verò fuêre in eo quoque candidiores quaedam, obscuriorésque Columnae, seu Trabes, constanter perpendiculares; sed nullae ex ipsis productae pyramides, nulli candidi fumi auolantes. Eae, superato Septentrione, coepêre confundi, totusque albor sic imminutus sub horam vndecimam fuit, vt cum superiore confusus, aurorae species reducta fuerit ad quintum, sextúmve altitudinis gradum; neque tamen breui desierit, sed ad horam vsque secundam aut tertiam à media nocte perseuerauit. Ac ita se quidem Phaenomenon habuit, in quo duo praetereà stuporem adaugent: Vnum est, quòd non mihi modò, & circumvicinae proximè regioni apparuerit; sed proditum fuerit apparuisse etiam ad ortum Alepii; ad austrum Tauroentii; ad occasum Tolosae, Burdegalae; & quod est memorabile, in castris, quibus tum temporis Mons-Albanus obsidebatur: ad septentrionem denique Diniae, Gratianopoli, Diuione, Parisiis, Rothomagi, hoc est saltem per totam Galliam; cùm & par sit existimare apparuisse longè adhuc vlteriùs.

De Mairan. Traité physique et historique de l'Aurore Boréale, Paris, 1733, p. 189.

En 1621. Septembre, le 12. Aurore Boréale fameuse par elle-même, & sur-tout par l'Observateur qui nous en a conservé la mémoire. Elle commença de paroître un peu avant la fin du Crépuscule, par un temps calme & très-serein, & la Lune étant cachée sous l'Horison. Ce fut d'abord comme une espece d'Aurore qui sembloit naître du côté du Septentrion ; & qui monta peu à peu jusqu'auprès de l'Etoile Polaire. Des rayons perpendiculaires à l'Horison, & des colomnes brillantes s'élevoient de toutes parts du fond de cette lumiére; le reste du Ciel étant souvent parsemé de petits nuages blancheâtres qui ne duroient qu'un instant. Il y en eut de rouges vers le couchant d'Eté, avec quelques colomnes obscures, ou poutres, mêlées d'une espece de fumée qui blanchissoit quelquefois. Il résultoit de tout cet assemblage du côté du Nord un grand Arc crénelé ou frangé dont le sommet étoit élevé de plus de 40 degrés au dessus de l'Horison; il pouvoit avoir environ 120 degrés d'Amplitude; & l'on y voïoit par-tout les Etoiles à travers, excepté proche de l'Horison. Il en sortoit, & de tous les environs, des jets de lumiére, des vibrations & comme des Eclairs dont le mouvement tendoit vers le Zénit. Ce spectacle dura plus d'une heure en cet état, &c. D'après Gassendi, dans les Commentaires sur le 10me livre de Diogene Laërce, p.1137. & dans la vie de Peyresc.

Source :
De Mairan. Traité physique et historique de l'Aurore Boréale, Paris, 1733, pp. 125-126.

Nous n'avons garde de vouloir réfuter à cette occasion ce qu'on lit dans la plûpart des Auteurs, qui ont précédé le dernier Siècle, touchant les bruits entendus à quelques Aurores Boréales dont ils nous ont laissé la description. Des gens qui voyoient presque toûjours dans ce Phénomene le combat sanglant de deux Armées en l'air, ne pouvoient manquer d'y entendre le fracas des armes, l'artillerie, & apparemment aussi le bruit des tambours, & le son des trompettes. Comme il ne s'agit ici d'expliquer que ce que des yeux Philosophes ont pû voir, nous ne nous attachons de même qu'à ce que de semblables oreilles auroient pû entendre. J'ai donc trouvé des personnes éclairées qui disoient avoir démêlé des bruits particuliers dans le cours des grandes Aurores Boréales, des sifflemens, & une espece de murmure, & j'ai lû la même chose dans quelques descriptions modernes. Mais j'avouë que c'est ce que je ne sçaurois croire éxempt d'illusion, n'ayant jamais rien entendu moi-même de pareil, ou que je puisse distinguer des bruits ordinaires qui se font alentour, & qui proviennent des voix, & du mouvement des habitans dans les Villes, ou de l'agitation des Arbres par quelque souffle de vent à la campagne.

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