Saturday, 11 March 2017

Halo Phenomena in Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Part 1)

Parhelia in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Bk. 1, Ch, 17.

This is the first post of a three-part series focusing on the rich material that can be found in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Nordic Peoples), a popular and influential work of the 16th century. The work was written by Olaus Magnus and was printed in Rome in 1555. Soon after its publication, it was translated into several languages and thus became a “bestseller” of the age.

The author, Olaus Magnus, was a Swedish theologian, cartographer and writer, and the last Catholic archbishop of Uppsala. He maintained good relationship with King Gustav I of Sweden, and partly due to this, he was sent on various diplomatic and ecclesiastical missions around Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. During these travels he recorded his observations and what he had heard from locals, which later gave the basis of his magnum opus. When his country adopted the Lutheran faith, Olaus decided to remain loyal to his Catholic religion, and stayed abroad for the rest of his life. He was issued the title Archbishop during this turbulent period of his life, but the title was only a nominal one, as Olaus had been banned from Lutheran Sweden.

Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus is Olaus’s major work, which consists of 22 books divided into chapters, and is illustrated with 481 woodcuts. In his first book, he deals extensively with halos and dedicates 5 chapters to them. Of these, chapters 17 and 18 deal with parhelia and paraselenae. Olaus seems to have personal interest in these phenomena: when he lists occasions of three suns or moons visible in the sky, he mentions his own birthday at the beginning of October in 1490.

Olaus starts his description of parhelia by saying that in the North, around sunset and sunrise, they frequently appear at any location. They are white or rainbow-coloured, there could be two or even more of them, and are “never above or below the true sun, but at an angle to it” (All English translations by: Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens). As a 16th century Renaissance scholar, he pays much attention to authenticating his writing, and supports his description by referring to natural historical works of Seneca (Naturales quaestiones), Pliny (Naturalis Historia) and even to the popular 12th century encyclopaedia Speculum Maius, written by the Dominican friar Vincentius Bellovacensis. Thus, in his explanation about the formation of parhelia he relies on earlier sources and theories, most of which would now raise a smile. Although the description is very far from the truth, we must acknowledge that some properties of parhelia are rightly observed. Already in the 16th century it was realised, for example, that their formation is connected to clouds, more precisely to clouds that have specific thickness and uniform nature. 

Olaus Magnus’s description goes as follows: "(…) a parhelion is a rounded shining cloud, similar to the sun; for at the time of an eclipse we set out basins, which we fill with oil or tar, in order to observe how the moon stations itself before the sun, because a viscous liquid is less easily disturbed and retains the images which it receives. Therefore as the images of the sun and moon are viewed like this on earth, so also it happens in the sky that when the air is condensed and pellucid, it takes upon itself the figure of the sun; other clouds catch this up, too, but pass it on if they are moving or if they are thin or contain impurities. For the moving ones scatter the image, the sparse ones let it escape, while the foul and filthy ones receive no impression of it, just as with us things that are stained give no reflection."

A further interesting detail of the text is the idea that if a second parhelion appears in the sky, it is the mirror image or reflection of the first one; “clouds that present this effect are said to be dense, light, brilliant, flat and composed of compact matter.” He also states that parhelia cannot be seen on clouds very far from the sun because the beams of sunlight cannot be reflected from afar. Paraselenae (Chapter 18) depend on the Sun’s brightness as Olaus says, since the Moon “has no power at all to initiate action on inferior bodies, except for reciprocating and receiving light from the sun”.
Paraselenae in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Bk 1. Ch. 18.
At the beginning of  Book 1, chapter 17, Olaus notes that the reason why he finds it important to talk about the phenomena is that locals believe they signify upcoming events. For farmers parhelia indicate rain coming. If the parhelia are visible in the South and they last long, farmers in the hills can sow seed safely. If, however, two parhelia are “contending” with one another on the sides of the real sun and then vanish, sailors must beware of severe storms. In wintertime, when there are three moons in the sky, they foretell snow, frost and cold.

By: Ágnes Kiricsi

Olaus Magnus, A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, Vol. 1. Ed.: Peter Foote, Hakluyt Society, 1996.
Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus deptentrionalibus. 
Images: Lars Henriksson

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