Sunday, 26 March 2017

Halo Phenomena in Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Part 2)

Halo phenomena in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Bk. 1, Ch, 14. Image from

The Swedish Olaus Magnus’s 16th century Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Nordic Peoples) has several chapters and woodcuts dedicated to halos. The first part of our series introduced this medieval best-selling work, and concentrated on parhelia and paraselenae as described by Olaus. This time the halos of Book 1, Chapter 14 are to be introduced, which is the very first section of his work where he deals with halo phenomena. 

We don’t  know whether Olaus saw any halos in his life, though in Chapter 17, he notes that there were three suns and moons in the sky at the time of his birth. Besides classical natural historical authorities like Pliny the Elder, his information comes most probably from accounts collected during his journeys, which he later recorded according to his own understanding and imagination. He introduces halos as seasonal phenomena, which are connected to early spring and hardly last longer than two and a half hours. He does not even start the list of halo forms with the most frequent ones: the first halos that he describes are the parhelic circle and three patches on it which could be interpreted as the 120° parhelia and the anthelion.

“Up in the north when deep snow covers the earth round about the vernal equinox, circles sometimes appear with the following formation and position. The most spacious circle, spread over the horizon is entirely white, as also are three small circles, each hanging separately from its circumference; towards the east, however, these are distinguished by their yellow colour, as if they are trying to resemble the sun (…)”

Olaus then continues his presentation with the more frequent forms. The 22° halo, the parhelia and the upper tangent arc are easily recognizable, and so is the circumzenith arc. But what comes afterwards (a blackish rainbow and a dusky but colourful one) is more difficult to interpret. We could deduce from their position in the woodcut that he may be talking about supra- and infralateral arcs, but since the depiction and the description are not obvious and they contradict to what such arcs look like in reality, we should not draw further conclusions from them. Olaus’s description is typical of similar accounts: he presents events which took place over a longer stretch of time, disregarding the changes in halo forms as time passes, what is more, he probably never witnessed such halos in the sky.

“(…) and even the body of the sun can be surrounded by a corona or halo of rainbow hues, and has reddish likenesses of itself attached on either side. From these likenesses, or if you wish, from these two suns,  two semicircles, like bows, rise to intersect each other; eventually, after expanding as halos do, they vanish. Around the navel or centre of the most spacious of these circles can be seen an inverted rainbow, which gleams in a cloud of fine vapour. Next there appears another blackish rainbow, opposite to the first in colour and position. Afterwards this bow, dusky but ever varying in colour, as is customary with the celestial arc or rainbow, extends towards the south, crossing through the most spacious of the circles.” 

Vädersolstavlan by Jacob Heinrich Elbfas. Image from Wikipedia

The woodcut illustrating his chapter might look familiar to people interested in historical displays. It bears resemblance to Vädersolstavlan, an oil-on-panel painting by another Swedish man, Jacob Heinrich Elbfas. The painting is the 17th century copy of the now lost original ordered by the Swedish reformer Olaus Petri, and created by Urban Målare. It shows the halos that appeared over Stockholm on 20 April 1535, 20 years before Olaus Magnus’s book was published. The country at this time was turning to the Lutheran faith, and religious reformation fuelled serious conflicts and controversies between the ruthless reformer king Gustav Vasa, and more moderate Protestants like Olaus Petri. Both parties saw a celestial sign in the appearance of this halo phenomenon, and we can easily deduce that the Catholic Church was also prone to interpreting the halo as a divine premonition. Olaus Magnus himself was the last Catholic archbishop of Uppsala, who had to live in exile for the rest of his life after Sweden had turned to the new religion. Although he does not mention the ominous 1535 Stockholm halo and its contemporary reception, but the striking similarity between the woodcut and Vädersolstavlan might indicate a conscious choice for deciding to start his description of halos in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus with this very emblematic appearance.

Either influenced by his own fate, or due to contemporary superstitions, Olaus attributes bad omens to such halos. Much of his chapter elaborates on what misery they may bring. As he claims, they “always cause, either by their own nature or for some other, hidden reason, the worst consequences in the time immediately following them: for example, ominous thunderings and thunderbolts which throw houses and animals to the ground; capturing and killing of nobles and common folk, and pillaging of the people in that region, not to speak of enemy fleets, pirate raids, and acts of arson; and when the circles disappear at the end of spring, grains of suphur commonly rain down in a stinking mist.”

By Ágnes Kiricsi

English translation by Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens from: Olaus Magnus, A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, Vol. 1. Ed.: Peter Foote, Hakluyt Society, 1996.

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