Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fairy Castles In The Sky

Mirages have fooled even the brightest minds over the years, and none more so than the Fata Morgana. "Fata Morgana" is Italian, and denotes the most complex of mirages appearing over the horizon, made up of multiple images, and often with high levels of dynamics and detail. The term itself has an interesting etymology: "Fata" means fairy, "Morgana" derives from Morgan le Fay, and "La Fata Morgana" literally means the same as in French: "The Fairy Morgana". It was once believed that mirages were acts of magic, performed by the devious Arthurian sorceress in order to lure sailors to their death. The specific Italian connection stems from the fact that these mirages have been seen all throughout history in the Strait of Messina, the narrow patch of water that seperates the southern tip of Sicily and Calabria. The term was adopted into English in 1818, specifically because of observations from this area.

A modern example of a Fata Morgana. It's easy to see how these distortions can fire up the imagination. For a more technical description and more images, see here.

Rummaging through the Danish newspaper archives, I've discovered several stories that, apparently, involve Fata Morganas - all from different parts of Denmark. What struck me as curious about these observations, besides the great level of detail, is the fact that they all describe castles. Now it's not as if this country doesn't have its share of castles, but to have them appear in every instance does seem like more than just a coincidence. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when i discovered that one of the most well known features of the Fata Morgana, one that is closely related to the Morgan le Fay legend itself, is the appearance of castles. However, these "castles", in most historical cases, were most likely distortions of the reflections of objects other than castles. They probably came to be interpreted as such, due to the most basic mechanisms of pareidolia (take a look at f.x. the above photo, and it will become clear why), but there are some quite complex and detailed examples on record too. The Danish observations I have found, would seem to be among these.

In the July 20th, 1860, issue of Nykjøbing Tidende the following scenario is recounted: 

Last Wednesday, a Fata Morgana was seen at Nykøbing Mors. To the right was seen a forest area, to the left mountains, and in the middle a church and the ruins of a castle. The mirage was seen for about 15 minutes.

The next two stories were both brought in Ebeltoft Avis during the summer of 1887. The first, from May the 20th, includes even more detail than the previous article. It is also unique in that it takes place at night. I'm not sure how that would work, given the usual circumstances necessary for creating Fata Morganas, but then again, the term is not actually mentioned in this case. But in all other aspects, it fits the same pattern:

The other night, at 9.30, an aerial sight was observed in the southwestern sky from Hjørring. According to Vendsyssel Tidende, a castle could be seen in the clear moonlight - in one direction stood its tower and in the other end it was in ruins. From the castle a road went out, on which two wagons were driving - the movements of the horses clearly observable. After a short while the two wagons seperated, one driving onto a side road.

Ebeltoft Avis, May 20th (1887)

1½ months later, on July 6th, the following article appeared:

On Saturday afternoon between 4 and 5, a beautiful mirage was seen from Ælsegårde. At first a rocky landscape became present, in which appeared churches, castles, and houses. But after some time this changed and it was as if Møns Klint, with the dark outline of forest on top an (indeciperable) down the white cliffs.

I am unable to understand the last part of the above article properly, but it does appear as if there was some acknowledgement of a distortion taking place during the observation. Also, the descriptions of castle ruins in the two previous accounts, could be a way to account for irregularities in the scenery. But otherwise, the sightings appear to have been quite clear and almost of a visionary quality, especially the nightime observation. This is entirely possible, because even though the articles mention mirages and Fata Morganas, we don't know if the phenomenon (or term) was known to the observers, or if it was employed solely by the newspapers. This could just have been speculation, in order to demonstrate a scientific angle, but, maybe especially due to the the description of castles, one can understand quite well why a Fata Morgana would have come to mind. Another thing that strengthens this hypothesis, is that all the observation areas mentioned in the articles, are close to the sea. The bottom line, however, is that we can't know for sure.

But whether or not these were mirages or "genuine" visions of other worlds, the sights themselves must have been quite amazing to behold. And one can justly speculate that they, and many others like them, were the basis of many campfire stories of fairy castles in the sky. Perhaps even the legendary cloud realm of Magonia can be traced back to such experiences?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How Funny Are Those Explosions?

Accidents have always happened, and when you go through a lot of old newspapers, you really get a sense of just how many times they also repeat themselves. The warnings your mother came up with when you were a child were definitely founded in fact, not just an expression of overprotectiveness. The amount of articles about scalded infants, children drinking drain cleaner and even grown men drinking acid by mistake, throughout the 20th century Danish newspapers, are astounding. I personally don't like dwelling on tragedies, but there is a small percentage of these stories that are truly head-scratching, where noone got seriously hurt. 

Take for example the case of the couple from Fredericia, who were out for a romantic walk one quiet summer night in 1946. Suddenly they spotted a light under a bench, which turned out to be a candle. Confused about the sight, they blew out the candle and sat down for a while. Shortly after they heard an explosion, and the woman lept to her feet with a scream. Some sort of projectile had hit her leg, creating a wound that, although not deadly, did command medical attention. As an explanation, the police speculated that some disturbed person had placed a bullet close to the candle, in hope of making it fire. But even if one manages to stretch the mind to accept that answer, it still raises a lot of other questions.

Strange explosion under a public bench (Aftenbladet, 1946)

One can also find several news stories about large explosive devices, appearing in the most unlikely places. What would make a sane person choose a landmine to kindle the family's kitchen stove, you might ask. Apparently, many people did this back during the last war, because the wooden outer shells of the mines were highly flammable, and because they were somewhat in abundance. It did happen that people forgot to pull out the interior once in a while, though. For example, one day  in September of 1945, where a man and his wife put a mine inside the stove and briefly went outside. Then came a large explosion from the house, where the couple's two children were sitting on a table close to the stove. Amazingly, they survived without injuries, even though the stove had been blown to bits, with parts sticking out from the walls and ceiling.

"A Landmine in the Stove". Apparently the locals started looking for alternatives, following too many of these incidents (Aftenbladet) 

Another incident, from Ryesgade, Copenhagen in 1919, demonstrates that these homemade explosions weren't always self-inflicted. A ceramic stove in a first-floor apartment exploded here one night in April, taking out all the windows and setting the furniture on fire. There were children present here too, but by some miracle they also survived without injuries. The source couldn't be determined in this case, but it was proposed that a firecracker had somehow found it's way into the coal-pile.

A bomb in the stove. Always check your coal for stray firecrackers and the likes (Aftenbladet, 1919)

The same level of innoncence could not proclaimed by a man, who in 1941 decided to discard of a firebomb by placing it close to his stove. There it laid for a long period of time, until people in the area heard about it and called the police. Fortunately for him and his neighbours, nothing happened here either.