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Wispy watercolor painting of a ship on a stormy sea.

The Dioskouri, Or The Fire Of The Tempest


For centuries the Dioskouri have appeared onboard ships, during storms, to predict shipwrecks or prosperous journeys to seafarers.

The Greeks called them Dioskouri. In the middle of a storm on the high seas, the tip of the masts would light up with a flare that did not burn, or burn the ship.

For the Greeks, the fire was the incarnation of the gods Castor and Pollux, who came to the rescue of mariners during storms. Castor and Pollux, also known as Dioskouri, were the sons of Leda and the brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra. The myth tells that, despite being twins, one of them was a son of Zeus and the other was not, but they loved each other so much that they refused to be separated, and the gods granted them a double life, part of which they spent among men and the other part on Olympia. Poseidon had given the twins the power to help shipwrecks and sailors during storms. In the sky, the Dioskouri were the constellation of Gemini, the twins, and in the ocean they were that light that burned during storms.

The appearance of the Dioskouri is described thus in the Homeric Hymns:

Then the shipmen call upon the sons of great Zeus with vows of white lambs, going to the forepart of the prow; but the strong wind and the waves of the sea lay the ship underwater, until suddenly these two are seen darting through the air on tawny wings. Forthwith they allay the blasts of the cruel winds and still the waves upon the surface of the white sea.

In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny said he had seen them shine in lances and ships, and also refers to the sound that the flares emit, a sound that compares to that of birds flitting from branch to branch. As the twins hated to be separated, if only one flare appeared it was considered bad luck. It was the sign of a shipwreck. But, on the other hand, if both flares appeared, it was a good omen, a sign of a prosperous journey. Pliny says there is no certain explanation for this phenomenon. He says the reasons are secret, that they are “hidden in the majesty of nature, reserved in its cabinet.”

An illustration of four men on the mast of a ship pointing to a star.

In the Christian tradition, the fire is called that of Saint Elmo (Saint Elmo is the patron saint of sailors). In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the fire is the incarnation of Ariel, “a spirit that sometimes divides, burns in many parts, on the mast.” Robert Burton says in The Anatomy of Melancholy that the Dioskouri possibly live in a volcano, perhaps in Mount Hekla, in Iceland, in Mount Etna in Sicily, or in Vesuvius. In Moby Dick, the fire that descends the mast, and which shines like a pale phosphorescence in the eyes of the sailors, is an omen of the fall of Captain Ahab.

Science explains that the ionization of the magnetic field of storms causes the luminescent discharges onto the sharp objects of ships. Those lights, that fire that does not burn, has appeared to hundreds of sailors throughout history. Even though today we apparently have an explanation, we can still imagine the surprise and fear that they felt when they saw it and, very probably, if it appeared to us today onboard a ship in a storm our reaction would be similar. Explanations do not put an end to awe. It was seen by, among many others, Columbus during his voyages, and by Darwin aboard The Beagle.

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