The History and Lore Behind the Adage, ‘Red Sky in Morning’
by Carolyn Sotka
‘Scarlet Sunrise’ Folly Island, South Carolina. WanderSea Photography by Carolyn Sotka, October 7, 2014
‘Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.’
One of the first known accounts of this old adage can be found in the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew, likely written between 50 – 90 A.D. According to the disciple Matthew, Jesus was approached by the ruling class of Israel, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who asked for a sign from God. Jesus was in continuous conflict with these groups, and that ultimately led to his crucification and death.
In Matthew XVI: 2-3 Jesus says, “When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather. For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today. For the sky is red and lowering.” O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” Jesus used the phrase as an analogy to compare the prediction of weather to the prediction of the times to come.
Shakespeare also used the term in his poem, ‘Venus and Adonis’, written in 1592. A poem that describes the back and forth and many faces of love.
“Once more the ruby-coloured portal opened,
Which to his speech did honey passage yield;
Like a red morn, that ever yet betokened
Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdmen and to herds.”
Red is a recurring theme throughout the poem and interpreted by some in this verse to mean that Adonis is the harbinger of love and bad weather; from the sea to the field, from the birds to the herds. Perhaps it was Shakespeare that included the effect of the red morning sky on the daily life of sailors and shepherds.
Much of weather folklore is grounded in actual meteorological events. Weather lore concerning the appearance of the sky, the conditions of the atmosphere, the type or movement of the clouds, and the direction of the winds may have a scientific basis and likely can predict the weather.
In the case of ‘red sky in morning’ it is potentially a sign that a high-pressure system (good weather) has passed and a low-pressure system (storm) and an incoming front from the west is moving in. The intense red color is produced when sunlight reflects off moisture and dust in the approaching clouds, indicating rain is on its way. Alternatively ‘red sky at night’ means that a fair, high-pressure system is coming, bringing with it good weather.
In the case of this Folly Island sunrise across the street from my house, it was just another beautiful day, capped by an equally beautiful sunset.
Here’s a time lapse of an equally beautiful red sky.
Read about more weather folklore and sayings. —CS