Fata Morgana: The Floating Mirages That Once Fooled Sailors and Fueled the Legend of the Flying Dutchman

by Owen James Burke


Photo: Louise Murray/Visuals Unlimited/Getty Images

On August 14, 1643, a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Domenico Giardina was gazing across the Strait of Messina from Sicily when he perceived “a city all floating in the air, and so measureless and so splendid, so adorned with magnificent buildings, all of which was found on a base of a luminous crystal.” The vision then went on to become a garden, followed by a forest. Finally, warfare broke out amongst huge armies and then suddenly the entire scene disappeared. What gave?

By the 17th century, Jesuits had started drinking the tea of a psychoactive and potentially hallucinogenic plant plant called Guayasa, which was introduced to them in Ecuador (Schultes, The Heffter Review of Psychedelic Research, 1998), but as Wired reports, Jesuit priests aren’t and weren’t at the time particularly known for their drug use. So, any theories of drug-frenzied priests are probably out of the question. And in Father Giardina’s defense, being an especially enlightened man for his time, he even tried to apply scientific reasoning to what he had witnessed. Then only known as the work of fata morgana (“fairy Morgan”), which as Marina Warner writes in her historical exploration of the spirit, Phantasmagoria, is an Italian translation of the Norman tale of King Arthur’s half-sister Morgan le Fay, a fairy and enchantress who was said to have lured sailors to an undersea palace wherein mirages were experienced.


Photo: Wikimedia

Years later, an early 19th century story titled “Vanderdecken’s Message Home,” which would come to be known as The Legend of the Flying Dutchman, told of a floating ship off the Cape of Good Hope that would vanish just as soon as it had appeared. By 1821, less people were inclined to accept the phenomenon as mysticism, apart from a select few of only the most over-intoxicated, spiritually-lubricated sailors of the time. Still, there were no concrete answers.

While Father Giardina cited that vapors were at play, he was wrong, but not terribly. At around the very same time, French physicist named Pierre de Fermat was also trying to develop a scientific explanation for fata morgana and is credited today with solving the mystery of mirages.


Photo: Zátonyi Sándor/Wikimedia Commons

De Fermat concluded that the illusions were caused not by vapors but by temperature gradients resulting in refraction, where the change in light’s angle of projection is dependent upon the difference in atmospheric densities (and therefore temperatures).

Over land, warmer air reflecting off the earth meets cooler air to create inferior retraction, which landlubbers will be more familiar with, is the kind of mirage you can observe driving on a long, hot desert road, heat waves emanating off the asphalt. As a result, looking down into the mirage, you’re really seeing what’s directly ahead.

Sailors and other water-based folks are more accustomed to experiencing the downward bending of light rays so that what you see ahead and above is a taller (or if above water, “floating”) magnified image of the real object. This is associated with cooler temperatures from the sea’s surface and warmer temperatures above. For a more visual description, see the figure below.

(Click for larger view) Image: Ludovica Lorenzelli, DensityDesign Research Lab/Wikimedia

Read more at Wired — OJB

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