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FLYING SHIPS AND WEATHER WIZARDS

This page gives a brief overview of old European lore about ships seen flying in the air and their putative connection with wizards with control over the weather.

WONDERS IN THE ANNALS OF IRELAND

The beautiful land of Ireland has a long history, with plenty of strange events recorded in annalistic material as having taken place. On a number of occasions, clustered around the 740s and about AD 950, a ship or ships were seen flying in the air above the land. Here are a collection of notices detailing interations between the celestial sailors - who appear to be unable to breathe in the terrestrial atmosphere - and the men of Ireland: -

  • Annals of Tigernach, T744.11: -
    A strange sign was manifested in Boirche, in the time of Fiachna son of Aedh Ron, king of the Ulaid, and in the time of Eochaidh son of Bresal king of the Uí Echach, to wit, a whale which the sea cast to land with three golden teeth in its head and fifty ounces in each of these teeth, and one of the teeth was taken, and remained on the altar of Bennchor for a long time.
  • Annals of Tigernach, T745.1: -
    At nightime a horrible and remarkable sign was seen in the stars.
  • Annals of Tigernach, T746.3: -
    Dragons were seen in the sky.
  • Annals of Tigernach, T748.13: -
    Ships were seen in the air with their men.
  • Annals of the Four Masters, M743.9: -
    Ships with their crews, were plainly seen in the sky this year.
  • Annals of Clonmacnoise, 744: -
    There were shipes seen in the skyes with their men this yeare.
  • Echtra Ambacuc: -
    Here too is another one of the same meeting's marvels: the seeing namely of three ships that navigated the air over their heads when with Murrough's son Donall the men of Ireland celebrated the Convention.
  • Lebor Gabála Érenn, 144. Domnall mac Murchada: -
    642-1. Domnall mac Murchada, twenty years, till he died. Ships were seen in the air. Resting of Fidmuine. Cú Chuimne rested.
    642-3. Domnall s. Murehad, twenty years, till he died. Ships in the air. Falling asleep of Saint Comman. Resting of Fidmuine ua Suanaig Cummine rested.
  • De mirabilibus Hiberniae, 19. De naui que uisa est in aere: -
    A king was once in an assembly of the Irish, with diverse crowds, with thousands finely arrayed. Behold! suddenly they see a ship glide through the air, from which someone casts a spear at a fish, It fell to the ground: swimming down, he recovered it. Who can hear such things without praising the Lord of Heaven?
  • De Ingantaib Érenn: -
    Congalach son of Mael Mithig was at the assembly of Tailtiu one day when he saw a ship moving through the air. Then one of them [i.e. the ship's crew] cast a spear at a salmon, so that it came down in front of the assembly. A man from the ship came after it. When he seized one end of it from above, a man seized it from below. "You are drowning me!" said the man aloft. "Let him go," said Congalach. Then he is released, and swims upward away from them.
  • Advocates' Library, Edinburgh MS XXVI: -
    One day the community of Clonmacnoise were assembled in conclave on the floor of the church. As they were conversing they saw a ship sailing above them in the air, moving as if it were upon the sea. When the crew of the ship saw the conclave and the settlement below them, they cast out the anchor; and so the anchor came down onto the floor of the church, so that the clerics seized it. A man from the ship came down after the anchor, swimming as if through water; but when he reached the anchor they seized him. "For God's sake let me go!" said he, "for you are drowning me." Then he went from them, swimming through the air and taking the anchor with him.

This was understandably big news, and accounts of the flying ships also make their way into a famous Norse text: -

  • Konungs Skuggsjá: -
    There happened something once in the borough called Cloena, which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop's throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon, as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event.

The powerful Tuatha De Danann, godlike beings who held sway over the emerald isle before the arrival of the Gael, are the likeliest origin for stories of flying ships from Ireland for a number of reasons, not least because, in the Lebor Gabála Érenn ("Book of Invasions"), they are held to have arrived in Ireland from the "four cities of the north" in "dark clouds over the air," and, though some recensions claim they "without vessels or barks," others maintain more prosaically that they arrived by sea and "burnt their ships" on arrival. The more elaborate explanation puts their feats of aerial travel down to "the might of druidry."


ACROSS THE IRISH SEA

Geoffroy du Breuil, abbot of Vigeois, writing in 1184, tells of an aerial ship casting anchor into the centre of London in 1122. Other mirabilia on this theme appear in the work of his younger contemporary Gervase of Tilbury, whose Otia Imperialia [1.13], written in about 1211, contains the following passage: -

A strange event in our own time, which is widely known but none the less a cause of wonder, provides proof of the existence of an upper sea overhead. It occurred on a feast day in Great Britain, while the people were straggling out of their parish church after hearing high mass. The day was very overcast and quite dark on account of the thick clouds. To the people's amazement, a ship's anchor was seen caught on a tombstone within the churchyard wall, with its rope stretching up and hanging in the air. They were advancing various opinions on the matter to each other, when after a time they saw the rope move as if it were being worked to pull up the ancbor. Since, being caught fast, it would not give way, a sound was heard in the humid air as of sailors struggling to recover the anchor they had cast down. Soon, when their efforts proved vain, the sailors sent one of their number down; using the same technique as our sailors here below, he gripped the anchor-rope and climbed down it, swinging one hand over the other. He had already pulled the anchor free, when he was seized by the bystanders. He then expired in the hands of his captors, suffocated by the humidity of our dense air as if he were drowning in the sea. The sailors up above waited an hour, but then, concluding that their companion had drowned, they cut the rope and sailed away, leaving the anchor behind. And so in memory of this event it was fittingly decided that that ancbor should be used to make ironwork for the church door, and it is still there for all to see.

Gervase continues with a tale from the port of Bristol - a part of England with strong historical links with Ireland - which gives us a clue to the rather more mundane origins for some of these skyward sailors: -

There is a town in Gloucestershire called Bristol, a prosperous place, full of wealthy citizens. It is a port, from where one can cross from Great Britain to Ireland. A native of that place once went on a voyage, leaving his wife and children at home. After covering a great distance in the course of a long voyage, when the ship was sailing in a remote part of the ocean, the citizen in question sat down to eat with the sailors at about nine o'clock one morning. After the meal he was washing his knife at the ship's rail when it suddenly slipped from his hand. That very hour it fell through an open window in the roof of the citizen's own home - the kind of window which the English call a skylight - and stuck fast in a table which stood beneath it, before the eyes of his wife. The woman stared at it in amazement, struck by the strangeness of this occurrence. She kept the knife, which she recognized from former days, and when, a long time afterwards, her husband returned, she learned from him that the day on which the accident occurred during his voyage coincided with the day on which she acquired the knife.

Clearly not a flat-earther: rather than falling off the edge and plummeting into a bottomless abyss, sailors continue into parts of the sea which arc above the land below!


WYNTLAND

Furthermore, another English source, used by the monastic chronicler and polymath Ranulf Higden, is not only apparently knowledgeable about the Norse discoveries in North America, but also knows of a legend which explains the name of one of these lands, given here as Wyntland (i.e. Norse Vínland).

This account holds that the natives of that land were heathen in religion, and furthermore had the ability to exert some measure of control over the winds on behalf of those who seek harbour there, involving the tying and loosening of sundry knots (reminiscent of the island of the wind god Aeolus in the Homeric Odyssey). An account taken from Michael Livingston's work on the topic of Vínland has this to say: -

Winlandia is a country close to the mountains of Norway in the direction of the Orient, along the shores of Ocean; very little grows there besides grasses and trees. The people of that place are barbarous, savage, fierce, and work the magical arts; they offer and sell wind to those who sail to their shores from other places or who draw near to them on account of a hindering lack of wind.

Of particular pertinence to our purposes here is the section which follows: -

They fashion a band of string and tie many knots into it; then, depending on whether they want a strong or a weak wind they then remove many knots on the band or only a few. In accordance with their unbelief, they beg for these powers from aerial demons who stir up the major or the minor winds according to the loosening of the knots. And sometimes they so stir up the winds that the unfortunate ones are drowned.


MAGONIA

Agobard of Lyon, a Spanish-born bishop who lived and worked in Carolingian Francia, complains in his De Grandine et Tonitruis ("On Hail and Thunder") [2] of a widespread belief in the collusion between Frankish tempestarii ("storm-makers;" weather-wizards) and the "felonious aerial sailors," whose origins are specified to lie in a land named by Agobard as Magonia, whose denizens sail their ships in the clouds: -

But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers, and take the grain and other crops. Among those so blinded with profound stupidity that they believe these things could happen we have seen many people in a kind of meeting, exhibiting four captives, three men and one woman, as if they had fallen from these very ships. As I have said, they exhibited these four, who had been chained up for some days, with such a meeting finally assembling in our presence, as if these captives ought to be stoned. But when truth had prevailed, however, after much argument, the people who had exhibited the captives, in accordance with the prophecy (Jeremiah 2:26) "were confounded - as the thief is confounded when he is taken."

The Franks' 19th century descendants in the Vendée were still aware of the upper sea once sailed by the evil denizens of Magonia, albeit it was now the home of more benevolent forces: -

If our fathers have not lied, there are birds that know the way to the upper sea, and no doubt carry a message to the blessed in Paradise.


THE ANCIENT GREEKS AND THE UPPER WORLD

For Plato, the upper world was the domain of a righteous people, far better than ourselves [Phaedo 109d-110a]: -

[W]e dwell in a hollow of the earth and think we dwell on its upper surface; and the air we call the heaven, and think that is the heaven in which the stars move. But the fact is the same, that by reason of feebleness and sluggishness, we are unable to attain to the upper surface of the air; for if anyone should come to the top of the air or should get wings and fly up, he could lift his head above it and see, as fishes lift their heads out of the water and see the things in our world, so he would see things in that upper world; and, if his nature were strong enough to bear the sight, he would recognize that that is the real heaven and the real light and the real earth.

He describes the circumstances of this people in glowing terms [Phaedo 111ac]: -

And there are many animals upon it, and men also, some dwelling inland, others on the coasts of the air, as we dwell about the sea, and others on islands, which the air flows around, near the mainland; and in short, what water and the sea are in our lives, air is in theirs, and what the air is to us, ether is to them. And the seasons are so tempered that people there have no diseases and live much longer than we, and in sight and hearing and wisdom and all such things are as much superior to us as air is purer than water or the ether than air. And they have sacred groves and temples of the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and they have intercourse with the gods by speech and prophecies and visions, and they see the sun and moon and stars as they really are, and in all other ways their blessedness is in accord with this.

The animals mentioned by Plato here may well be those preternatural monsters well-known in Greek mythology: his predecessor Herodorus certainly appears to have thought thus. The Christian Father Tatian mocks Herodorus' statement that "there is an upper earth from which the lion came down which was killed by Herakles" [BNJ 31 F 4]. Vultures, too, may well be from this upper-earth: Aristotle cites Herodorus as saying "that vultures come from some other country unknown to us, citing as evidence that no one has ever seen a vulture's nest, and that vultures suddenly appear in large numbers in the wake of armies" [BNJ 31 F 22a, apud Aristotle, History of Animals 6.5.563a 5]. Plutarch provides a more detailed statement in his biography of Romulus, founder of Rome [9.6-7 = BNJ 31 F 22b]: -

Herodoros Ponticus relates that Herakles also was glad to see a vulture present itself when he was upon an exploit. For it is the least harmful of all creatures, injures no grain, fruit-tree, or cattle, and lives on carrion. But it does not kill or maltreat anything that has life, and as for birds, it will not touch them even when they are dead, since they are of its own species. But eagles, owls and hawks smite their own kind when alive, and kill them. And yet, in the words of Aischylos: How shall a bird that preys on fellow bird be clean? Besides, other birds are, so to speak, always in our eyes, and let themselves be seen continually; but the vulture is a rare sight, and it is not easy to come upon a vulture's young, nay, some men have been led into a strange suspicion that the birds come from some other and foreign land to visit us here, so rare and intermittent is their appearance, which soothsayers think should be true of what does not present itself naturally, nor spontaneously, but by a divine sending.

The concept of the other world from which come vultures and gargantuan lions may lie in the speculations of the Pythagoreans and Orphics, who would locate the homes of these upper-earth-dwellers squarely on the moon. The ability to sail to the moon appears - and is, needless to say, mocked without mercy - in Lucian of Samosata's True History.


BACK TO IRELAND - AND ABOVE!

County Donegal is situated in the extreme north-west of Ireland, buffeted by the immense power of the Atlantic Ocean. Both the Irish and Ulster Scots languages are still spoken in parts of the county, where beliefs about the magical powers of the "hill-folk" - who seem to be particularly fond of high winds - remained strong even after the Irish Republic's hard-won independence from Cruel Britannia. One poor soul told of his being whisked away to their domain at harvest time, and of his fortunate escape: -

It was a fine moonlight night and when he heard the wind rise he went out to put some kind of binding on the stooks. As he went round the house a gust swept him off his feet and lifted him clean into the air so that he wasn't able to reach the ground again and he was carried away he did not know where. He was being tossed back and forth and at last he was up above the sky. He found himself standing there on the best land he had ever laid foot on, and there were hundreds of little red-haired men all round him stooking corn with all their might. And it was the corn that the great wind had lifted from the earth below.

He is fortunate to come across a fellow surface-dwelling Irishman who told the same tale, and gave this fellow valuable advice for getting back home with the corn pilfered by the hill-folk.


RIDERS ON THE STORM: THE SOLOMONARI

Romanian folklore tells us of a particularly nefarious species of weather-wizard known as the Solomonar (plural: Solomonari). These men, who divide their time between Tărâmul Celălalt (the Otherworld) and our plane of existence, are known to ride a type of serpentine or draconine creature known as a balaur or zmeu (Flag of Germany: Ismeju) and are generally described as tall, with red hair and puffy eyes, wearing long white or woolen robes, or else seeking to go unheeded as beggars in patched-up garb, receiving alms from the good but unsuspecting burgesses of whichever parish they choose to rock up in. With them, they carry magic bags, the contents of which are generally a book - the Cartea Solomonăriei - along with a iron axe, reigns or bridle fashioned from the bark of a birch tree and occasionally a branch which has dealt doom to a serpent. When they are abroad, they ride their mounts and bring about meteorological misfortunes in the form of rain, hail and thunderstorms. Their earlier name - Hultani - is associated with hail, and they are also known as grindinari ("hailstones"), ghețari ("glaciers"), izgonitori de nori ("expellers of clouds") or zgrabunțași ("curmudgeons").

The Solomonar must study as an apprentice to - some say - the devil himself in a sinister college known to German-speaking scholars as Scholomance (the native Romanian name is Solomonărie or Şolomanţă), where they serve an apprenticeship in mastering the dark magical, divinatory, astrological and meteorological arts for seven years. The school is exclusive, with only ten students at any one time.

If you wish to counteract the mischief of the Solomonari, it is highly recommended that you secure the services of a master mason: such men were also trained at Scholomance, but have since renounced evil. Perhaps funny handshakes are also on the curriculum...

In the real world, Scholomance is probably derived from the Cueva de Salamanca, where the devil reputedly taught classes at the venerable Universidad de Salamanca, founded as far back as 1218. The Solomonari, meanwhile, are potential heirs of the Dacian people who dwelt in what is today Romania. Among their number were a priestly caste, the ascetic Ctistae, also known as Kapnobatai or "smoke-treaders," perhaps pointing to rituals imported from the Pontic steppes and beyond involving use of cannabis as a shamanic enhancer of entheogenic experience. Scholomance, meanwhile, could possibly have been founded by the Thracian-Dacian hero Zalmoxis, who is said to have entered a cave and dwelt there for a full three years, convincing his people that he was dead before emerging and accepting the honours due a god.

Otherwise, they may be from the number of the Red Jews, who menaced Christian Europe from beyond the Sambatyon river during the Middle Ages, promising to avenge their kindred who were at the mercy of the often-deadly whims of the supposed servants of CHRIST.


CALL THE BENANDANTI!

The crop wars between magical forces also saw a theatre opened in the Veneto district in modern north-eastern Italy. There, the Benandanti documented by Carlo Ginzburg fought witches over crops on the Ember days, riding hares and cats in the spirit armed with fennel. Their enemies, the strighe and stregoni, were armed with reeds in the form of a broom. They are first heard of on 21st March 1575 in villages in Aquilea and Concordia.

Weather magic formed a significant and dangerous part of the dread arsenal of the Early Modern witch across Europe: James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) cast the blame squarely at the doors of their hovels for a series of storms which almost cost him his new Danish bride (sadly, no Benandanti operating in Scotland in the late 16th century), while his ill-fated son Charles reputedly barely escaped from the nefarious work of the infamous witches of Lancashire, of whom it was "suspected that they had a hand in raising the great storm wherein his Majesty was in so great danger at sea in Scotland" in 1634. The king survived to make his appointment with the executioner's block some years hence.

 

Sir Graham