Aerolites and Miraculous Showers

by Albany Poyntz

The fall of aërolites, often termed by the vulgar a shower of stones, is either more frequent than in days of yore, or attracts more general attention.

The record of similar phenomena has, however, been handed down to us by the ancients; for we are told of a shower of stones which, in the days of Tullus Hostilius, fell upon the city immediately after the ruin of Alba.

“While the Senate was occupied in its deliberations,” says Livy, “a shower of stones fell from Heaven upon the Alban Mount. The Prince, astonished at the report of such a phenomenon, sent to ascertain the truth, and found that a shower of pebbles had really fallen, similar to hailstones.”

Before the time of the Romans, the Greeks had witnessed similar phenomena. In the Thracian Chersonesus there fell a huge greyish stone, which excited the greatest consternation.

A stone existed in Rome known as the stone of the Mother of the Gods, which had originally fallen from the sky, like that of the Thracian Chersonesus. It fell at Pessinuntum, in Phrygia, where the priests held it in great veneration. The oracle at Rome having given out that the fortunes of the Republic were secure if it could possess itself of this inestimable treasure, the Senate sent an embassy into Phrygia by Scipio Nasica, who enlarged upon the ties existing between the Phrygians and Romans through Æneas; and skilfully setting forth the power of Rome and the protection she was able to concede to the Pessinuntians, the priests gave up the sacred stone. It was immediately carried in procession to Rome, exposed to public view, and an annual festival instituted in its honour.

A similar stone, which stood near the Temple of Delphos, was equally venerated, and endowed with a still more marvellous origin; being supposed to issue from the belly of Saturn, the God of the stone eaters. Tradition recorded that Saturn, having swallowed it, and found it difficult of digestion, threw it up again, when it fell in Greece. Upon this point, Pausanias and Nonnus concur with the tradition.

In the sixteenth century, a descent of stones took place on Mount Lebanon, accompanied by a luminous globe. Various other instances might be cited from the ancients; but these may suffice to establish proof of identity between the modern and ancient phenomena. In most instances, they have been supposed to be of divine origin and of ominous nature. Damascius mentions that a physician of his day, named Eusebius, carried one about his person, which conduced greatly to the relief of his patients.

In the sixteenth century, it is stated that there fell near the Adda, in Italy, nearly twelve hundred stones, one of which weighed one hundred, and another sixty pounds. True is it that Cardan makes the assertion, which is therefore doubtful. But Gassendi, who is deserving of credit, states that on the 27th of November, 1627, with a clear atmosphere, at ten A.M., he saw a luminous stone, about four feet in diameter, descend from Heaven upon Mount Vaisian. It was enveloped in a luminous circle of various colours, and passed at a hundred paces from two men, who estimated its elevation at thirty-six feet. It gave out a hissing noise like a rocket, accompanied with a smell of sulphur, and fell two hundred feet from the spectators, plunging itself three feet into the soil. It was of a metallic hue, and weighed fifty-four pounds; and is still to be seen at Aix, in Provence. The largest ever known, fell at Ensisheim, in Alsace, in 1492; its weight being near three hundred pounds. In the Abbé Richard’s Natural History of the Air, there is a description of a fall of stones which took place in 1768, in Maine; from which we extract the following passage:

“During a hurricane that took place near the Château of Lucé, in the Province of Maine, a clap of thunder was heard, followed by a noise similar to the roar of a wild beast; which was audible for many leagues round. Some persons in the parish of Périgné thought they perceived a dense body fall with great velocity into a meadow near the high road to Mans; and on hurrying to the spot, found the stone imbedded in the ground. At first, it was hot; but soon cooling, they were enabled to examine it at leisure. It weighed seven pounds and a half, and was in form triangular; or rather it had three protuberances, of which the one plunged in the earth was grey, and the two others black. A fragment being submitted to the examination of the Royal Academy of Sciences, for analysis, they pronounced it neither to originate in thunder, nor to have fallen from the skies, nor to be composed of mineral particles fused by the action of the electric fluid; but a species of pyrites, giving out a smell of sulphur during its solution. One hundred grains of this substance yielded, upon analysis, eight grains and a half of sulphur, thirty-six of iron, and fifty-five and a half of vitrifiable earth.” The evidence of science, however, seldom reaches the ear of the vulgar; and it would be difficult to persuade the populace that aërolites do not fall from the sky.

Aristotle, in mentioning the stone that fell in Thrace, rejects the idea of its coming from the heavens; and Pliny confesses that most naturalists are of the same opinion. This was a step towards the extinction of a popular error. Fréret denies the existence of atmospheric stones, and declares them to be volcanic emissions driven by the force of the winds. He supposes Mount Albano to have been formerly a volcano; and that the stones that fell must have issued from a re-opening of the crater. Falconet, the sculptor, wrote a volume to prove that Pliny was in error concerning atmospheric stones. While the learned world was thus at variance, the multitude was justified in asserting them to fall from the moon, since men of science were unable to prove the contrary.

On the 26th of April, 1803, there fell a vast number of atmospheric stones at Aigle, in the department of Orne. The peasants of the place, thinking it was the end of the world, fell on their knees invoking divine mercy; and even their betters shared their alarm. This phenomenon happened most opportunely, as the world of science, both in Paris and London, was just then discussing similar occurrences which had taken place in India and Provence; and after most diligent inquiry, the Institute resolved to despatch one of its members to the spot. Monsieur Biot, an enthusiast in the cause of science, arrived on the spot on the 16th of July, and collected the following facts.

“About one o’clock, P.M., the sky being calm, with only a few greyish clouds above the horizon, which did not diminish the fineness of the weather, a luminous globe was seen, from Caen, from Pont Audemer, from the vicinity of Alençon, Falaise, and Verneuil, rushing with great velocity through the atmosphere; and immediately afterwards, a violent explosion was heard at Aigle and thirty leagues round; lasting six minutes, and resembling a discharge of artillery followed by that of musketry, and terminating as with a roll of drums.

“A small cloud of rectangular form seemed to have been the origin of all this terrible noise; the broader side of which was towards the west. It appeared to be motionless throughout the phenomenon; vapours being emitted after each discharge. The cloud was very high in the air. The inhabitants of two villages, situated a league asunder, perceived it as if exactly suspended above their heads. A hissing noise, similar to a stone hurled from a sling, was heard wherever it hovered; and at the same time, numerous solid bodies fell, which being collected, proved to be meteoric stones.

“When tested, they were found to contain sulphur, iron in the metallic state, magnesia and nickel; which, in the mineral kingdom have no analogy.”

Monsieur Biot also stated that the direction of the meteor was precisely that of the magnetic meridian; an important remark, as a guide for future observations. The great point gained in this inquiry, is that the highest order of science, agreeing with the earliest professors, adopts what by progressive science was denied.

The fact of showers of stones being established, all that remains to be proved is their origin. Some still assert that they fall from the moon; others attribute them to volcanos. Neither fact can be proved; and the descent of aërolites at present remains a mystery.

One phenomenon often succeeds another; and shortly after the fall of stones at Aigle, a shower of peas took place in Spain, and the kingdom of Leon. This last phenomenon occurred in the month of May of the same year; and, in Spain, fifteen quintals of an unknown seed were collected after a violent storm; being round in form, white in colour, less than peas in size, and resembling no known seed. They seemed, however, to belong to the leguminous family of plants. Cavanilla, the botanist, analized them without being able to determine their class. These productions, at least, could neither be supposed to come from the moon, nor to have a volcanic origin. Some of the seeds were sown in the Botanic Garden of Madrid, but without result. This is, however, by no means a solitary instance of a miraculous shower.

Pliny, Livy, Solinus, and Julius Obsequius have recorded showers of blood, milk, wool, money, and pieces of flesh! Those authors make frequent mention of such occurrences; dupes, no doubt, to the traditions of the ancients. Lamothe Levayer, however, surpasses them all, and mentions the fall of a man from the sky. Unless from a balloon, or the scaffolding of some lofty building, we must be permitted to doubt; though he may, perhaps, allude to some individual carried up by the force of a whirlwind; for in the autumn of 1812, on the road to Genoa, a mule was raised up by the wind, sustained during thirty seconds in the air, then disappeared in a ravine, where it probably perished.

If we deny the existence of showers of blood, we must admit that there have been phenomena such as to justify impostors in propagating such delusions. During the Siege of Genoa, in 1774, there fell a red rain upon the suburb of San Pietro d’Arena, which caused much consternation among the inhabitants; the wind having carried up a quantity of red earth, which proved the cause of general alarm. A similar phenomenon took place, near Hermanstadt, in Transylvania.

“On the 17th of May, 1810,” says a German journal, “there was a rain of blood which lasted a quarter of an hour, accompanied by a violent storm, and gusts of wind towards the south-west. Being collected on the spot by a physician, and submitted to the chemical tests of sulphurated nitrous, muriatic acid, acetate of lead, lime water, mercury, and saponaceous spirit, it exhibited neither precipitation, nor loss of colour. Tested with a solution of alum and fixed alkali, the precipitate induced a belief that the colouring matter of this strange rain pertained to the vegetable kingdom.

To elucidate the mystery of the rain at Hermanstadt, it sufficed to inquire in what point was the wind. For on examining the localities in the southwesterly direction, the hills proved to be clothed with fir, in bloom, and the rain of blood was instantly explained. For in the North of Europe rains of a reddish yellow, impregnated with the bloom of the fir, constantly occur.

In 1608, the walls of Aix in Provence were covered with red spots, which the people conceived to be blood. But Peiresc, a man of profound science, undeceived them by proving them to be the spots left by a species of butterfly on emerging from its crysalis; the number having been immense that year at Aix.

Till balloons and other aërial carriages are used as engines of warfare, we despair of having to record an authentic shower of blood, or any other than common place hail, rain, and snow. There is an instance of a shower of money, or rather of false coinage, mentioned by Dion Cassius; who states that a certain rain turned copper white, assigning to it the hue of silver, which lasted for three days. This is far from miraculous; as it requires only a portion of volatilized mercury to mingle with the rain, as in the instance of the fir bloom, to produce such an effect.

Showers of milk are explained by cretaceous matter carried into the air by whirlwinds. The shreds of human flesh we read of are the red fragments vomited by volcanoes; while showers of wool consist of the down of certain trees, such as willows and osiers. Showers of cinders are of course the result of volcanic eruption. The wind conveys them a prodigious distance; for when Herculaneum and Pompeii were imbedded in lava, the ashes fell at Rome, and even in Africa.

About a century ago, the deck of a vessel sailing from Marseilles to Martinique was covered with ashes some inches deep, which were known to proceed from an earthquake in the Island of St. Vincent. No other cause could be assigned, though the vessel was one hundred leagues from the island. The velocity of a cannon-ball or shell has been calculated; but that of the wind, like the origin of the meteoric stones, remains a problem.