It has been dismissed as mass hysteria, over-hyped media spin and a simple natural phenomena but many are convinced the Miracle of the Sun really happened
The thousands who gathered on a hillside near Fatima on 13 October 1917 to see if the promised miracle would occur were not all believers. Many in the crowd were sceptical onlookers, atheists, hard-headed journalists and academics who had come to make a critical study of the event.
All had braved extreme weather and narrow mountain roads to get there. It was raining heavily and the crowd was drenched as it waited for the three children to finish their audience with the Lady of Fatima (although no one but them could see the apparition). At that moment the miracle is said to have begun. The eyewitness accounts came from a collection of sources, both believers and determined non-believers.
It is said the black clouds suddenly parted and the sun became visible, not as its normal fiery disc but as a dull grey circle that could be looked at comfortably by the crowd. As they watched, the sun shook and then appeared to move about erratically as if performing some strange dance in the sky.
People claimed to have seen all sorts of phenomena while this happened. Some said they saw the face of the Virgin Mary in the sun while others variously claimed that it turned like a catherine wheel, dipped to the earth as if to burn it or changed colours in rapid succession. Even stranger are reports that the sun dried up the rain in minutes. Clothes that had been sodden were said to have miraculously dried and the ground transformed from thick mud to dry earth.
Not everyone is convinced by the Fatima sun miracle. Some put it down to a wave of hysteria running through a fervently religious crowd. There are other claims the event was hyped by the media who wanted to sell more newspapers, and by the people who were there because they wanted something miraculous to talk about after going to so much trouble to be there. Some of the scientific reports of the event have been criticised because their authors were Catholic. Even the numbers have been questioned, with some saying photographs show that the crowd was half the reported number.
There are scientific explanations as well, ranging from the simple possibility of the phenomena being caused by moisture in the air to the more complex occurrence of a parhelion, a solar spectacle that has sent similar crowds into fervent ecstasy in the past. The scientific arguments about what happened at Fatima, and whether it was a miracle or some unexplained natural phenomenon, continue to this day but the accounts of those who saw it make fascinating reading.