Dust cloud, mock sun, mass hallucination – there are many theories on the cause of the Miracle of the Sun but the truth of what actually happened may never be known
The event known as Fatima’s Miracle of the Sun has been fiercely debated by scientists over the years as they sought rational explanations for the phenomenon.
Some have said the dancing effects were caused by the temporary retinal distortion that people experience after staring too long at an intense light. Professor Auguste Meessen of the Institute of Physics, Catholic University of Leuven, says that ‘sun miracles’ cannot be taken at face value and that the reported observations were optical effects caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells. He notes that ‘sun miracles’ such as that seen at Fatima have occurred in many places where a crowd has been encouraged to stare at the sun.
One enduring theory is that it was a mass hallucination caused by the excitement of the crowd. However believers such as John De Marchi, an Italian Catholic priest who spent years researching the Fatima miracle, have disputed this. He argued that the prediction of the children, the abrupt beginning and end of the miracle, the varied religious backgrounds of the crowd and the sheer numbers present make a mass hallucination unlikely. He also noted that the theory of it being a collective hallucination or mass hysteria is made even less likely by the fact the ‘miracle’ was seen by people up to 18 kilometres away.
Others have argued that the event could have been caused by a cloud of stratospheric dust, although there was no sighting of unusual astronomical or meteorological activity on that day. Another researcher, Joe Nickell, has put forward a theory that this was a sundog, also known as a parhelion or ‘mock sun’, which is caused by a reflection of sunlight on ice crystals in the clouds. Sundogs, however, are usually stationary so this does not explain the reports of a ‘dancing sun’.
There are numerous other theories: a dust cloud from the Sahara, the possibility that the crowd was simply seeing what it wanted to, or the possibility that this was an extra-sensory phenomenon caused by the fervour of a highly charged religious gathering. Whatever the explanation might be the event was officially accepted as a miracle by the Vatican on October 13, 1930, exactly 13 years after the day of the event.