On the morning of 14th April 1561, the people of Nuremberg in Germany witnessed a “dreadful apparition” in the sky. Modern UFO enthusiasts have used the Nuremberg celestial phenomenon as evidence of extra-terrestrial life, although scientists have also put forward their explanation of why hundreds of people saw what they described as an aerial battle raging in front of the sun.

The spectacle was recorded by the artist Hans Glaser who lived in Nuremberg and so presumably witnessed the event himself. He published a woodcut and text in a ‘broadsheet’ – a kind of newspaper that reveled in reporting strange or violent stories. The woodcut shows cylindrical objects; multiple-coloured discs and globes, crosses, and even tubes that look like cannon barrels all moving in the sky.

There’s no way of knowing how accurate the woodcut is, or what caused the shapes in the sky, but recent science has pointed towards atmospheric phenomena. UFO-skeptic Frank Johnson has written a convincing argument suggesting that the people of Nuremberg witnessed a parhelion, otherwise known as a sundog, caused by light refracting through clouds of ice crystals, along with other atmospheric tricks of the light including a low viewing angle of the sun. Others suggest a city-wide outbreak of ergotism, where fungus growing on grain can cause hallucinations.

Whatever the cause, the celestial phenomenon terrified the people of Nuremberg who interpreted it as a warning from God.

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© Scott Allsop