“The Sun’s disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body, for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl, when suddenly a clamour was heard from all the people. The Sun, whirling, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the Earth as if to crush us with its huge fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible.”


This was just one of the many eyewitness accounts of apparent extreme solar activity near the town of Fátima in Portugal just after midday on 13 October 1917. Similar reports were abundant – of the Sun spinning off its axis while giving off light of extraordinary colours. Another witness described the Sun resembling “the most magnificent firewheel that could be imagined, taking on all the colours of the rainbow and sending forth multicolored flashes of light.” The spectacle lasted for around ten minutes before the Sun returned to its natural state.

But why had so many people (estimates were between 30,000 and 100,000 onlookers) gathered in this one spot in rural Portugal on this particular autumn day?

The whole episode began six months previously when three young local children – ten-year-old Lúcia dos Santos and her younger cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto – announced that they had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary while they were tending their sheep. ‘Mary’ apparently told the children she would return on the 13th day of each of the next few months and that, on 13 October, would reveal herself to everyone, performing a miracle to confirm her identity.

Three young local children announced that they had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary
Three young local children announced that they had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary. (Image by Getty Images)

On each of the intervening months, the apparition supposedly reappeared but only the children were able to see her. But this didn’t stop word spreading throughout the region – and possibly beyond – of what might occur come October.

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Unsurprisingly to a staunchly Roman Catholic population, the prospect of a miracle was an attractive one, an event not to be missed. For them, it didn’t matter that three young children were the source, with the widely reported visitations encouraging tens of thousands of people to arrive early in those fields on that October morning.

Again, the apparition reportedly appeared, but again, she was only seen by the children. The gathering remained in the dark, none the wiser. Then, according to Lúcia, the woman – who had identified herself as the Lady of the Rosary – threw her arms upwards, causing the young girl to call out “The Sun!” This in turn caused tens of thousands of people to cast their eyes towards the skies.

A trick of the eye?

While many confirmed that they had seen unusual solar activity, the observations weren’t completely uniform. Some saw a kaleidoscopic range of colours. Some saw the Sun ‘dancing’ around the sky. Others saw it move in a more zigzag formation. Plenty of witnesses believed that they had seen it hurtling towards Earth and expressed fear that the planet was shortly to be annihilated. There were some who claimed that they had observed a combination of all of these phenomena.

Not everyone has accepted these curious events, eschewing religion in favour of science to explain what had actually happened. These sceptics have pointed out the optical effects a person’s eye can experience having been told to stare at the Sun. These can include not only the appearance of the Sun ‘dancing’, but also the colour distortion caused by prolonged retinal exposure to such a bright object. To back up this hypothesis, there are no reports of astronomers or observatories in the local region – that is, those not observing the sky with the naked eye – witnessing any unusual behaviour in the Portuguese skies that day.

It’s quite possible that these optical effects worked in conjunction with psychological expectations. After all, it wouldn’t take an event too far out of the ordinary to be interpreted, by a crowd primed for a significant event, as evidence of supernatural intervention. Nor would it take much for a mild case of mass hysteria to break out – if one person claims to have witnessed something extraordinary, it’s perfectly natural for the next person to claim to have experienced likewise. The effect simply mushrooms.

Clouded memory

In considering the psychological angle, that particular day’s meteorological conditions may also come to bear. One study has suggested that, on 13 October 1917, a cloud of stratospheric dust changed the Sun’s appearance, particularly its colouring. Reports from that day in China document these colours to include both blue and deep red. It may be that the most plausible explanation is that of coincidence – that such meteorological conditions occurred at the same time that a miracle had been predicted.

This scepticism was not shared by the Catholic Church who, 13 years later, officially designated the events in that Portuguese field as a miracle. By then, Lúcia had entered a Spanish convent for a life devoted to her religion. She subsequently wrote six volumes of memoirs, largely based on the events at Fátima, in which she revealed that her mother had believed the visitations in 1917 to have simply been a case of ten-year-old Lúcia concocting them to get attention.

Whatever the truth, the episode continues to occupy a significant place in Portugal’s modern history. When Sister Lúcia died in 2005 at the age of 97, there were campaigns for an upcoming parliamentary election to be temporarily suspended. That bewitching ten-minute period from almost 100 years ago remains a miracle to so many.


This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed