Q: I read your investigation of the Miracle of Fatima and the last appearance of the Virgin. I noticed you dismissed the event based on the perception of the people as some mass delusion. Are you aware that it had been raining all night and into the day? Everyone present was soaked—as was the soil—but after the vision, the soil was dry. How do you explain that?
A: The story of a famous miracle in Fatima, Portugal, began in May 1917, when three children claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary on their way home from tending a flock of sheep. The oldest girl, Lucia, was the only one to speak to her, and Mary told the children that she would reappear to them on the thirteenth day of each of the next six months. She then vanished. The children soon told their parents, and while some in the village didn’t believe their tale, others did—and told more people. As the weeks and months passed, more and more of the faithful made pilgrimages to Fatima, where the children claimed to receive Mary’s visits. Still no one else saw the Virgin Mary; instead, the gathered adults would stand riveted as Lucia described her visions.
It was Mary’s final appearance, on October 13, 1917, that became the most famous. In his book Looking for a Miracle, Joe Nickell states:
An estimated 70,000 people were in attendance at the site, anticipating the Virgin’s final visit and with many fully expecting that she would work a great miracle. As before, the figure appeared, and again only to the children. Identifying herself as “the Lady of the Rosary,” she urged repentance and the building of a chapel at the site. After predicting an end to [World War I] and giving the children certain undisclosed visions, the lady lifted her hands to the sky. Thereupon Lucia exclaimed, “The sun!” As everyone gazed upward, and saw that a silvery disc had emerged from behind clouds, they experienced what is known [as] a “sun miracle.” (Nickell 1993)
Some present claimed they saw the sun dance around the heavens; others said the sun zoomed toward Earth in a zigzag motion. Some people reported seeing brilliant colors spin out of the sun in a psychedelic, pinwheel pattern; still thousands of others saw nothing unusual at all. The whole event took about ten minutes, and this Miracle of the Sun, as it became known, is one of the best-known events at Fatima.
The writer had a few misunderstandings about what I’d written, including that I had described (or dismissed) the event as a “mass delusion.” I’m not quite sure what that is. Usually a delusion occurs in a single person, but some phenomena, such as folíe à deux, might be considered an example of a mass delusion. There’s mass hysteria—more correctly known as mass sociogenic illness—which is a topic that Robert Bartholomew and I have written several books about. But I never claimed that the Fatima sighting was mass hysteria per se; instead, some aspects of it, such as the sun being said to move about the sky, were suggestive. Mass hysteria often manifests in mild but verifiable physical symptoms, such as headaches, fainting, and nausea. While there were certainly strong elements of mass suggestion at the event, it’s not quite accurate to call it a “mass delusion.” In any event, though the sun shifting was the marquee miracle at Fatima, there were a few ancillary miracles, including the one mentioned by the writer: that the crowds and land were drenched before the miracle and dry mere minutes later.
The Evaporation Explanation
As with any investigation, we can begin by verifying the assumptions underlying the claim. The key question is about an apparent moisture miracle: If the skies had opened up and it “had been raining all night and into the day” resulting in soaked crowds and soil, then how was it possible that everything was dry when the solar display ended?
Evaporation is an obvious explanation—and depends on many factors, including ambient humidity, temperature, and even the color of wet cloth—but surely so much water could not have simply vanished in so short a time. We may begin examining this apparent miracle by questioning its assumptions. As Ray Hyman has cautioned, before attempting to explain some strange event we should first be sure there is something to explain.
There is clear evidence that it had been raining before the miracle, though not necessarily “all night and into the day.” A more relevant question is what the conditions were shortly before the event; accounts conflict, and it’s not clear precisely what the weather was at the time of the miracle itself. In his book Entities, Joe Nickell refers variously to “a stormy and rainy October 13” and the sun being “seen through thin clouds” (Nickell 1995). Of course, whatever cloud cover there was could not have been heavy since the famed Miracle of the Sun would not have been seen at all.
In Portugal, most of the rain falls in winter, from November to March. This does not preclude the possibility of a continual rainfall in mid-October, of course, but it does demonstrate that the rainy season typically begins later in the year.
Though accounts differ, for corroboration we can examine photographs of the event and just before, which do not show heavy rain—or any rain at all in fact. The clothing in those visible does not appear to be soaked, and fabric does not cling to skin or hang as though saturated. The lack of open umbrellas in the photographs taken at the time of the miracle is notable; the few that can be seen appear to be shielding their users from bright sunlight, not torrential rain. There are also few if any visible puddles or streams that might be expected after eighteen or so hours of rainfall.
A few photographs exist from the morning before the miracle when it was in fact raining, and a sea of dark umbrellas can be seen. This would of course suggest that those present, at least those under umbrellas, were largely spared from whatever rains or drizzle there was (if those with umbrellas were somehow just as wet as those without, that would be an especially curious “miracle”).
At this remove, it’s not possible to conclusively demonstrate how much rain fell, precisely when and where, and how wet any pilgrims’ clothes may have been before and after the miracle. No one carefully measured and compared the water content of clothes or soil before and after the miracle. In any event, the measurement is somewhat subjective; a faithful pilgrim might well mistakenly deem her damp dress or blouse to instead be “perfectly dry,” especially in the wake of a profound religious experience. The burden of proof is on those claiming that something unusual happened that day, and in this case, it falls far short.
Most of those present did not report the drying miracle, and what sporadic stories there are seem to have arisen afterward in classic folkloric fashion. There is in fact a Catholic legend tradition of miracle waters that dry almost instantly—including those at the Lourdes shrine in France, where Mary had also been said to have appeared some sixty years earlier. In an article for America, James Martin describes his visit to Lourdes:
From the other side of another curtain I hear the splashing of someone entering the bath, and in a few seconds he emerges with a wide grin. As I wonder if the legend that Lourdes water dries off miraculously is true, another curtain parts … . And, yes, the water dries from my skin immediately. (Martin 2004)
For the devout at Fatima who may have noticed (or suspected) that their clothes were (or might have been) drier than they would have otherwise expected, they had a ready-made precedent template for the miracle.
No one is suggesting that the area was bone dry, of course. The photographs (such as they are for being a century old and poorly exposed) do seem to show overcast skies, and it’s perfectly plausible that there had been a light rain that morning. But that’s a far cry from the claim that the pilgrims and land were “soaked,” and this discrepancy could easily account for why people’s clothes were—or seemed to be—dryer than they might have expected.
- Martin, James. 2004. Lourdes diary: Seven days at Massabielle: Part two. America (August 16). Available online at https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/493/faith-focus/lourdes-diary.
- Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions, and Healing Cures. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
- ———. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.