In historical accounts from around the world, it is not uncommon to occasionally come across mentions of unexplained phenomena appearing in the sky. It makes sense, since many people in previous centuries had a limited understanding of astronomy and how celestial objects appear to us on Earth. Many of these historical UFO sightings can easily be explained as being asteroids, eclipses, and other forms of atmospheric phenomena (for instance, the Northern Lights). There are, however, a few prominent and well-documented UFO sightings in history that are not so easily explained.
16th Century Celestial Phenomena
Two well-known accounts of widespread UFO sightings occurred in central Europe in the mid-1500s only a few years apart. In 1561, there was reportedly a mass sighting of unidentified celestial objects in Nuremberg, located in modern-day Germany. Around sunrise on April 1st, residents of the city reported that they saw hundreds of spheres and cylinders engage in an aerial battle that culminated with a large black triangle “crashing” to the ground outside of the city. In addition to to the fighting dark shapes, citizens also said they say blood-red strips streak across the sky.
The mass-sighting was reported in a broadsheet paper that featured a woodcut engraving done by famed engraver Hans Glaser, who also resided in Nuremberg. This broadsheet is one of the primary historical sources we have for this mass sighting. Alone, it might seem like a minor but sensationalized event. However, a similar mass sighting occurred five years later in Basel, Switzerland- about 200 miles southwest of Nuremberg. People reportedly saw various red and black shapes that were supposedly fighting in the sky- making this sighting eerily similar to what was reported in Nuremberg. But modern-day historians and scientists still have trouble explaining what may have happened to cause people to see such things in the sky.
An Atmospheric Phenomenon or Mass Religious Hysteria?
Despite the reports stating that people saw all kinds of shapes fighting in the sky, some scientists have postulated that the sight was caused by an apparition called a sun dog. A sun dog is a halo-like effect caused by sunlight refracting off of ice crystals. This refraction causes a halo to appear in the sky and, depending on the strength of the effect, bright sun-like lights. There have been other instances throughout history where three suns supposedly appeared in the sky- an effect that scientists say is the exact appearance of a sun dog. However, a sun dog wouldn’t cause black or red shapes to appear, leaving that explanation somewhat incomplete.
Another thing historians have pointed out is the religious language used in the description of both events. Given the time period, it is not strange to see that people in Nuremberg and Basel immediately considered the sighting to be a miracle or even a warning from God. But the intense focus on the religious explanation has lead some historians to think that these events might be some kind of mass hysteria. It’s also possible that the written accounts of these events exaggerate the sighting. Given that only a few sources exist that recount the sightings in Nuremberg and Basel, it is fair to say that only a small group of people actually witnessed the phenomena. Otherwise, historians would likely have some other text from someone explaining their version of the event. Historians have seen similar instances of this occurring (a wild event witnessed by a relatively small group with little textual evidence) and to some degree, this is also the issue with many modern-day UFO sightings. We have limited evidence and only a small group of people reporting the phenomenon, meaning that they might inadvertently build off of each others’ accounts of the event until it becomes sensationalized and extraordinary.
To this day, we still don’t know exactly what happened in Nuremberg and Basel in the middle of the 1500s. In all fairness, perhaps events transpired exactly as they were recorded in the broadsheets. However, our knowledge of similar past events indicate that such sightings likely have a natural explanation and somewhere along the way, the witnesses’ reports became greatly exaggerated.
Katie Blank is a Content Moderator and staff writer for Sporcle. She is also a PhD student studying South Asian history. Her guilty pleasures include binge-watching The Office and going to every metal concert she can.