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Miyake Events — Super Flares and Maybe a Micro Nova

stock here: One of the best resources on Miyake Events was, amazingly, Reddit. So I shall reproduce what I found here: I present this as “interesting”, I see Reddit as mostly composed of Normies leaning left too. So they love to “confound the situation” and ignore other things that I deem obvious

Climate science, and more specifically dendochronology, tells us there have actually been six significant Miyake Events – a generic term used to describe intense bursts of radiation, thought to have been generated by solar storms, striking earth – over the past 9,300 years. The estimated dates are 5481/71, 5411/10 and 660 BCE, and 774/5 and 992/3 CE. The phenomenon was first identified by a Japanese physicist, Fusa Miyake, as recently as 2012, so it’s still pretty early in our attempts to understand it, and there is no scientific consensus as yet as to exactly how (let alone why) these events occur. However, there does appear to be agreement that by far the largest of these Events took place in 774/5 CE, and I presume that that’s the one that you’re asking about here.

From the historian’s point of view, the main problem that we face is that the cosmic rays that constitute a Miyake event are invisible and don’t affect human beings, animals, or crops, at least at the intensity levels they have when they hit earth. What they do do is wreak havoc with electromagnetic systems, which is why scientists have been warning that future Miyake Events have severe potential to massively disrupt civilizations built around computers, electronics, and satellite communications.

An Event of the intensity of the 774 burst would have the potential to shut down the internet, knock out most if not all of our satellites, and so directly impact on most of the systems we rely on to keep things moving and keep us informed today. It would probably even put paid to AskHistorians and its digital archives, at least in the immediate term.

None of these systems, obviously, existed in the 8th century, and in fact the earliest disruption attributable to solar storms dates only to 1859, when what is known as the “Carrington Event” (named after the astronomer who recorded the solar activity that caused it) broke telegraph lines and caused a small circuit fire in Pittsburgh,

despite having not much more than 1% of the intensity of the 774 Miyake storm. So while you might think that a phenomenon as remarkable as the 774 Event, which was the most intense solar storm to hit earth in recorded history, would be “hard to miss”, the reality is that it absolutely was missed by most, and perhaps all, of those alive at the time.

With all this said, it’s true that solar radiation of this sort can potentially cause auroral displays that might be visible to an observer on earth, and astrophysicists hunting for evidence of the 774 event have isolated two potential records that they think might relate to the Event. The first is an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 774, which reads, in its entirety,

This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

The “red crucifix, after sunset”, it’s suggested, might be a record of an aurora caused by the 774 Miyake Event. There are definitely problems with the identification – to begin with, the ASC that we have today is not a chronicle written contemporaneously in the 8th century; it comes in a number of variations, and was probably set down in the reign of Alfred, more than a century later, combining elements from earlier chronicles. In addition (and as the record of “wonderful serpents” suggests), the ASC tended to record a fair number of wonders which might be considered portents or otherwise help the monks who compiled it interpret God’s wishes for the Saxon peoples,

and probably the monks who recorded the “red crucifix” did so because they thought it might be a message about either Alfred’s ejection from York or the battle between the men of Mercia and Kent. There are sufficient wonders knocking around within the annals of the ASC that there’s a moderately decent chance that if you go to it for evidence that something happened in any given year, you will find a record that might, perhaps, apply to your event.

For example, just taking the entries for the 8th century, there are nine years for which various wonders are recorded – so an almost 1 in 10 chance that any randomly-chosen date will be associated with some sort of celestial, aerial or weather phenomenon. And that’s for a relatively peaceful (and briefly-chronicled) century – the incidence of wonders increases dramatically after 793, when the vikings began the worst of their depredations, because there was greater need to seek some sort of guidance from God as to how behaviours and worship might best be modified. (See here for an earlier contribution of mine on how to read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s records of celestial portents.)

What this means is that it’s not necessarily the case that there was anything absolutely unique, or even especially memorable, about the “crucifix” of 774, and its interpretation as a message from God also potentially complicates the description that we have of the form that it assumed. So, while there’s no particular reason to assume the entry is an invention, an interpolation, nor even something mistakenly ascribed to the wrong year, the chain of evidence, and the contemporary significance ascribed to the “sign”, are at least potentially problematic for anyone considering associating the Northumbrian portent with the 774 Miyake Event.

Finally, a team of physicists led by Hayawaka has in any case used C14 dating to provisionally “reassign” the ASC record from 774 to the period 25 March 775-25 December 777. To be clear, they’re doing this based on scientific evidence rather than for any reason an historian would consider valid (their reasoning would go: “the tree rings were laid down in 775-7, so the Chronicle dating of the red crucifix event must be wrong”).

An historian would take issue with the idea of making such a reassignment without at least considering the alternative view that the ASC entry may be correctly dated, but refer to something other than the Miyake Event, and might also point out that there’s no compelling reason (other than the potential coincidence of dates) to assume that it records an aurora at all. In sum, for me, there has to be some doubt as to whether the Chronicle entry does, in fact, match up with the Event.

The second incident suggested as a possible account of phenomena associated with the 774 Event is more detailed, but more problematic, since it comes from two Chinese records dating to 12 January 776. This describes a white qi phenomenon (literally translating to “white vapour”) that was seen seen “above the moon”.

This observation is recorded in both the Jiu Tangshu (“Old Book of Han“, one of the two major dynastic histories of the Tang Dynasty) and the Xin Tangshu (“New Book of Han“, the other and later one). Again, it’s worth pointing old that neither the Old nor the New Books of Tang were written contemporaneously (they were compiled in c.945 and c.1060 respectively, but drawn, as was the ASC, from contemporary records).

Again (for this, see below), historians will have some problems with the suggestion that it is easily possible to take such a record and simply assign it to the Miyake Event without considering the religious and cultural contexts in which the observation was made.

Anyway: the complete transcription of the Tang records, with commentary drawn from a paper by Stephenson et al, is as follows:

Relevant historical information is recorded in the Jiu Tangshu (v. 36, p. 1328) and the Xin Tangshu (v. 32, p. 836), both of which are treatises on astronomy, while many auroral records in the Xin Tangshu are found in treatises on the five elements. In the Jiu Tangshu (“Old History of the Tang Dynasty”), the text is to be found in a general collection of astronomical records of various kinds of “portents (zaiyi)”. This older history was compiled between AD 940 and 945, soon after the end of the Tang Dynasty in AD 907. The Xin Tangshu (“New History of the Tang Dynasty”) was compiled more systematically between AD 1043 and 1060. The older history (Jiu Tangshu) often contains details that are omitted in the newer history (Xin Tangshu), for example, a few eclipses (e.g., Stephenson, 1997, p. 245). Whereas the astronomical treatise of the Jiu Tangshu tends to list events purely in chronological order, regardless of their type, the section of “portents (zaiyi)” in the astronomical treatise of the Xin Tangshu divides the entries into groups: for example, solar eclipses, solar omens, lunar omens, comets, etc. However, the scientific significance of these divisions is at least debatable.

A full presentation and translation of the record in the Jiu Tangshu (v. 36, p. 1328) is as follows:

Χ大曆十年…十二月丙子夜,東方月上有白氣十餘道,如匹帛,貫五車、東井、輿鬼、觜、參、畢、柳、軒轅,三更後方散。“Dali reign period, 10th year, 12th lunar month, day bingzi (12) [= AD 776 Jan 12]. At night, in the E direction above the Moon there were more than ten streaks (dao) of white vapour (baiqi). They were like unspun silk. They penetrated (guan) [the star groups] Wuche(in Auriga), Dongjing (in Gemini), Yugui (in Cancer), Zui and Shen (both in Orion), Bi (in Taurus), Liu (in Hydra), and Xuanyuan (in Leo). After the third watch (i.e., after about 1:30 a.m), they disappeared.”

A full presentation and translation of the record in the Xin Tangshu (v. 32, p. 836) is as follows:

Χ大曆十年…十二月丙子,月出東方,上有白氣十餘道,如匹練,貫五車及畢、觜觿、參、東井、輿鬼、柳、軒轅,中夜散去。“Dali reign period, 10th year, 12th lunar month, day bingzi (12) [= AD 776 Jan 12], the Moon appeared (= rose) in the eastern direction. Above it there were more than ten streaks (dao) of white vapour (baiqi). They were like unspun silk. They penetrated (guan) [the star groups] Wuche and Bi, Zuixi, Shen, Dongjing, Yugui, Liu, and Xuanyuan. After midnight they disappeared.”

Stephenson et al, in their review of the latter case, list several different reasons for doubting it applies to the 774 Miyake Event. First, scientists who had earlier sought to plunder Chinese records for astronomical data had not associated the “white vapour” seen in 776 with aurora; second, the “vapour” was seen in the east and south, not the north where an astronomer would expect it to have been seen it if was an aurora, and, third, the Chinese astronomers who recorded it described it as being seen “above the moon”, which may more convincingly suggest that what was witnessed was a lunar halo. I’d add that, once again, an early 776 date is not an exact match for the 774/5 Miyake Event, either, though of course it might match well with the revised dating proposed by the Hayawaka team. Finally, the manner in which the physicists involved in this project have assembled a grab-bag of what might well be very different observations of different events that took place on different dates (and were also differently interpreted by contemporaries) is surely indicated by the very different descriptions – red crucifix, white streaks – that appear in the Saxon and the Chinese records.

I’m pinging our Chinese-reading flair u/EnclavedMicrostate at this point, since it is possible that someone with a more complete understanding of how the Chinese of the Tang period understood and recorded celestial phenomena may be able to add crucial context to these records of a qi phenomenon. (Very loosely, qi may be defined as a sort of life force, and both traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese martial arts are quite heavily concerned with attempts to manipulate, balance, or disrupt it. For example, the infamous “Delayed Death Touch” sometimes associated with advanced martial arts is supposed to be a product of disruption of the victim’s qi.)

What all this tells us, I suspect, is that while primary historical sources may be useful to scientists seeking to understand historical physical events, it would be a good idea if the scientists who compose papers about the physics brought in appropriately specialist historians to consult on the records that they’re interested in, rather than attempting to interpret them for themselves. On the whole, and despite being based in university environments where such cross-disciplinary conversations ought not to be easily possible, they don’t do this. It’s a missed opportunity.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle online, for the 8th century

R.C. Carrington, “Description of a singular appearance seen in the sun on September 1, 1859,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society vol.XX (11 Nov 1859)

Michael Goss, “The touch of death,” Fortean Times 31 (1980)

H. Hayakawa et al, “The celestial sign in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and solar activity around the 770s,” Solar Physics 294 (2019)

F. Miyake et al, “A single-year cosmic ray event in 5410 BCE registered in 14C of tree rings,Geophysical Research Letters 48 (16 June 2021)

Nick Ogasa, “Catastrophic solar storms may not explain shadows of radiation in trees”, Science News, 7 Nov 2022

F. Richard Stephenson et al, “Do the Chinese astronomical records dated AD776 January 12/13 describe an auroral display or a lunar halo? A critical re-examination,” Solar Physics 294 (2019)

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