To a person seeing the Aurora Borealis or “northern lights” for the first time, it is an uncanny awe-inspiring spectacle. Sometimes it begins as a glow of red on the northern horizon, ominously suggesting a great fire, gradually changing to a curtain of violet-white, or greenish-yellow light extending from east to west. Sometimes this may be transformed to appear as fold upon fold of luminous draperies that march majestically across the sky; sometimes as a vast multitude of gigantic flaming swords furiously slashing at the heavens; sometimes as a flowing crown with long undulating colored streamers fanning downward and outward.
The Northern lights have been described in ancient times by the Eskimos, American Indians, polar explorers and even mentioned in the Old Testament.
On some occasions, when the Aurora reached the middle latitudes of France and Italy, it struck fear into the population. When they reached these latitudes, they were a dark red in color and thought of as an omen of disaster and outbreak of a war. More recently, the northern lights were taken as omens of war when they were visible from London during Germany’s 1939 blitzkrieg, and on December 7, 1941, when they were seen as far south as Cleveland, Ohio, on the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
The ancient people were awed by the Aurora. Folklore abounds with explanations of the origins of the spellbinding celestial lights. Every Northern culture has legends about the lights and often associates them with life after death. Various cultures have explained the Aurora Borealis as dancing spirits or blood raining from the clouds. Some believed they were caused as a result of fungi on rotting wood, others believed they were magic, while many believed they were in the presence of temperamental gods and summoning spirits. Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn. Boreal is a Latin word, meaning “north.” Thus, the northern lights. In the Antarctic, the lights are called the Aurora Australis, or southern lights.
The Finnish name for the lights (revontulet) comes from a Sami, or Lapp, legend whereby the tail of a fox running along snow-covered fells strikes the snow drifts, sending a trail of sparks into the sky. Revontulet literally means “foxfire”. The Vikings believed the aurora was the beautiful maidens called Valkyries, which escorted those killed in battle to the gods. The Sami people of Lapland believed they had power over the lights, and whistling under them would cause them to come closer. The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales. Many ancient peoples would not stare at or speak of the aurora, due to a fear of insulting their divine nature.
The East Greenland Eskimos believed the Aurora is the spirits of children who died at birth. The Point Barrow Eskimos considered the Aurora an evil thing. In the past they carried knives to defend themselves from the lights. Most Eskimo groups have a myth of the northern lights as the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. The Eskimos of Nunivak Island had the opposite idea, of walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
However enchanting and intriguing explanations of the indigenous people were, we didn’t actually begin to find the real rationalization for the Northern Lights until 1774, when Jean Jacque Dortous de Mairan of France linked the auroras to solar activity.