Northern Lights: Part One - Folklore and Science
Over the past few weeks I've held a competition on my Facebook page where followers voted on what they thought the best Natural Phenomena was and Northern Lights won. In the Semi Finals the Aurora tied with Bio-luminescent Beaches and advanced as it had 1 vote more than Bio did in the previous rounds totaled. In the Finals, it edged out Waterfalls by a small margin, rising to victor.
The prize? To have a destination (or destinations) that featured that phenomena highlighted through my social media. As such, welcome to part one of a two part blog.
The Aurora occurs in the North (the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis) and in the South (Southern Lights or the Aurora Australis). The Aurora Borealis is derived from Greek words meaning “sunrise” and “wind”, coined by Galileo in 1619. The Southern Lights are almost identical in feature to the Northern Lights and are visible in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.
Aurora Borealis Folklore
Can you imagine, standing outside hundreds of years ago, looking up at the night sky dancing? And with no scientific understanding of what was happening, many regions developed folklore to explain the night sky dancing.
The Greeks believed that the lights were Aurora, the sister of the sun and the moon and that she was racing across the sky in her chariot to tell her sisters that a new day was dawning. But for the lights to be seen as far south as Greece wasn’t entirely common, so many residents of Southern Europe, such as France and Italy, viewed it as a bad omen notifying them of an upcoming war, plague or other tragedy.
Chinese legend believes that the lights were a celestial battle between good and evil dragons. For the Japanese, they viewed a child conceived under the Northern Lights to be blessed with good looks, intellect and good fortune.
In Iceland, a woman giving birth would have reduced pain during the Aurora, but she shouldn’t look at it or the child would be born cross-eyed. Greenland also links the Aurora to children, but instead thought them to be the souls of still born babies or babies who died at birth. In Finland, you’ll find the myth that the lights are caused by a firefox who ran so fast across the snow that his tail caused sparks to fly into the sky. In fact, the Finnish word for the Northern Lights is “revontulet” which is translated as “fire fox”. For the Indigenous people of Finland, they believed the lights were created by the spume of water ejected from whales. In the Baltic States, the Estonians believed the lights were horse drawn carriages carrying those in heaven to a celestial wedding. The ancient Norse believed the lights to be the glint off the armour of the Valkyries.
And back home in Canada, there are many myths. One from the Cree is that the lights were the spirits of those deceased communicating to their friends and family who remained on earth. The Algonquin believed the lights to be a fire from the Creator as a symbol to the people that he was watching over them. And the Inuit believe the lights to the spirits of the deceased playing a ball game with a walrus skull as the ball, but in remote Nunavik Island, it’s the spirits of walrus’ playing ball with a human skull.
When the lights appear, the most common colours are green, followed by orange and purple and at times, shades of red, pink blue and yellow. The colours are due to the ratio mix of oxygen and nitrogen gases in the air.
When the magnetic poles are disturbed by solar wind, the ionization resulting from charged particles changing trajectories and losing energy causes the lights to form.
The best places to see the lights is in the “auroral zone”, thought to be 3° to 6° wide in latitude and 10° to 20° from the poles, so I can’t stress this enough, the further North you go, the better your chances. For the best viewing, you need cold weather and dark, clear skies. And while my research states that attempted recordings have never yielded solid proof, many will tell you the lights can make sounds, described either as “swishing” or crackling, like that of static electricity. One scientific explanation I found is that the sound you hear isn’t coming from the lights themselves (which would have delayed sound similar to the effect of thunder, if they did make sound) because the air is too thin to carry sound, but actually created by your brain. If you are out in a remote area things will be very quiet and since there are no sound signals for your brain to process, your brain notices the leakage of electrical impulses from the nerves of the eye, which are carrying the image of the aurora to your brain so your brain is actually processing that sound. In one study, when the testers covered their eyes, the sound of the Aurora stopped, supporting the theory. Science!
Stay tuned for Part II, where we explore some of the world's best places to view the lights and tips for optimal viewing.