Nicola here, just back from a cruise along the coast of Norway taking in some spectacular scenery and the stunning beauty of the Northern Lights. Standing on the deck on the ship at 2am in temperatures of -13, it did occur to me to wonder what our ancestors had made of the extraordinary phenomena of the aurora. It’s so beautiful and other-worldly that even in these days when it can all be explained by science, it’s still pretty mind-blowing. How did people view the aurora in the past? Fortunately there was an excellent lecture on the ship that covered everything to do with the Northern Lights and it was so interesting that I thought I would blog about it here.
This is possibly the first picture of the Northern Lights, a cave painting from about 30 000 BC in France. The first written record of them dates from a Chinese manuscript of 2600 BC: “"Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area." The Chinese tended to refer to the lights in terminology related to fire and animals, especially dragons.
In the days when the world was believed to be flat there was a theory that there was a tunnel that went through the middle of the earth from the North to the South Pole. This allowed the aurora to be explained as sunshine from the other side of the world reflected down the tube between the two which is a beautifully imaginative explanation!
There is a very specific record of the northern lights being seen on the 5th day of the 4th month in 593 BC. The philosopher Xenofanes wrote of “the accumulation of moving and burning clouds”. Plutarch’s description of them in 467 BC was very detailed: “During seventy days there was an enormous and furious figure in the sky. It was like a flaming cloud, which did not stay at its position but moved windingly and regularly, so that the glowing fragments were flying in all directions and fire was blazing as the comets do. Those fragments came loose during rushing and unexpected movements.” The northern lights are recorded as occurring up to three times per decade on the horizon of ancient Greece so pretty far South! The Romans also recorded them and often associated them with events such as death and battle, drawing the connection between the lights as harbingers of destruction or sometimes good fortune.
There are very few references to the Northern Lights in the European records of the Middle Ages. Possibly the sun was in a quiet phase and so the lights were not visible very far south. They are mentioned as a portent of evil at the time of the murder of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1177 and there are also records from Scotland in the Dark Ages. Naturally they were an important feature of the Viking Age, and there are many many accounts of them from the Nordic cultures. In Scandinavia children were not allowed outside when the Northern Lights were seen for fear that the lights would spirit them away. The Vikings considered them to be the sky bridge between the Gods and the Earth. The Norse God of the Northern Lights was Heimdall (you might have seen Idris Elba in the role in the Thor films!)
Whilst in more southerly climes the lights were often depicted as fire, and they were in this 16th century drawing of them as candles burning above the clouds, in the Far North they had associations with dance because of the shimmering and weaving qualities of the patterns they made. There is also a tradition in the Sami culture that you can hear the aurora as music which fits rather nicely with the dancing theme. I must admit I couldn't hear anything when we saw the lights ourselves but that was possibly because the noise of the ship drowned them out!
The term "aurora borealis" was coined by Galileo in 1619. He named them for the goddess Aurora, the Roman Goddess of morning. Following a number of vivid sightings at the beginning of the 17th century, however, there was a long fallow period with no record of the lights; this coincided with a period when no sunspots were observed although of course at the time people were not certain of the connection between the two. This quiet period ended in spectacular fashion on the 17th March 1716 with an enormous display! This was the beginning of the era when scientific theories started to understand and explain the aurora.
Interestingly, the Northern Lights do not always appear as shifting lights but sometimes as a bow across the sky, known as the auroral arc. We saw them like that on the voyage – a huge green rainbow arcing above our heads!
Our ship was, appropriately, named the Nordlys, meaning North Light, and had wonderful prints of the Northern Lights on the walls.
The lights, in all their glory, have inspired art,music, jewellery,storytelling, legends and much more for so many years and no doubt will continue to do so long into the future. Even though we know the scientific cause of them now it in no way diminishes their beauty!
Have you ever seen the Northern Lights or are they on your bucket list? What did you think of them? Do they make you think of fire, or dancing, or something completely different?