The lights of the aurora borealis are visible at night, most commonly in the northern latitudes. These “northern lights” have mystified peoples for thousands of years. Cultures have developed a number of stories to explain the mystery and beauty of the aurora.
Modern science tells us that the aurora borealis is caused by magnetically charged particles interacting with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Collisions between these charged particles and molecules or atoms provide brilliant color displays. Vivid reds and greens come from collisions between charged particles and oxygen atoms; low-level reds and blue or violet colors come from nitrogen.
Amazingly, Earth is not the only planet to experience auroras. They have been observed on Mars and Venus using modern satellites and equipment, not to mention the Mars Global Surveyor. Other planets experiencing auroras include Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
Throughout history, mankind has sought to explain these fantastical lights. Various cultures have developed many theories. Russian folklore suggests that the colors were caused by dragons who would seduce women once the menfolk were away.
The Scots called the northern lights “merry dancers” (na fir-chlis in Gaelic). The merry dancers would play in the sky, and games often ended in serious violence. To the Scots, the aurora borealis indicated unsettled weather in the forecast.
The Sami people respected and feared the northern lights. When the lights were watching, people were very quiet and very careful not to offend the lights. Those who mocked the lights were doomed – the lights would descend on the offender, killing him or her for their cheek.
Latvian folklore saw the lights as an omen of disaster. The red lights were the flickering souls of dead warriors, battling in the sky. War or disaster was sure to follow.
Yukon Gold Rush prospectors dreamed of the reflection of the “mother lode”, reflected in the sky. Algonquin tribes saw the lights as ancestors, dancing near a ceremonial fire.
Through time, the aurora has been seen alternately as foreshadowing great good or great evil. Modern science provides us with a more rational explanation, one that has no room for magic and mystery. No matter what the explanation, the aurora continues to amaze us with its colourful light display.
Want to see the aurora borealis? The best time to see them is in September-October, and again in March-April. The northern latitudes are best for viewing – the further north, the better! Get ready to be dazzled.