Above Image: NASA’s IMAGE satellite captured this view of the aurora australis (southern lights). Image Credit: NASA/JPL Source: NASA; Sourced for this blog in 11/2013. Image is available because NASA is a government entity and its images and websites are not copyrighted.
You may be familiar with Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn and the mother of winds who rises in the morning to announce the arrival of her son, Sol, and you’d be right to guess that she’s precisely where the name comes from that we use to refer to the gorgeous Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis. The titles respectively translate from Latin to “Northern Dawn” and “Southern Dawn”, which we now know are misnomers because the phenomena has nothing to do with the rising of the sun. Although there’s really no way to know for sure, it is widely believed that the first person to coin the term Aurora Borealis was either the Italian astronomer Galileo in 1619, or the French philosopher Gassendi in 1622.
According to The Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky by Tamara Andrews, the Chinese very well may have thought the aurora was a dragon, and I can definitely see the resemblance. Compare the images below; you see it, too, right?
Above Image: Aurora Australis as seen from Earth’s Surface from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. The picture also shows the SPUD microwave telescope on the left. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Schwarz Source: NASA; Sourced for this blog in 11/2013. Image is available because NASA is a government entity and its images and websites are not copyrighted.
Above Image: Chinese Dragon Image Credit: Tsange Source: Wikimedia Commons; Sourced for this blog in 11/2013. Image is available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
I suppose if I had no knowledge of modern science, and I were to see something as strange as the auroras, especially if I didn’t see it on a regular basis, I could imagine myself thinking up all sorts of things to explain what it might be. They were often thought of as bad omens and were thought of as predictors of anything from bad weather to an unfruitful harvest. Especially by those who didn’t live in an area that experienced them often.
The Inuit of Hudson Bay thought of the phenomena as the lanterns of demons that were out searching for lost souls. Some other Alaskan Inuits thought the lights were from the souls of the animals that they killed. Some tribes in Alaska and Greenland thought of them as the spirits of their dead playing a ball game with the skull of a walrus (the walrus represents death in some cultures) while the Nunivak islanders thought of them as a walruses playing a ball game with a human skull. Another belief from Greenland is that the lights were infant spirits playing a ball game with their after births.
Some Native North Americans even believed that all you had to do was clap your hands to force the lights to retreat, but if you whistled at the lights instead they would sweep down and take you from the Earth. Some Plains Indian tribes were convinced that the lights were the fires from below the pots that they boiled their enemies in. Menominee Indians of North America even believed that there were giants that lived in the North that made these lights.
Not everyone saw the lights as an ill omen, though. Estonian tribes believed that they were shining reflections from sleighs and horses that were carrying guests to a lavish wedding in the skies. Medieval Europeans took the lights as a sign from God, while the Algonquin believed they were a reminder from their creator, Nanahbozho, that he was thinking about them. Scandinavians and some Chinese and Japanese people thought the lights enhanced the Earth’s fertility. In Norse mythology, the lights were described as being the glow or reflection from the helmets, armor and weapons of the Valkyrie that would gallop across the night sky to lead fallen warriors to Vallhalla. In Finland, the lights were thought to be caused by fox tails swooshing through the snow as they ran, causing sparks to fly into the sky.
In 1862 during the Battle of Fredericksburg the Northern Lights made a rare appearance as far south in North America as Virginia, which caused the Rebels to think it was a sign from God that he was on their side of the war. Even during the Klondike gold rush the lights were seen as a predictor of a large collection of gold.
The Earth isn’t the only place the phenomenon occurs, either, auroras have been observed on all of the gas planets as well as some of their moons, all it takes is an atmosphere and a magnetic field. Check out these images of other worldly auroras!
Above Image: Hubble Follows Jupiter Aurorae Image Credit: NASA/ESA Source: NASA; Sourced for this blog in 11/2013. Image is available because NASA is a government entity and its images and websites are not copyrighted.
Above Image: Saturn’s Auroras, June 21, 2005 Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Colorado Source: NASA; Sourced for this blog in 11/2013. Image is available because NASA is a government entity and its images and websites are not copyrighted.
Above Image: Hubble Spots Aurorae on the Planet Uranus Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Lamy (Observatory of Paris, CNRS, CNES) Source: NASA; Sourced for this blog in 11/2013. Image is available because NASA is a government entity and its images and websites are not copyrighted.
Unfortunately, I live far too close to the equator to witness the lights on even a rare occasion. I do wish to one day travel to a place where I can see them regularly, I’d love to spend a few weeks there and watch them as often as they come. I think it would be an experience like no other. Have you ever seen the Northern or Southern lights? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!