The Northern Lights

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The Northern Lights in Iceland by Moyan Brenn (via Wikimedia Commons)

August’s North Clare Local article. 

As a child I was entranced by the world Philip Pullman created in his novel Northern Lights. The natural phenomenon of the aurora borealis was the star of the show, a mysterious and elemental force which held the secrets of the universe itself.

The reality of the Northern Lights is a little more mundane. The light displays with their vivid greens, purples and pinks, also occur in the Southern Hemisphere, where they become the aurora Australis. The Northern Lights primarily occur in the polar regions of the world, but have been seen as far south as France and Germany. They’re occurring more frequently than ever in the last few years due to increased solar activity.

Put simply, the aurora occurs when charged particles are blown from the sun and react with the earth’s magnetic atmosphere.

The lights have been spotted in Ireland several times in the last few winters, but our ancestors hardly ever saw them. However their mysterious appearance- and sometimes sounds- have captured the imaginations of many cultures around the world.

Even the Greeks saw them on occasion, and to the ancient Greeks they were the lights of the sun god Apollo. Even though he was wintering in the mythical land of Hyperborea in the far north (though, really, how long can a Greek winter really last?) he was sending his lights down.

Our Scottish cousins in the Highlands were far more familiar with the Northern Lights. The people of Orkney call them the Merry Dancers. This unspoilt area of Scotland, largely free from light pollution, is treated to regular, magnificent displays. In Scots Gaelic, they’re called Na Fir Chlis (the lively men). Despite the jolly-sounding name, they are believed to be actually fighting in the sky, and the “merry” may be a mispronunciation of “mirrie” meaning shimmering.

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A wonderfully evocative sketch from the Illustrated London News, 1849 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Across the northern extremes of the globe, there are stories of what the lights really are and what they mean. Like in Philip Pullman’s novels, they were seen as bridges to another world to the ancient Norse. In their case, it was the bridge to the afterlife. The lights were the Valkyries, warrior women who would accompany the dead to the next world. However, this legend seems to have appeared for the first time in the 19th century. There is surprisingly little mention of the aurora borealis in Norse texts. Scientists believe that the North Pole may have been further away from Scandinavia in the past, meaning the Vikings would have rarely have seen the lights.

A common thread is that the aurora lights are the spirits of the dead. To the Cree Native Americans, the souls of the dead would rise up as coloured lights, which would communicate with those left behind. Similarly, the Chipewyan thought the brighter the lights, the happier their loved ones were in the beyond. The Menominee people thought the lights indicated the presence of great hunters and warriors. For the Igluik Inuit, they are the dead playing with a walrus skull.

Some in Scandinavia thought the lights were reflections from shoals of herring in the sea, and the Swedes believed an aurora-heavy winter signalled a good spring and summer ahead. The Finnish for the Northern Lights is Revontulet, meaning “fox fire”. They saw the lights as the static crackling on an Arctic fox’s tail as he flies across the mountain skies. The Norwegians tried more scientific explanations; in the 13th century Kings’ Mirror chronicle, theories put forward include vast fires surrounding the ocean, sun flares or energy stored within glaciers.

In China and Japan, a child conceived while the lights are in the skies would be blessed with good fortune. Similarly in Iceland, it was believed the aurora would ease the pain of childbirth. However, the Icelandic people believed that pregnant women who saw the lights would bear cross-eyed children.

Not all cultures see this wondrous sight as a positive. During intense solar storms, the lights have a red tinge. Before the French Revolution these red lights were reportedly seen, and “massive armies” fought in the sky.

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The Northern Lights in Alaska, by Beverley and Pack, via Flickr

Many native people of the Arctic regions believed the lights were accompanied by sounds, such as crackling, clapping and rustling. For centuries these were considered colourful folktales, but recent research in Finland states there is a “white noise” accompanying the lights. You can listen to some of the recordings captured by highly sensitive microphones online. In the stillness of the pre-car era, those with sharp ears would have heard these sounds.

Such mysterious, elemental forces demand respect. The noise which emanates may be the reason why the Sami people of the Arctic Circle never whistle, clap or sing at the aurora. They believed the lights would take you away if you did this. While the belief has lessened with modernisation, it’s still something most won’t risk.

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