Exploring the Northern Lights

By | May 3, 2019

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Northern lights (Aurora borealis) flowing over the Lyngen fjord in 2012 March. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most captivating sights in nature, the auroras have fascinated mankind for centuries. Long before physicists learned to explain them, the northern lights have been the subject not only of philosophy and science, but also of mysticism and folklore, inspiring mythological creatures, superstitions, and religious traditions.

Cro-Magnon rock paintings dated back as far as 30,000 years ago have been found in the caves of Southern France and are believed to represent the auroras. The oldest written documentation of an auroral sighting occurred in China around 2600 B.C. in the tale of Fu-Pao which describes the auroras as “strong lightning” and implies that they were associated with Fu-Pao becoming pregnant. Other observations occurred in China after 687 B.C. with the lights being described as having the characteristics of fire and animals, particularly dragons. 

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Polar light on Andøya, Norway. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

In 593 B.C., the lights were again spotted “on the 5th day of the 4th month.” Greek philosopher Anaximenes wrote about “the accumulation of moving and burning clouds,” which many believe to have been a description of the auroras. Around that time, Hippocrates and Aeschylus theorized that the lights were a reflection of the sun; however, Aristotle had another theory. He believed that they were the result of steam rising from the ground and igniting in the sky. Plutarch described the northern lights in 467 B.C., but his words are believed to have been a quotation from the lost writings of Anaxagoras. In this quotation, the lights are described as a flaming cloud. It is estimated that the lights occurred one to three times per decade in ancient Greece.