“Aurora watching” or hunting for Northern lights has become extremely popular in Lapland the past few years and it´s something that millions of people have on their bucket list and no wonder; witnessing this light phenomena with your own eyes really is magical in the true sense of the word. One should be aware that this is not a constant phenomenon and to actually see the lights yourself depends on the solar winds and the weather conditions. Here´s some detailed information about the northern lights from both scientific and historical / folklore perspective.
An aurora, sometimes referred to as polar lights (aurora polaris), northern lights (aurora borealis), or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions. The word “aurora” itself is derived from the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, who travelled from east to west announcing the coming of the sun. Ancient Greek poets used the name metaphorically to refer to dawn, often mentioning its play of colors across the otherwise dark sky.
Modern science has studied the phenomena, yet a full understanding of the physical processes which lead to different types of auroras is still incomplete, but the basic cause involves the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere. The northern lights are caused by collisions between fast-moving particles (electrons) from space and the oxygen and nitrogen gas in our atmosphere. These electrons originate in the magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by Earth’s magnetic field. As they rain into the atmosphere, the electrons impart energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules, making them excited. When the molecules return to their normal state, they release photons, small bursts of energy in the form of light.
The color of the aurora depends on which gas is being excited by the electrons and on how much energy is being exchanged. Oxygen emits either a greenish-yellow light (the most familiar color of the aurora) or a red light; nitrogen generally gives off a blue light. The oxygen and nitrogen molecules also emit ultraviolet light, which can only be detected by special cameras on satellites. Other interesting fact is that besides the visual side of the phenomenon, they actually can make Aurora noise, similar to hissing or crackling. This begins about 70 m (230 ft) above the Earth’s surface and is caused by charged particles in an inversion layer of the atmosphere formed during a cold night. The charged particles discharge when particles from the Sun hit the inversion layer, creating the noise.
But what did the indigenous people think of this mystic phenomenon? One can only imagine how intriguing and even frightening these mysterious lights must have been for the ancient people. In Finnish, the name for the aurora borealis is “Revontulet”, which literally translated means “Fox Fires.” The name comes from an ancient Finnish myth, a beast fable, in which the lights were caused by a magical fox sweeping his tail across the snow spraying it up into the sky.
The Lapps, or the Saami, a people who are a close relative ‘race’ of the Finns, who live in Lapland — that is, north of the Arctic Circle, in what officially are Northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway — traditionally believed that the lights were the energies of the souls of the departed. When the fires blazed in the skies, people were to behave solemnly, and children were admonished to quiet down and be respectful of the fires. It was believed that whoever disrespected the fires incurred bad fortune, which could result in sickness and even death.
The Lapps believed these fires to have magical effects; Lappish shaman drums often have runes depicting the fires to harness their energy. The lights were believed to have a mellowing effect on arguments, and the time of the fires was beneficial to conflict resolution. The Lapps also had a belief that if you whistled under the Northern Lights, you could summon them closer, and they could whisk you away with them.
Then again in the Norwegian folklore, the lights were the spirits of old maids dancing in the sky and waving — in Scotland, which had an influx of Viking settlers, the lights are sometimes called “the merry dancers. Several of the Eskimo tribes also connected the lights with dancing. Eskimos in Eastern Greenland attributed the northern lights to the spirits of children who died at birth; their dancing caused the dancing lights. The Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska also believed the lights to be human spirits, whereas an Eskimo tribe living on the lower Yukon River believed the dancers to be the spirits of animals. Young Labrador Eskimos, who believed that the northern lights were torches lit by the dead who were in playing soccer in the heavens with a walrus skull, in turn, would dance to the aurora.
Another firm belief about the lights that several ancient cultures had was that they were caused by ancient heroes battling in the skies or being omens of war and sickness. This can be traced (in writing) as far as Pliny (a Roman author, a naturalist and natural philosopher) and to ancient Greek. Tacitus recorded in his description of Germany the belief that the fires were the Valkyries riding through the air. In the Americas, the Fox Indians of Wisconsin also believed the lights to be an ill omen—they believed the lights to be the ghosts of slain enemies waiting to take revenge. Perspectives towards the lights have been many but perhaps the loveliest of the beliefs comes from the Algonquin Indians; they believed that Nanahbozho the Creator, after he finished creating the earth, travelled to the far north, where he still builds great fires which reflect southward, to remind those he created of his lasting love towards them