The Northern Lights have long inspired countless legends and myths throughout human history. Some societies believed that the Lights came from souls recently departed. Others believed them to be the spirits of children or old maids dancing, or warriors battling in the sky.
Since the dawn of recorded time, human beings have looked up at the night sky and pondered the mysteries they found there, including the fascinating mystery of the Northern Lights. Imagine a time when the world was full of unknowns, ghosts, and gods – a time before science began unlocking nature’s secrets.
The Northern Lights – known to scientists as aurora borealis – have held a special place in folklore and mythology for thousands of years. From the prehistoric cave dwellers to the Middle Ages and beyond, residents of the northern hemisphere have told stories about shimmering waves and shafts of green, red, yellow, blue, and violet light which appear out of nowhere and seem to dance across the night sky.
Here is the fascinating story of mankind’s encounter with an ancient mystery, followed by some tips for seeing the Northern Lights today.
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The first early humans to settle in Europe, the Cro-Magnon people, painted wooly mammoths, bison, and celestial bodies on the walls of caves in present-day France about 30,000 years ago. Anthropologists believe some of these paintings depict the Northern Lights – although in the absence of written records, we cannot know for certain.
One of the earliest written accounts of the Northern Lights can be found in the Bamboo Annals, an ancient history of China which describes a “five-colored light” in the northern sky during the reign of King Zhao (977-957 BCE). Earth’s magnetic North Pole was a little closer to Asia back then, and researchers believe that the Northern Lights might have been visible in China.
Archaeologists discovered another early account of the Northern Lights while sifting through 3,000 surviving astronomical records from ancient Babylon. Using reeds, Babylonian astronomers inscribed their observations in cuneiform script on clay tablets.
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In 567 BCE, an official astronomer in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar II documented a “red glow” in the sky, which was likely aurora borealis. Nebuchadnezzar II is famous today for his appearances in the Bible.
The Vikings – legendary Scandinavian warriors who raided Europe from the 9th through the 11th centuries – beheld the Northern Lights through the lens of Norse mythology. The Vikings believed that their chief god, Odin, sent out female warriors called Valkyries to choose certain warriors who would die in battle and join Odin in Valhalla.
The Northern Lights were said to be reflections from the Valkyries’ armor. In other versions, the lights reflected the Bifrost Bridge – a rainbow-like portal which connected earth to Asgard, the realm of the gods.
The Sami people of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland believed the Northern Lights were spirits of the dead, and woeful omens. They cautioned against trying to communicate with the spirits, because alerting them to your presence might cause the lights to reach down to pluck you from the earth and carry you away – or to cut off your head.
Elsewhere in Finland, people had a more positive interpretation of the lights: Creatures called fire foxes skittered across the night sky and struck the mountaintops with their tails, creating sparks and light. An alternate version of the fire fox myth said the lights were reflections of moonlight on snowflakes, flung into the sky by the tails of fire foxes.
In Iceland – which has always been one of the best locations to see aurora borealis – the lights were believed to magically ease the pains of childbirth. In Greenland, however, the lights were seen as the ghosts of children who had died during birth and now danced in the sky. In Norway, the lights were said to be the ghosts of unmarried women, also dancing.
The Inuit people of Alaska and Canada wove the Northern Lights into their complex understanding of the afterlife. Aurora borealis was a manifestation of the highest level of the Inuit version of heaven – a celestial hunting ground with plenty of game and no snowstorms.
Individuals who died while hunting or were murdered entered this highest heaven. The moving shafts of light were said to be spirits dancing or playing football with a walrus head.
People were no less awed by the Northern Lights in the Middle Ages. Saint Gregory of Tours (c. 538-594 CE), bishop author of a history of the Franks, Decem Libri Historiarum, observed the mysterious lights and wrote that they were “so bright that you might have thought that day was about to dawn.”
Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) – famous for inventing the first high-powered telescope, and for applying mathematics to natural science – came up with the scientific name for the Northern Lights after he witnessed them in September 1621. French philosopher and scientist Pierre Gassendi also witnessed the lights on the same night that Galileo did.
Either Galileo or Gassendi named them aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind and winter. The intended meaning was something like, “The Sunrise Colors from the North,” as medieval scientists speculated the lights were merely reflections of sun- or moonlight in the atmosphere.
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Aurora borealis may be beautiful, but it’s caused by the violent collisions of charges particles from the sun’s corona, traveling at speeds up to 45 million miles per hour, with the Earth’s upper atmosphere, or ionosphere.
Fortunately for life was we know it, Earth’s magnetic field steers the particles toward the North and South poles – so human beings get spilling blind light shows instead of destruction.
The best time to witness the Northern Lights is during winter months, as longer nights and clear skies increase the chances of catching the light show!
Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917) was the first researchers to grasp the connection between the Northern Lights and the sun’s geomagnetic storms. Birkeland was an inventor who held patents on everything from an electromagnetic cannon to a method of extracting nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer.
Birkeland theorized that sunspots emitted electrons, which were drawn toward the North Pole by Earth’s magnetic field, producing lights in the sky. His fellow scientists scoffed at the idea, and Birkeland’s theory would not be confirmed until after his lifetime.
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We now know that Birkeland was correct. Electrons from the sun are drawn toward the North Pole to create the Northern Lights, and to the South Pole to create the less-famous Southern Lights (aurora australis).
The particles release energy into the ionosphere, causing fluorescence. Atoms and molecules radiate different colors, depending on their speed and altitude. Blue, violet, and red shafts of light are more likely to occur at speeds below 60 miles per hour. Bright green is more likely to occur when the particles are traveling at 60-150 miles per hour.
The old mythologies and folklore may be gone, but the Northern Lights still have the power to create awe and make headlines. Newspapers reported in February 1958 that the lights were visible over a 1,250-mile swath over North America, from Oregon on the West Coast to New Hampshire on the East Coast. In March 1989, auroral activity turned the skies bright red over most of Europe and North America.
For many years, scientists were puzzled as to how the sun’s particles achieved such breathtaking speed as they slammed into the ionosphere. The mystery was finally solved in 2021, when researchers discovered that the electrons ride on low-frequency waves caused by electromagnetic forces. These “Alfven waves” were named after Swedish physicist Hannes Alfven (1908-1995), who had first described them.
Like the Earth’s weather, the sun’s geomagnetic storms occur in cycles. Periods of major storm activity blast particles into the ionosphere, creating peaks in brightness and frequency of aurora borealis. Peaks are followed by lulls in auroral activity.
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the last peak in sun storms – called the solar maximum – occurred in 2014. The next peak is anticipated circa 2025.
The polar lights (northern and southern) can be visible from any continent. However, the Northern Lights are more likely to be seen in higher latitudes – think Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The closer you get to the North Pole, the more frequent and dazzling the encounters with the lights.
The Northern Lights are most visible on dark, cloudless nights from August to April. Spring and fall tend to see the greatest frequency of auroral activity combined with clear skies.
The skies tend to be darkest – furnishing the best backdrop for the light shows – from November to February. The precise time range for seeing the light will vary depending on your viewing location.
In Europe, the most tourist-friendly spots for auroral viewing are in Iceland, Greenland, and the Nordic countries of the Lapland region (northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway).
There are several travel agencies on GetYourGuide offering a wide array of Northern Lights packages in the Lapland region and Reykjavik in Iceland, with tour guides to help you see the lights. The best time to book a Northern Lights tour in Iceland is between September and April.
In North America, the best place to see the lights is Yellowknife, a small town in Canada’s Northwest Territories, known as the continent’s “Northern Lights Capital.” The lights are visible over Yellowknife about 240 nights of the year, and the skies are clearest from mid-November through April. Yellowknife Vacations offers a tour package that include hotel pickup and drop-off, a photographer and a licensed tour guide to accompany you. Learn more here.
For light-seekers who want to take a more scientific approach, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center offers an online 30-minute aurora forecast. The website features maps of the North and South poles, with the forecasted auroral activity shown in green (for normal activity) or red (for more intense activity).
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The northern lights have captivated people for centuries, inspiring countless myths, legends, and scientific explanations, and they continue to be one of nature’s most incredible phenomena. From ancient cultures to modern-day explorers, people have journeyed to the far reaches of the Earth, hoping to catch a glimpse of these dazzling displays of light.
As we continue to learn more about the science behind the northern lights, we are reminded of the power and beauty of our natural world, and the endless mysteries that await us in the cosmos, including the captivating mystery of the Northern Lights themselves.
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