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Monday, December 11, 2017

Especially on moonlit evenings, the blazing northern lights seemed to stretch down to us – whisper to us…

[...] in the northern sky there was a strange shimmer of shifting color, pale flakes of light burning hight above us. Puzzled, I asked my mother what it was.

"It's northern lights," she replied. - - - Northern lights? In my inventive childhood imagintaion, they were a reflection of the angels dance over Bethlehem.
Man, 1912, from Rogaland

If you want to experience the northern lights, you travel to the northernmost parts of the world; Nordland, Troms and Finnmark. Nowhere else in the world is the opportunity to experience this fascinating phenomenon greater. The period from September to mid-April are in particular favorable, due to the long ranging darkness of the Polar nights.

Even in our modern day and age, the aurora borealis emerge as an otherworldly sight, with its’ swift, flaming dance across the deep blue sky. The Sami have long viewed this vision as a god, and a true northerner never waves to it in fear of being abducted.

In the old days there was great mystery and myths associated with the northern lights. The folk belief was predominent in people’s minds, and numerous stories have been told over the years in several different variants. It was probably the northern lights which Greek philosopher Aristotle in 344 BC had catched a sight of when describing a sight of flames across the sky. The prophet Ezekiel believed in turn that these sights were a sign from God.

In the Norwegian chronicle Konungs skuggsjá (The King’s mirror) from the 1200s it is stated that already in the Viking era, there was a name this natural phenomenon; Nordurljos, meaning lights coming from the north. At this time, the northern lights were seen as a warning of punishment from the old gods and the hardship of times to come.

In Norse mythology, the bridge reaching between Midgard (Earth) and Asgard, the realm of the gods, is called Bifrost. The gods could use Bifrost as a crossing bewteen the two realms – however, the bridge was magic, so no man could find the opposite end, and find the way to Asgard. Often described as a burning rainbow, it might have been an depiction of the northern lights.  

"Valhalla" (1896) by German painter Max Brückner. The motif depicts the mead halls in Asgard, with Bifrost stretching as a celestial bridge between the the realm of the gods and the world of men.

A more curious, yet in fact common belief, is that the one associating the northern lights with the souls of deceased women, especially maidens. In Kangasniemi in Finland it was simply said about the northern lights that "the old maidens make warmth". Throughout the Nordic lands, women were often advised to stay indoors when the northern lights ravaged in the sky. If they choose to go out nonetheless, they should especially avoid to leave the house barheaded, for then the northern lights could come down and tear their hair off!  

During the 19th century, the Icelandic scholar Finnur Magnússon introduced an
interpretation which might explain these perceptions. According to Magnússon, the northern lights were reflections from the shield of the valkyries, in the Norse mythology existing as female wights who choose those who may die in battle and those who may live:
The valkyrians were originally meteors or mirages, such as fireballs, flaming northern lights, etc., sent from the Valhalla, the firmament, from Odin, the supreme deity. Even still, in many countries, the common people believe that such phenomena denote imminent wars and accidents.
Allthough Magnússons interpretation is just one of many, as well as being heavily dominated by a national romantic view of the old Norse literary works, some valkyries were in fact believed to be deceased maidens, making these perceptions appear not quite so far-fetched after all.

Valkyrie, painting by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo (1864)

Furthermore, it seems to have been a common belief over large parts of the north that the northern lights also threatened children's lives and health. Children were told that they should neither whistle nor shout at the northern lights, because then it would come down and spirit them away. Another variant was that the northern lights would come and snatch whomever waving to it with a white scarf. For the northern lights was nothing to trifle with, and taunting it could involve severe consequences. 

In modern times, studies of a more pragmatic approach have been conducted by scholars and scientists. Among them is Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), who was the first to come up with a scientific explanation of the phenomenon. It was Birkeland who first found out that it was the sun that formed the northern lights, a discovery made on the basis of an experiment in his laboratory where he made artificial northern lights.

However; on some aspects, even science has its shortcomings. Although we nowadays know quite a lot about the northern lights, there are still elements to this natural phenomenon that have not been fully understood. If you ever encounter the blazing dance of the northern lights, listen closely; for even today, many believe to hear inexplicable noises during the appearance of intense northern lights. In Sami there is are several names for this penomenon; one of them, guovssahas, means ”the audible light”. And perhaps the northern lights indeed have a voice; its the sound of crackling paper, a flag fluttering in the wind or the roar of a waterfall.

  • Asgeir Brekke og Alv Egeland. Nordlyset – kulturarv og vitenskap. Grøndahl og Dreyers Forlag: Oslo, 1994 
  • Norsk folkeminnesamling. Minneoppgave fra innsamlingen i 1981 fra Rogaland. Nr. 37.

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