THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN HISTORY – From superstition to knowledge
Over the millennias humans have created stories, myths and misconceptions about the phenomenon of northern lights. The Northern Lights are therefore tied not only to research and science, but also to superstition, culture, mysticism and religious beliefs.

Before the Christian Era
Some of the drawings made by Cro-Magnon people on the walls and ceilings of caves in Southern France probably depict the northern lights. These rock paintings could be the very first recordings of the northern lights in the history of mankind – they can be dated back to 30,000 years before our time.

There is a lot of documentation about the northern lights in the cultures of eastern Asia. Several references to the northern lights appeared in China more than 2,000 years ago. A list of auroral observations in China starts in 687 BC. Chinese people never used any special name for the northern lights. Instead, the heavenly lights were described by using terms characterising fire and animals, especially the dragon.

The oldest written document is approximately from the year 2,600 BC. Its contents tell us the following beautiful story: “Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area. After that she became pregnant.” Stars were obviously visible and the observing direction was northward. The light was bright enough to illuminate the landscape. Lightning is a term that is often connected with the old auroral descriptions. The pregnancy is essential in this historical tale.


The northern lights were seen on the 5th day of the 4th month in 593 BC. It is assumed that the Greek philosopher Anaximenes wrote about the same northern lights in his book. Moreover, Xenofanes wrote of “the accumulation of moving and burning clouds”. At the same time, Hippocrates and Aeschylus developed the theory that the northern lights were just reflected sunlight. According to Aristotle’s theory, the heat from the sun raised steam from the ground. The steam hit the fire element. It ignited and caused the northern lights.

Plutarch gave an absolutely sure description of the northern lights in 467 BC but it was probably just a quotation from missing writings of Anaxagoras: “During seventy days there was an enormous and furious figure in the sky. It was like a flaming cloud, which did not stay at its position but moved windingly and regularly, so that the glowing fragments were flying in all directions and fire was blazing as the comets do. Those fragments came loose during rushing and unexpected movements.” The northern lights occurred one to three times per decade on the horizon of ancient Greece. Altogether dozens of reliable observations of the northern lights are known from the years BC.

About 360 BC, Philip, king of Macedonia, was going to attack with his army the city of Byzantium. The city having sturdy walls, Philip commanded his soldiers to dig tunnels under them. In the middle of the night, at zero hour, the tunnels were filled with soldiers. Their task was to open the other end of the tunnels and then simply take Byzantium. Surprisingly, that particular night was not dark. A sudden bright light, shaped like a crescent moon, was illuminating the landscape. This was the reason why Byzantium was saved. A special coin was struck after this event. The crescent figure on the coin was probably an auroral arc, instead of the moon because the crescent moon is not bright enough to illuminate the landscape when there is no snow. The same figure still exists on many flags and is usually interpreted as the moon. However, the figure is oriented in the wrong way if you think about the crescent you see in the Mediterranean region.

In ancient Rome, the oldest description of the northern lights originates probably from the time of Dionysus, i.e. about 460 BC. A display of the northern lights, which enabled people to see both cavalry and infantry soldiers, occurred in the sky in 44 BC, just before the death of Julius Caesar. It was said that the northern lights flamed in the sky of Palestine when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Finally, when the Roman Empire was destroyed, it was the beginning of an almost thousand-year long era of silence.


Scientific attempts at explanation
There are very few references to the northern lights in the Middle Ages in Europe. Every written text is more or less superstitious and often they are embellished with warlike predictions. The northern lights seen on the 3rd of March, 451 were connected to the historic defeat of Attila at Chalons-sur-Marne, in what is now France.

Often, the blood of martyrs flowing up into the sky was seen in the northern lights. Such was the case when Thomas Becket died in 1177.

The first written proofs of the northern lights in Great Britain appeared in 555. There is a very detailed description of the most violent aurora of the century, which occurred in 585. Some examples of the northern lights occurring between the years 500 and 1100 can be found in the Chronicle of Scotland.

The Norwegian vikings called it the sky bridge between the gods and the earth; Bifrost or Bivrost. They may have thought about the Northern Lights. In this case, had the northern lights his own god in Norse mythology: Heimdall

The first realistic description of the Northern Lights are in the Norwegian work “Kongespeilet” from the 1200s. In strong contrast to the usual European perceptions of the Middle Ages, Kongespeilet described northern lights as a natural phenomenon. The book’s unknown author presented theories that would not be matched until nearly 500 years later. Kongespeilet also gave the natural phenomenon name – Nordurljos.

In Sami tradition, the Northern Lights perceived to have a supernatural power as invoked in disputes. The Sami have symbols from the Northern Lights on their drums. These and other perceptions about the Northern Lights has always existed among the peoples who have inhabited the latitudes where the Northern Lights are often seen.

Among the Sami, the Northern Lights have several names – it is also called Guovssahas, meaning sound light. Sami people tied the northern lights with sound.


The thousand-year depression did not start to lift until about 1500 when the art of printing was invented. The first printed document about the northern lights was produced in 1490. However, not until 2000 years after Aristotle’s theories were new serious attempts to explain the northern lights started.

In the 17th century, the northern lights were given their scientific name – Aurora Borealis. The credit for the name has been given to a French mathematician, Gassend, even though he did not use it before 1649. Galileo Galilei and his student Guiducci were already using the name Aurora Borealis in 1616 and after that several times in 1622 when describing the famous northern lights, which occurred during the previous year.

After the northern lights of the year 1621, the auroras were missing almost totally during the next hundred years. There were no sunspots at all observed in the sun during that time. Nobody knows if it was just a coincidence that at the same time the whole weather system of the earth was in a slightly messy phase. That period is known as the Maunder minimum. It was ended dramatically by the enormous northern lights of the 17th of March, 1716.


The first scientific results are achieved
An English scientist, Sir Edmund Halley, saw the most beautiful aurora of the 18th century in 1716. He lived during the Maunder minimum. Halley explained the aurora thus: “Auroral rays are due to the particles, which are affected by the magnetic field; the rays are parallel to Earth’s magnetic field, and the vault like shape is due to perspective phenomena.” This is the first scientific finding which was accepted at that time and still holds true. Halley is of course not known for the aurora but Halley’s comet, the movement of which he was able to forecast.

A multitude of theories were put forward to explain the northern lights. A common proposal was to include a burning gas as a key part of the theory. Some of the theories of this type had already been introduced by the ancient Greeks, more than 2,000 years earlier.

In 1741, the Swede, Celsius, noted a connection between the northern lights and magnetic activity. In fact he stole the result and the ensuing honour from his student Hjorter. Nevertheless, we should regard this result as the second correct scientific finding on the northern lights, which has been accepted since it was proposed.

In Britain, the chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish was able to estimate the altitude of the northern lights in 1790, with almost the correct result. This was the third correct finding on the northern lights. However, a hundred years later we still find researchers with a totally wrong idea of the altitude of the aurora. Scientific research in Russia was started by Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov in the 1700s. He was an eager investigator of the northern lights. He believed that the northern occurrence of the aurora was evidence of an unfrozen sea somewhere in the Arctic Ocean. Consequently, he concentrated his life on a search for this open sea.

No one in the 19th century was able to explain the light emission from the aurora. This caused continuous embarrassment to scientists, since the field of spectroscopy was developing fast and many problems were solved. The Swede, Ångström, was, however, during the years 1866-67, able to show valid proof that the light emission was due to a gas.

The era of systematic research started during the years 1882-83, when scientists agreed about arranging the first International Polar Year. This was an international effort to make simultaneous measurements at several research sites near the polar region. Before the Polar Year began the Dane, Sophus Tromholt, published an accurate description of the global behaviour of the northern lights. Shortly thereafter, a similar description was given by the Swede, Carlheim- Gyllensköld. The Finn, Nordenskiöld, also carried out research on the Northern Lights north of Siberia, when his ship was stuck in pack ice during the winter of 1878-79. According to Nordenskiöld, the aurora zone resembled a ring of light above the polar region, as if it were a halo.

Norwegian professors Kristian Birkeland and Carl Störmer revolutionized the science of the northern lights at the beginning of the 20th century. According to Birkeland, the northern lights were associated with a large system of electric currents. This current system covers the whole of near-earth space. Currents exist both horizontally in the regions of auroras and vertically along the magnetic field lines. The electric currents that appear parallel to the magnetic field are today called the Birkeland currents. Satellites enabled them to be measured, in the 1970s. As for Störmer, he was able to calculate the trajectories of electrically charged particles as long ago as 1907.

The understanding of how auroral light is created advanced throughout the 20th century. However, not until the end of the 1950s was it convincingly shown that the particles which excite atoms and molecules are mostly electrons. Modern physics enabled us to understand electromagnetic waves, create the theory of relativity, develop quantum mechanics and build the atom bomb, before all the basic features of the northern lights were understood.


Photo: Carl Størmer; Oslo Museum

When we talk to people about the northern lights in Norway today, it is surprisingly often told about children waving white clothes against the play of light, and how they thought that the movements of the northern lights increased with the strength of their own fanning.

Folk Belief of Northern Lights in Scandinavia is also linked to death of women, especially to dead virgin souls.

Sources: – “Virtual Finland”, by Esa Turunen Ph.D., Jyrki Manninen Ph.D. and Professor Tauno Turunen, –, – “Appearance in the sky near Nuremberg during the night of the 5th October 1591″ by Drechsel Wolf
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