Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) have inspired legends, myths, and superstitions for millennia. Like the magnetic fields that cause them, the beliefs surrounding these ghostly lights are polarized between positive and negative associations—as precursors of royal births on one hand, and of war and famine on the other.
The various people inhabiting Lapland had their own divergent theories: the Sami feared and respected the aurora, and placed auroral symbols on their magic drums, believing that the Northern Lights had supernatural powers to resolve conflicts; Finnish legends refer to mythical firefoxes, brushing up sparks with their tails; and in Norse mythology, some attributed the aurora to reflections from the shields of the Valkyries, warlike women chosen by Odin to guide fallen warriors to Valhalla, while others believed their glow came from the beautiful Viking goddess Freja, riding horseback.
It was not until the 1950s that the mystery of the Northern Lights could be explained by scientists. When an excess of charged particles from the Sun, often caused by solar flares, streams into Earth’s atmosphere, the particles are attracted to Earth’s magnetic poles, where they collide with gas particles that then emit light, causing a glow high in the atmosphere. Auroral displays appear in many colors; although pale green and pink are the most common, shades of red, yellow, blue, and violet have been reported. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains, or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.
Though sightings are never guaranteed, the appearance of Northern Lights has been predicted to reach an 11-year peak during the winter of 2012-13. Don’t miss your chance to witness one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events.