High-latitude sailors are considered lucky if they witness the awe-inspiring displays of the aurora borealis or aurora australis (northern/southern hemispheres respectively). But centuries before science explained these swirling light-shows, fantastical superstitions held sway. Story by Lawrence Schäffler.

Thanks to decades of research we know today that the auroras (commonly known as the northern/southern lights) occur when highspeed solar winds interact with atoms in the polar regions of the Earth’s atmosphere. Our Sun is a roiling ball of nuclear energy, continuously emitting vast jets of solar wind into space – a minor star with a major flatulence problem.

Happily, Earth’s magnetic field deflects most of this wind but some enters the atmosphere around our planet’s poles (where the magnetic field is weaker). The protons and electrons within the wind interact with the atoms in our atmosphere. That process releases energy and creates the swirling waves of light.

The colour of the lights varies considerably – a factor of the type of atoms the solar wind encounters. Earth’s atmosphere is mostly oxygen and nitrogen. Oxygen causes a green hue – by far the most common colour of the auroras – but oxygen can also create a red swirl. Nitrogen atoms emit a purple light.

The aurora phenomenon is similar to what happens in the common neon sign – but rather than solar wind, electricity excites the gas atoms in the tube.

While the northern lights have their counterpart in the southern hemisphere, the aurora australis is less well known – it is seen less often largely because terrestrial observation points are few and far between. Other than Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands, places to see them include the southern tip of Chile, Tasmania and New Zealand.




Before science revealed the true cause, different indigenous peoples/cultures explained the aurora as they did with anything they didn’t understand – through superstition and myth. These usually involved celestial gods, the spirits of dead ancestors, or monsters and demons.


Popular explanations for the lights – which, interestingly, often appear to cross cultural boundaries – include water ejected by whales, the reflections from fires lit by dead relatives, or signposts showing the way to the afterworld.

Maori lore/legend echoes that of many high northern latitude cultures – the lights are reflections from torches or campfires lit by ancestors. In Norse mythology, the aurora was the breath of brave soldiers who’d died in combat. It also formed the ‘Bifrost Bridge’ – a glowing arch leading the fallen warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla.


Early Chinese legends associated the northern nights with fire-breathing dragons – usually a celestial battle between good and evil dragons. In Japanese culture, a child conceived under the northern lights would be blessed with good looks, intellect and good fortune.

A variation on this theme occurs in Iceland, where old wives tales held that the lights would relieve the pain of delivery but the mother should definitely not look at the aurora while giving birth – doing so would cause the child to be born cross-eyed.

Some Inuit tribes thought the aurora was ancestral spirits playing a game using a walrus skull as a ball. Their relatives living on nearby Nunavik Island inverted this myth – the lights were walrus spirits playing ball with a human skull. In North America, the Makah Indians believed the lights were fires created by dwarves boiling whale blubber.

Swedish fishermen and farmers believed the lights heralded a good harvest, while in Finland people explained the lights as caused by a fleet-footed firefox whose tail brushing against the snow sent sparks into the night sky.

Scientifically-inclined readers of the Bible believe the prophet Ezekiel’s vision – which he interpreted as a sign from God, was probably an aurora. (“I looked, and there was a whirlwind coming from the north, a huge cloud with fire flashing back and forth and brilliant light all around it. In the center of the fire, there was a gleam like amber.” Ezekiel 1:4).


In the Middle Ages a red aurora was associated with blood and death and often interpreted as a harbinger of war, famine or plague.


As a harbinger of unsettled times, few examples of an aurora’s influence on national identity and destiny can rival that reflected in an 1865 painting by New York’s Frederic Edwin Church, one of the 19th century’s most celebrated landscape artists.

His painting – Aurora Borealis – hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. It encapsulates a fascinating ‘melting pot’ of aurora superstition, Arctic exploration and the American Civil War (1861–1865).

It seems Church witnessed a spectacular aurora in 1859. His friend – explorer Isaac Israel Hayes – later participated in an 1861 Arctic expedition. Church used the expedition sketches to draft his painting of Hayes’s ship (the SS United States) stuck in the frozen ice. An aurora dominates the top half of the painting.

According to Eleanor Jones Harvey, the senior curator at the Museum, “conspicuous auroras, comets and meteors were not uncommon during this period of the 19th century, and because of the charged political climate of the Civil War, the appearance of an atmospheric phenomena in the sky presaged something of significance for Church and his contemporaries.

“Auroras are weird, however, because they’re kind of a malleable portent. They can mean what you want them to mean. For example, in the North, when the Union appeared to be winning the war, an aurora in the night sky was viewed as a talisman of God’s favour.

“By contrast, when the war seemed to be going in a less favourable direction, another aurora was deemed a portent of doom, a sign that the world was ending. In the absence of the scientific understanding of the phenomenon, these superstitious interpretations were given even more space in the collective understanding of the day.”

When Church began his painting, adds Harvey, “it wasn’t 100 per cent clear that the Union would win. In this way, Church’s aurora represents a dramatic tension like the one playing out in the drama of Hayes’ stranded ship – fittingly named the SS United States. What’s going to happen? Will the Union endure? And if so, what will the reunited United States look like?”

The photographs of the aurora borealis in this article were taken recently in Lapland. Students of American politics might need a little time to decide whether they are a portent of doom, or one of harmonious happiness – for a troubled and divided nation.