What Are the Northern Lights?
People in northern countries sometimes see colorful displays of flickering, glowing light in the night sky. This colored glow is the “aurora borealis,” or the northern lights. Auroral displays appear in many colors although pale green and pink are the most common.
Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported. 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.
Auroras are caused by great storms on the sun. We call them sunspots. During sunspot activity, electrified particles stream from the sun toward the earth’s magnetic poles.
When the particles strike the thin gases in our upper atmosphere, they make the gases glow, much like a giant neon light. In the southern hemisphere there are similar displays of southern lights, the “aurora australis.”
‘Aurora borealis’, the lights of the northern hemisphere, means ‘dawn of the north’. ‘Aurora australis’ the lights of the southern hemisphere, means ‘dawn of the south’.
In Roman myths, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn. Many cultural groups have legends about the lights.
In medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine. The Maori of New Zealand shared a belief with many northern people of Europe and North America that the lights were reflections from torches or campfires.
The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed that the lights indicated the location of manabai’wok (giants) who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen.
The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, and deer and beluga whales. Other aboriginal peoples believed that the lights were the spirits of their people.