The Northern Lights are called the Aurora Borealis, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for north wind, Boreas. The marriage of dawn and the cold north wind describes for me exactly what I saw each and every time I’ve had the fortune to see this performance in the night sky.
Northern Lights – that magical, mystical phenomena of the northern skies have intrigued and fascinated humans for millennia. I was fortunate to have lived in rural Wisconsin as a child and recall those very rare and special times that the Northern Lights appeared. We lived on a lake, where there were no other permanent residents, with almost no light pollution. My mother would make sure I looked every time they appeared from nowhere and into the sky above the lake. The inky black sky provided the background for the brilliant, fluid light show. I didn’t understand the phenomena, but found the shimmering, ephemeral lights a magical experience. I knew the lights were only visible in the far North (and far Southern locations) in the world, so I was sad when we moved to Arizona. I was sure that I would never see the lights again in my life. They were unpredictable and rare enough even there, appearing and disappearing like splendid apparitions in the dark.
Decades later, I lived in Montana and had long forgotten about the Northern Lights. Driving through the Yellowstone River Valley I noticed that the sky out the left side of my car was bright. It was well past sunset, and I wondered if there was a fire. It was dark, the night was still and there was no moon. The highway was empty and I was thinking about work on Monday. The light puzzled me, so I looked again and saw a sheet of light, moving across the sky and falling like rain to the horizon. For minutes I didn’t know what I was looking at, and then realized that I was looking at my beloved Northern Lights. I stopped the car on the side of the road and got out to watch. I stood for quite a while and enjoyed the show – light green to yellow to white moving and waving. I could hear the crackle and hiss often described. The show’s expanse across the night sky was astonishing. It was so broad that I couldn’t see it all in front of me, so I turned my head back and forth and looked up to see it all.
As I stood there, I looked at the Yellowstone River and wondered about the people who lived in this place before. I was so curious about what the Crow Indians thought about these strange lights in their sky. Did these lights inspire fear or wonder or inspiration or something else? What stories did they tell around their fires to explain this and how did they make sense of it? What did the fur trappers, explorers and settlers think of this display? Imagine being woken in the middle of the night because it is suddenly light. I hope that these people thought it was wonderful and magical.
The Ojibwa tell a story of ice that reflected and refracted the light of the sun to illuminate the People’s way through a dark world. The Cree call the lights the “Dance of the Spirits”.
No matter what it is called, or what explanation exists for the lights, they are a source of wonder and magic.
Enjoy your nights and Look Up!
Griffith Observer, the magazine of Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California