Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jeudi: Weather Wise

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is a well known phenomena hear at the top of the world. The beautiful streaks of blue, green and purple that dance across the cold night sky are accompanied by an eerie pop and crackle which is similar to the sound of a wood fire. While gorgeous, explaining the lights and sounds prior to the dawn of the scientific age was a difficult endeavor. Our various ancestors spoke of various possible explanations, many of which are remarkably similar.

In North America, and in what is now Canada, Alaska and the northern U.S. in particular, the lights were often linked to the spirits of the dead, be they human or animal. In what is now the province of Labrador, Canada, the native people believed that the crackling sounds made by the lights were the voices of those who had died a violent or sudden death. People were told to reply only in a whisper, for fear of disturbing these ancestors who were finally at peace.

The Tlingit of southeastern Alaska saw the lights as the spirits of the dead, while in the Yukon, native people said the lights were spirits, but those of salmon, seals and deer. Sometimes the spirits were said to be dancing. In other stories, they were playing ball, often with the skull of an animal. If it was the spirits of animals playing, however, they were said to use a human skull.

The Mandan said the lights were fires built by shaman and warriors who had passed into death. They were lit to boil the bodies of dead enemies in giant pots. It was only in the Point Barrow region of modern Alaska that the lights were thought to bode ill. Seeing them could bring on bad luck, but carrying a knife, particularly one made of metal, would repel the evil energy.

Meanwhile, in northern Europe, people tended to agree with the Point Barrow natives. While the Vikings imagined the lights as nothing more than the gods at play, most of the Celtic nations in Great Britain believed the Aurora ushered in a time of great turmoil, aggression, illness and want.

These beliefs trickled down into the 17th, 18th and 19th century. In Arctic Zoology written in 1784, the author tells us that, at the sight of the lights, "the rustic sages become prophetic, and terrify the gazing spectators with the dread of war, pestilence and famine." Though Pennant calls these beliefs superstitions, it is clear that they are held by many people. In Scotland, the lights were seen as a portend of the death of the famous. Aytoun writes in 1849 of "Fearful lights, that never beckon Save when kings or heroes die." As late as the 1870s, writers mentioned that the lights portended disaster, especially toward their own nation.

Despite all this, and perhaps because we now know their origin, the lights continue to fascinate. Even for the most cynical among us, a little chill must run up the spine at the sight of those dancing ribbons and the sound of spirit fires.

Header: Aurora Borealis over Anchorage, Alaska via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

I have only seen (and heard) the Northern Lights a few times, Pauline. Mostly on hunting trips. It seems like I always miss them when they are out when we're at home...

Pauline said...

Yeah; they're much harder to see these days with our modern "light pollution." I'm pretty sure sightings in the Great Lakes areas are few and far between these days, for instance.