Northern Lights Facts, Myths and Legends
Mystery and wonder shroud the northern lights, otherwise known as the aurora borealis. Mesmerizing, stunning, other-worldly are just a few words used to describe the experience of watching this spectacular phenomenon. When conditions are favourable this fantastical display lights up the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, leaving all who catch a glimpse of this magical wonder, memories that will last forever.
Displays vary in intensity and duration, shape and form having no regulation, with each display totally unique. This natural phenomenon is hard to predict, yet extraordinary to witness!
“The strong green lights danced across the sky, rapidly changing in shape and colour. We were all totally engrossed in this magical experience and when the lights finally came to an abrupt end, we just stood there completely speechless…”
Ms Turner, Abisko Sky Station
Northern Lights Facts
It is said that Gaileo witnessed the northern lights in 1621 and the coined the phrase aurora borealis (aurora for goddess of the dawn, borealis for the Greek god of the north wind), but he thought it was caused by sunlight reflecting off the earth’s atmosphere. Actually they are caused by charged solar particles reacting with the earth’s atmosphere. The collisions cause oxygen and nitrogen to glow.
- They can be seen from late August to mid April and are more active around the equinoxes.
- They usually occur between 60 and 75 degrees latitude making Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada and Alaska excellent locations for seeing the aurora.
- They are not effected by lunar activity.
- They can be seen by the naked eye.
- The northern and southern lights (aurora australis) occur simultaneously.
Myths and Legends
- Some Northern American Inuit call the aurora ‘aqsarniit’ (literally ‘football players’) because they believe that the lights are ancestral spirits kicking around the head of a walrus.
- The old Norse explanation was that the strange, shimmering green lights were old maids dancing in the heavens.
- According to Finnish legend when the fox runs across the snowy Arctic fells it lights up the night sky with sparks flying from its tail.
- Vikings believed the glowing lights were reflections from the shields of the Valkyries, maidens who transported fallen warriors to Valhalla.
- Scandinavian fisherman called the sightings Herring Flash as they saw them as a sign of rich catches, believing them to be caused by light reflecting off vast shoals of lively herring.
- In Siberia they believed children born under the aurora lived a long and prosperous life.
- Modern day myths exist too – the Japanese believe that babies conceived under the northern lights will become intellectuals.
- If a pregnant woman looks at northern lights or twinkling stars, her child will be cross-eyed.
- Northern lights were also supposed to decrease pain during labour.
- Red and active auroras were said to predict storms.
The aurora is a natural phenomenon so there are no guarantees. As such location should be a major consideration when selecting a northern lights holiday. Don’t be lured by cheap offers of weekend breaks in Reykjavik, which include a short excursion to ‘see the lights’. You need to be outside of built-up areas and light pollution, not just for a few hours, but the for the duration of your holiday.
Our top locations include the Aurora Sky Station at Abisko in Swedish Lapland, Hotel Ranga in Iceland’s southern countryside and just outside Tromso in northern Norway. Many of the hotels we use offer a wake-up service if the lights make an appearance during the night, and the more remote you are the more spectacular the show will be!