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Northern Dawn: Auroras inspire folk mythology

Egeland, AlvThe World & I; Washington Vol. 15, Iss. 11,  (Nov 2000): 166-173.

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The aurora borealis, or northern lights, is the most puzzling and mythinspiring of all celestial phenomena. These majestic lights, often called "nature's most beautiful display, " reveal processes in the upper atmosphere that humans have feared and admired for thousands of years. The northern lights present a continuing intellectual challenge, and their scientific study has promoted international cooperation. The story is all the more fascinating because it punctuates historical records. Classical Greek and ancient Chinese literature, and even several passages in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezekiel 1, Jeremiah 1:13), contain references to what can only be auroral phenomena. [An aurora was visble as far south as Washington, D.C., as recently as July 2000-ed.]

The story of the aurora also illustrates science's evolving role in civilization and daily life. The northern lights were a visually spectacular phenomenon that could be observed and studied without advanced technology. A list of those who struggled to understand their nature reads like a Who's Who of science until the early twentieth century. Th trace auroral science through history is to observe man's development from a creature of ignorance and superstition to an analytical disciple of science and technology.

The oldest detailed description of auroral displays is found in Norse literature dating to A.D. 1200. In the King's Mirror, a thirteenth-century Norwegian chronicle, a remarkable account is given. Observable technical details and human emotional responses are woven into a unified narrative. The handwritten Old Norse text describes the dancing lights in vivid detail.

It must be noted that the name northern lights (nordurljos) was introduced in the King's Mirror. This account was written more than four hundred years before Galileo (1564-1642) proposed the name aurora borealis (literally northern dawn), the scientific term used since 1620.

In the documents of Viking legend, auroras were Bifrost, the heavenly...