Aurora / History
by Claudia Hinz

This optical phenomenon which is visible also in latitudes down to 50 N respective S in times of high solar activity1 was already known in antiquity. It is told that Aristoteles called it "jumping goats" because of its bizarre and often flame-like shape.

In the 5th century, Chinese astronomers wanted to predict floods or droughts, good harvests and famines from the colours of the northern lights (J Needham, 1959).

In northern mythology and in the myths of Red Indians and Eskimos and also of the Siberians, aurora borealis played an important role. Often it was interpreted as the dance of virgins1 Valkyries, or as a battle between Gods or ghosts, but also as manifestations of fallen warriors towards the living. The Canadian Indians thought that their God drew their attention to himself by this optical phenomenon in order to make inquiries about the health and happiness of his tribes. Other myths interpreted the aurora borealis as a blaze.

In medieval times the aurora borealis, just like the appearing of a comet, was interpreted as a sign of a forthcoming war, famines or contagious diseases like the pestilence. In northern countries, popular belief interpreted the appearing of northern 1ights as a sign for an imminent change of weather. A direct connection between occurrences in the upper parts of the atmosphere and weather processes in the troposphere (beneath an altitude of 10km) has not been proved already. Despite of this, aurora borealis was also called "wind light" in Norway, what meant a light causing wind, i.e. a sign for storm and bad weather. On the Faroe Islands, a low aurora borealis was considered to be a sign for good weather, while an aurora borealis that was high in the sky was interpreted as a sign for bad weather. A flickering northern light was a sign for wind. Finally, in Sweden northern lights in early autumn were interpreted as a sign for a harsh winter (A. Brekke and A. Egeland, 1983).


"It looks like a big flame of a severe blaze7 seen from far, from which it seems that there are sharp peaks of different height shooting up into the sky, very changeable so that one at one time this one and then another one is higher, and so this light floats in the air like a shining arc (Norwegian Royal Play, 1250).
(Norwegian Royal Mirrow, 1250).


Northern light in October, believe me, forewarns of a harsh winter

In the north, were aurora borealis appears rather often, a clear October night can become really cold and thoroughly remind of the coming winter. But an aurora borealis forms in the so-called ionosphere in an altitude of 60 to 200 km. The events which directly characterise the weather do not happen in this altitude because the weather happens in the lower layers of air up to a maximum altitude of 15 km.