Thursday, January 22, 2009
The Aurora Borealis or Northern and Southern Lights are celestial phenomena consisting of bands, curtains or streamers of coloured light that appear in the sky largely in the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the earth. They are caused by clouds of particles from the sun streaming into space (the solar wind) and being trapped by the earth's magnetic field. When the particles collide with the gases in the atmosphere they start to glow, producing lights of red, blue, green and violet.
These mysterious intangible lights have created an abundance of folk tales explaining their origin. In Finland they are called "revontulet", which means "fox fires" a name derived from an ancient fable of the arctic fox starting fires by running on the snow, and sweeping it's brush-like tail so that sparks fly off into the sky. And it's interesting to note that these folktales can cross seas and become embedded in another countries culture and language - in English "foxfire" is a glow emitted by bioluminescent fungi growing on rotten wood.
One optimistic Finnish tale claims that there are so many fish in the Arctic Sea that the sunlight is reflected back into the air from the backs of the fishes.
The Eskimos and Indians of North America had many stories to try and explain the aurora borealis. For some the lights were spirits of dancing animals (deer, seal, salmon, beluga), dancing children who died at birth, slain enemies restless for revenge or spirits playing ball with a walrus skull. Others believed them to be the result of incredible creatures in distant lands - friendly giants in the north using torches to spear fish at night, or dwarfs of tremendous strength, who kill whales with their bare hands, boiling blubber over a fire.