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The northern lights, sketched by a member of the Chukchi nation, Siberia (1889-1899 CE).



The Coming of the Sky Dancers
Apr 06, 2009

The message is increasingly clear: auroras can be extremely violent events.

Today’s auroras are a relatively peaceful phenomenon – whether they take the form of gently dancing curtains of light, a quiescent, reddish ‘cloud’, or spectacular rays of light, they are more likely to enthrall than terrorise the people watching from polar latitudes. Appearances can be misleading, as scientists are finding out in recent years.

Modern research on the potential effects of intense solar Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) on the earth and an ever-growing awareness of the possibility of extreme geomagnetic storms seem to rekindle interest in the so-called ‘Carrington Event’ of 1859, when “skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras”, causing severe damage to the telegraph networks of the time. Between then and 1958, altogether 6 well-documented auroras were strong enough to be visible within 30º or indeed 20º of the equator.

Crucially, various peoples have preserved memories of the potential intensity of the polar lights. Motifs that specialists in folklore and religions routinely dismiss as quaint curiosities of a superstitious past can equally be read as cultural adaptations of genuine and reliable recollections of natural events. Such motifs typically postulate an intimate connection of the auroras with divine beings or ‘ancestors’ and times when the world passed through a phase of destruction and renewed creation.

For example, in North America, the northern lights are commonly conceived as a display of the gods dancing across the firmament. The Ottawa people, of Michigan, Ontario, and Oklahoma, regard the auroras as a sign of the presence of the creator, Nanahboozko, who retreated to his “permanent home farther north” in the wake of the creation. For the Klamath, of southern Oregon, the polar region was also the place whence the creator had come originally:

“Long, long ago Kemush created the world. Morning Star called him from the ashes of the Northern Lights and told him to make the world.”

The original inhabitants of southeast Australia, when interviewed during the 19th century, displayed a marked fear of the southern lights. To the Wotjobaluk, of central-western Victoria, as well as the Ngarigo, closer to Canberra, the aurora “signified … that, at some great distance, a number of blacks were being slaughtered, and that the Aurora colour is the blood rising up to the sky.”

Upon its appearance, the Kurnai, of the Gippsland region, would be “shouting such words as ‘Send it away; do not let it burn us up.’” Far from being overly imaginative fantasies arising from the red hue of the Aurora Australis, such visceral reactions rooted in traumatic memories of a time when the aurora “filled the whole space between the earth and the sky”, precipitating floods, collective madness and the final departure of the creator from the earth.

The latter, known as Mungan-ngaua or ‘our father,' “long ago … lived on the earth”, but when the ancestors of the Kurnai provoked him, “he sent his fire, the Aurora Australis, which filled the whole space between the earth and the sky. Men went mad with fear, and speared each other, fathers killing their children, husbands their wives, and brethren each other. Then the sea rushed over the land and nearly all mankind was drowned. … Mungun left the earth, and ascended to the sky where he still remains.”

Like the Ottawa, the Kurnai regard the contemporary, tranquil auroras as signs of the god’s ongoing watch, explaining it as “Mungan’s fire”.

Francis Eagle Heart Cree (1920/1921-2007), elder and song keeper of the Ojibwe, North Dakota, often used to tell about the northern lights – that his people referred to them as the ‘ancestors’; that our day corresponds to their night and vice versa; and that many ancestors had been literally drawn up into the sky in order to live on in the lights.

In June 2003, during the preparations for the so-called ‘Thirsty Dance’ performed in the Turtle Mountains, Francis revealed that there had been a time when the northern lights were all over, much larger and all-encompassing, and would come closer to the ground, touching it frequently. According to him, today’s thunders, lightning and northern lights are what remain from a time “when the Thunderbirds hovered overhead and carried away the ancestors if you threatened or got too close to them. … the earliest songs came from them, not the animals. The pulsing, reverberant, humming, chanting Ooowwwmmm, hiii, heyyy, . . . is the sound the Thunderbird auroras made.”

During this era, the whole atmosphere was active and animate, and the few plasma phenomena we see today are mere remnants of the “Sky Dancers” of olden times. Coming from a man who was never exposed to formal western education and stood in an age-old, unbroken lineage of cultural continuity, this testimony forms a striking parallel to the Australian belief that the polar lights used to be much more powerful in the past.

At a time when scientists begin to ponder in earnest the possibility of extremely violent solar storms triggering geomagnetic disturbances on a scale that is hard to imagine, human traditions such as the ones cited above deserve to be heard. Elsewhere we have argued that many familiar motifs of global creation mythology are explicable as aspects of a high-energy density auroral storm that took place in the early Holocene. To this indirect evidence one could add these direct reports of increased auroral activity during the age traditional societies would call that of ‘creation’ and of ‘the gods’.

In memoriam: Francis Eagle Heart Cree.

With thanks to Nicholas Vrooman.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further Reading:The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World Mythology

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



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