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 Display of the Southern Lights seen at Wellington, New Zealand 24 November 2001. © Paul Moss




Divining the Meaning of the Aurora
Feb 11, 2010

Few natural phenomena have elicited such deep emotions from human observers as the polar lights.

Across the centuries, people have been profoundly moved and inspired when exposed to the spectacular dance of plasma filaments across the night sky. Indeed, witnesses of the aurorae have not infrequently confessed to a sense of the numinous.

Following an unforgettable manifestation of the lights on Tuesday, 28th. November 1893, the Norwegian Arctic explorer, Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), remarked: “There is the supernatural for you – the northern lights flashing in matchless power and beauty over the sky … If one wants to read mystic meanings into the phenomena of nature, here, surely, is the opportunity.”

Later, during the winter of 1911, the British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), repeatedly enjoyed the celestial pageant of the aurora australis while sailing south towards Antarctica on the Terra Nova. Reflecting on an outpouring of auroral activity seen on Sunday, 21st. May of that year, Scott resorted to the metaphor of life in his struggle to adequately depict the event in words. It almost seemed to him that the aurora was imbued with a vital force: “There is infinite suggestion in this phenomenon, and in that lies its charm; the suggestion of life, form, colour, and movement never less than evanescent, mysterious – no reality.”

For Scott, seeing the agility, the versatility and the rapidity that characterised the majestic appearance of the southern lights bordered on a religious experience: “It is the language of mystic signs and portents – the inspiration of the gods – wholly spiritual – divine signalling. Remindful of superstition, provocative of imagination.” Playfully, the pioneer wondered whether aliens might be involved: “Might not the inhabitants of some other world (Mars) controlling mighty forces thus surround our globe with fiery symbols, a golden writing which we have not the key to decipher?”

Joking aside, the distinct impression of the aurorae as a marvellous, almost supernatural force entrenched itself in the captain’s mind. Less than a year before his tragic death, on Thursday, 22nd. June, the adventurer was celebrating midwinter with his party, when he was treated to “the most vivid and beautiful display that I had ever seen – fold on fold the arches and curtains of vibrating luminosity rose and spread across the sky, to slowly fade and yet again spring to glowing life.”

His notes, which were discovered afterwards in the ice and published posthumously, offer a glimpse into a mind that, far from jocular, had grown ever more stupefied with the spiritual effect the lights could exercise on a human being:

“It is impossible to witness such a beautiful phenomenon without a sense of awe … the appeal is to the imagination by the suggestion of something wholly spiritual, something instinct with a fluttering ethereal life, serenely confident yet restlessly mobile. One wonders why history does not tell us of ‘aurora’ worshippers, so easily could the phenomenon be considered the manifestation of ‘god’ or ‘demon’.”

Why not indeed? Could it be that the worldwide repository of mythical and other religious traditions is actually replete with descriptions of auroral events that have so far escaped attention? That universal beliefs about the nature of the gods and goddesses, legendary ancestors, and dragons are really brimful of references to the lights? That folklore, traditional dance and iconography are all heavily charged with memories of the aurorae so hoary with age as to go well-nigh unnoticed? This is, in effect, precisely what is found.

The growing scientific understanding of the earth’s electromagnetic environment has made it possible to recognise an important substratum of auroral observations in the mythological system of virtually every known culture. Much in the descriptions of the gods, their fabulous habitats, their ‘creation’ of this world and their temporary sojourn on ‘earth’ can be meaningfully analysed as concealed reports of near-earth plasmas developing in glow and arc modes as the earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere experienced unimaginable disturbances.

The mountain of the gods, the tree of life, the pillars that supported the sky, the ladder or arrow-string to the sky, dragons, thunderbirds, the turtle that supported the earth, the tail-biting snake that surrounded the earth, layered heavens and underworlds, the sentinels of the cardinal directions, the primordial race of animal-like beings, the stationary sun or morning star – these and many others are global motifs belonging to the so-called ‘age of creation’ or ‘age of the gods’ that can be explained as symbolic descriptions of discrete plasma forms seen above the horizon during episodes of this prolonged high-energy-density auroral storm.

If the relatively mundane aurorae witnessed today can provoke such distinct visions of spirituality in the soberminded likes of Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Scott, how much more stirring must have been the highly energetic aurorae hypothesised to have occurred at the dawn of civilisation, which is estimated to have been at least an order of magnitude more intense? Scott concluded his diary entry for that day with the words: “To the little silent group which stood at gaze before such enchantment it seemed profane to return to the mental and physical atmosphere of our house.”

It would seem that the Stone Age ancestors of mankind could not return to their homes as if nothing had happened. Instead, they were induced to institute enduring cults and rituals, compose lasting sacred narratives, and design perpetually hallowed images in commemoration of the erstwhile presence of the divine in their midst.

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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EXECUTIVE EDITORS: David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott,
Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman,
Tom Wilson
WEBMASTER: Brian Talbott
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