Galileo Galilei gave the northern lights their Latin name Aurora Borealis. A fitting description, to say the least.

I’m travelling through inland Lapland, on my way home from a meeting in Arvidsjaur, and I have to stop the car. By lake Svergoträsk, outside Sorsele, the sky is a bright, neon green. I exit the car and am greeted by the crisp cold. I’m stood absolutely still, listening. It’s as if the northern lights were crackling. Sometimes we say this, that we can hear the northern lights, but I don’t really think we do. The cold makes the trees crackle, the ice and the ground. It’s the cold making the sounds, rather than the heavenly phenomenon I’m watching. Or perhaps it’s my own will, my own fantasy, that something so lovely has to have a sound. But tonight and at this very moment there’s no other light, no other car, house or TV as far as my eyes can see. There’s nothing to interrupt the starry sky ablaze with colours. It’s just me and nature, in the middle of the forest, as I am treated to this show courtesy of two mythological gods: Aurora and Borealis. From where I’m standing the sky is a giant film screen and the silence is a thundering orchestra.

The clash of the Titans. Photo: Cody Duncan

Light and untamed strength

The northern light forecast has been good the last few years, (if you want to find out more about where and when you can easily spot the northern lights you can check the northern lights forecast here) so meeting the flaming northern lights here by Svergoträsk is no surprise. Already in August hunters, fishers and others who spend time out in the open saw northern lights almost every evening. Since then the activity has kept up. But what makes me stop on this particular evening is more the fact that the first snow of the year has fallen and the impressions of the lights are strengthened by all the white. And of course, the northern lights are never as powerful as when there are no other sources of light around.

In some way you could say that Galileo really nailed it when he named this beautiful phenomenon after those two gods. Light and untamed strength.

Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn. Her siblings are Sol and Luna, the sun and the moon. But to the Greeks Aurora is also the mother of Anemoi, the winds. Aurora fell in love with the mortal Tithonus. As he aged Aurora grieved and asked Jupiter to grant him immortality. Aurora’s wish was granted, but she had failed to ask for eternal youth. So instead Aurora’s great love turned into an immortal old man. Aurora solved the problem by transforming Tithonus into a grasshopper. The moral of the story – be careful what you wish for!

Borealis is derived from the word Borea, the Greek word for the north wind. The god Borea was no easy god to tame, often associated with wild horses, untamed and with a fierce temper. Well – pretty much the obvious messenger for the cold north wind. Borea was in love with Orithyia. The love wasn’t mutual, but Borea didn’t care. In his anger he kidnapped Orithyia and she bore him two sons.

In some way, you could say that Galileo really nailed it when he named this beautiful phenomenon after those two gods. Light and untamed strength.

Light and untamed strength. Photo: Fredrik Broman

The meeting of light and power

How the northern lights actually work isn’t easy to explain. But to put it simply, particles from the solar wind are pulled into the Earth’s magnetosphere. When those particles later reach the atmosphere they collide with atoms and molecules that become ‘charged’, or at least their energy changes. Different kinds of atoms create different colours. The normal, yellowy-green light that I’m rewarded with this day is created by oxygen atoms that are affected at an altitude of approximately 100-140 kilometres. The red light also comes from oxygen atoms, at an altitude of perhaps 200 kilometres, but purple and blue light come from nitrogen ions.

After a while, I start feeling the cold. The lights are still as bright when I jump into the car and start driving home, but I just can’t stop thinking about the northern lights. Because even though I see them almost every day here at home, it’s so fascinating to see them as bright as they were today. And that’s why I drive for a bit longer once I regain feeling in my toes. I stop and enjoy another session of nature’s amazing display. The meeting of the gods Aurora and Borea. The meeting of light and power run wild. A magical show right in the middle of the Arctic everyday life.

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