The northern lights are a rarity of the sort that never ceases to amaze, no matter how often you witness their majestic, light-footed dance across the blackened sky. Maybe it has something to do with the unexpected aspect of their appearance; you can never be 100% sure to see them even if conditions are perfect. It could also be related to the fact that this is not a static phenomenon , the diffuse lights move in a manner best likened in my recollection to an electric ribbon, gently propelled into movement by a light breeze somewhere way up high in the ionosphere. This is further enhanced by an irregular, up/down motion of the individual rays that line up to form the glowing ribbon. Usually the shimmering colour is a multi shaded green but at times pink layers can be seen, adding flavour to the grandiose and surreal happening. It is on purpose that I am going to spare you the scientific explanation of what drives the northern lights, it is too boring and unworthy of the actual glory involved.
Seeing as how unworldly the northern lights are, I have often wondered why the old Norse mythology is relatively silent regarding this phenomenon. We have Þór (Thor) the god of thunder, but no god seems to have had the good sense to associate him- or herself with the northern lights. Explanations for earthquakes exist; bad, bad Loki causes them when poisonous venom from a huge snake occasionally drips onto his face while his wife is emptying the bowl she usually uses to catch it with. And why does Loki not move from underneath the beast’s fangs? Because the gods have tied him down using the entrails of one of his own sons – of course. It is obviously not for lack of imagination that the northern lights get no mention, neither can realism have cramped the Viking’s style much. The most likely explanation I have come across is that the magnetic north pole was located elsewhere at the time when Norse mythology was coming into its own and if I had provided the boring scientific explanation I purposely skipped you would know that this means the northern lights were turned off over northern Scandinavian at the time.
The above reminds me that Christianity stopped using lightning as a sign of the wrath of God during the early dark ages. Lightning was no longer mentioned and the topic avoided at all cost. This was due to the fact that church steeples were usually the highest urban points at this time, and therefore more subject to being hit by lightning than the local whorehouse or other such establishments of lesser ethical standards. Without question, placing a metal cross on the top did not help at all. One cannot but wonder what must have gone through the church officials’ minds while passing buckets of water between themselves to put out a fire caused by lightning. What the hell did we do now? It might explain some of the more bizarre bans that have been passed over to us by this establishment. Maybe it had something to do with people wearing a hat inside during mass?
Back to my original topic, if you ever have the chance to come to Iceland during the winter time, jump on it. If you are lucky and it is both cold outside and the sky is clear the northern lights will make your trip worthwhile, horrible security checks and all. We even have a hotel on the south coast that specializes in northern lights tourism – on their home page they have a video that gives an idea of what to expect even though it is pretty grainy:
Finally I would like to thank my colleague Málfríður Guðmundsdóttir, who lent me photos to accompany this post. Unlike me she is a great photographer and if interested you can see more of her wonderful photos from Iceland by following this link: