Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Aurora Borealis

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:

Yrsa – Wednesday


  1. I've wanted to see this ever since I was old enough to feel small under a thunderstorm or have some idea of how insignificant everything we have is under a starry sky. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. Great post. Why no northern lights in Scandinavian mythology? How come I never asked myself that question? But I doubt it was because the pole shifted, because navigators had been using the North Star for orientation for centuries by then.

    And I love the fact that Christianity stopped thinking of lightning as an indicator of divine disapproval because it kept hitting churches. This is EXACTLY the kind of fact I like to have at my fingertips.

  3. Very interesting. You took me to another culture, and even another way of thinking of the heritage of my own faith! How fascinating. Three days into following this blog I am a more learned person! Keep it coming!
    Yrsa, do you have a direct link to your books? I've had trouble finding them.


  4. Wow I know why people wear hats in church. Thanks to your colleague for sharing these photos. Like Dana, I've always wanted to see this in person but this took me there,

  5. Tim - I think the Simpsons still use thunder and lightning as a sign of Divine disapproval and it seems they have been the cultural arbiter of virtually the entire world for many years.

    I am not a Simpson's expert but there are a lot of males in my family who are (I'll leave it to other males to decide if this is a good thing). I didn't check with them as to the accuracy of my information because once they start on the Simpsons it is nearly impossible to get them to stop.

  6. Yrsa - The photos taken by your friend and the video are stunning. I didn't realize that the lights move as they do. The photos of sunsets in different seasons were beautiful, so filled with red. Iceland is a visually stunning country.

    One of my nephews lives in Sweden. He is a teacher and hockey coach in Gavle, the city in which his wife grew up. They were married two years ago in a beautiful church that dates from the 12th or 13th century in a town called Kilafors. Linda had been there as a child and had decided then that this was were she would be married.

    My nephew was offered a job in a town above the Arctic Circle, a place I always thought was at the top of the world, but Linda wasn't willing to move so far from family and friends.

    I wasn't able to travel to the wedding and I really regret that. The American friends and family had a wonderful time; every minute of the long weekend (Thursday to Monday) was crammed with activities and great experiences.

    I have MS so the trip was too much for me but thanks to digital photography and Snapfish I was updated all weekend on the festivities.

    They were married in the middle of September. They figured the balance of day and night was good for the American contingent. Michael thinks the days without darkness were as hard to adjust to as the days without light when he first moved there.

    Linda adopted two American customs: the diamond engagement ring and being escorted down the aisle by her father.

  7. Yrsa

    Thank you for this blog. I was the one who mentioned to Leighton that you might write about the Northern Lights. In New England where I live in the states we sometimes see them and I have had the privilege only 3 times. All of them in Maine. I wonder how often do you see them in an average winter? Thanks to your friend for providing the photos. has photos of aurora from all over the world. It's a wonderful site if you've never seen it, check it out.


  8. Hi Yrsa and Jacquie-

    I'm so glad Jacquie suggested you tell us about the Northern Lights.

    I'm from Chicago and Northern Lights/auroras(which I had to look up) is not a topic of conversation in my part of the woods.

    I'm fascinated now and will be looking for more info about them.

    Yrsa-That was such a pleasant read! I really enjoy when you tell us stories :)

  9. Sorry about the late replies - it had been one of those weeks.

    To Dana: I know exactly what you mean, the stars themselves are a wonder in their own right, as a kid I wanted to be an astronomer but got all upset when everyone kept thinking I meant astrologer and gave it up.

    To Timothy: it is strange - however the magnetic pole can shift without the north star losing its navigational importance. This I know from wanting to be an astronomer (no not astrologer)

    To Michele: I will look into the link and have it posted through this blog page as Leighton has so kindly offered to do.

    To Beth: tell me about it - my son is a huge Simpson's fan and I must admit the show has kept pretty darn fresh for pretty darn long. I always find it funny that a woman is the voice of Bart and keep meaning to look her photo up on the net. If you ever decide to visit your nephew in Sweden you should definately do a stop over in Iceland. It would probably make the long trip easier for you and I would be happy to make your visit here more enjoyable.

    To Jacquie: Thanks for the tip regarding the subject! In an average winter I probably see the northern lights about 20 times. They probably appear more often but you have to be outside to notice them or inside with all the lights off.

    To Peter: your welcome!