Throughout history, humans have gazed in awe at the astronomical wonder that is the Aurora Borealis. We wondered what it was and told stories of the lights twinkling above.
The Finnish name for the Northern Lights is revontulet, which means “fox fires”. Legend has it that foxes made of fire lived in Lapland and their dashing tails shot sparks into the sky. In Estonia, the name is virmalized, meaning spiritual beings from the higher realms. The Inuit of northern Greenland believed that spirits played games, throwing a walrus skull into the sky. And now scientists have discovered the oldest known written record of the aurora, predating a previous discovery by around three centuries. Researchers Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs, an independent researcher, and Hisashi Hayakawa of Nagoya University found documentation on Chinese history and published the findings in the journal Advances in space research.
The first recording
When the solar wind, a stream of charged particles – protons and electrons – streams from the sun and collides with the Earth’s atmosphere, it creates the aurora borealis. Particles crash into atoms and molecules in Earth’s ionic sphere, releasing energy that visibly glows. The aurora can take different shapes (arcs, streaks, curtains) and colors (green, red, purple) depending on the atoms with which the solar wind collides.
Van der Sluijs and Hayakawa discovered a passage from Chinese history called The annals of bambooor Zhushu Jinian in Mandarin, which referred to these colors.
The passage, composed in the 4th century BC. AD, describes a “five-colored light” in the northern part of the sky that occurred at the end of the reign of King Zhao of the Zhou Dynasty. Although the researchers cannot determine an exact date with certainty, they conclude that the Chinese saw the geomagnetic phenomena in the year 977 or 957 BC. The Earth’s north magnetic pole, at this time, was known to have tilted to the Eurasian side in the 10th century BC. It was closer to the center of China by about 15 degrees than it is today.
Therefore, it would have been possible for the king of China and all those in his sphere to see the aurora.
The Northern Lights throughout history
References to the aurora have appeared throughout history, even in Stone Age cave paintings, dating from 30,000 years ago. In his book, Meteorology, written over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle described the aurora saying “sometimes on a fine night we see a variety of appearances forming in the sky: ‘chasms’ for example and ‘trenches’ and blood red colors”.
But before the Chinese move, the earliest known record of the Northern Lights occurred around 679-655 BC. Assyrian astronomers recorded an aurora event on cuneiform tablets. The biblical accounts of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel described a sight that some scholars say resembles the Northern Lights. And the king of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar II noted an aurora in his astronomical diary dated 567 BC.
Even in AD 34, Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar sent men to the Italian city of Ostia thinking it was burning in flames. This was not the case, and instead the dawn shone above our heads.
It wasn’t until 1619, however, that Galileo Galilei coined the term “Aurora Borealis”. Derived from the Greek words “aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “boreas” meaning “wind”, the Greeks believed that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Selene. Helios was the sun. Selene was the moon. It was Aurora who raced her colorful chariot across the sky to alert her siblings to the dawn of each day.
Later, Henry Cavendish recorded the first scientific observations.) of the Northern Lights in 1790. Using triangulation, the French-born English scientist determined that the Northern Lights occur about 60 miles above the surface of Earth. It was the British astronomer Richard Carrington, in 1859, who linked the aurora borealis to the sun.
And although Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, in the early 1900s, was the first to explain what caused the Northern Lights, Benjamin Franklin also had a theory about a ship sailing across the Atlantic. He noted a concentration of electrical charges at the North Pole which was intensified by the snow and humidity causing the lights.
From cavemen to the king of China, from Roman emperors to our founding fathers, mankind has long watched the aurora in awe and documented the evidence.