The magic of the merry dancers

When the lights are out

Former student Rebecca Marr takes us on a journey through the merry dancers.


The Northern Lights are a contradiction. Light in the dark. The ancient Greeks acknowledged the contradiction of light and darkness in the north. The mythological land of Hyperborea, the place beyond the north wind, was the winter residence of the sun god Apollo, where even in the months of darkness he could be active in the aurora.

The aurora can be used to represent north, this is another contradiction. The aurora occurs in the very south at the same time it appears in the north. Aurora Australis occurs in the Antarctic, South America and Australasia. But it is the Aurora Borealis that sparks the imagination of north.

Briefly put the Aurora Borealis is caused by electrically charged particles, carried from the sun in solar wind, which enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide with nitrogen and oxygen, the energy in these collisions is released as coloured light. It is described as being like fluorescent tubes, gases which light up when they are excited. They happen more around the poles because of the earth’s magnetic field. The electrical overload of the lights is difficult to comprehend, estimated at one  trillion watts with a current of one million amperes.

The Reverent George Low, parish minister in Burray 1774-1795 noted down his account of the Merry Dancers of Orkney:

[Meteors] are frequent, but as yet we are not so much familiarised to them, as to those the Philosphers call the Aurora Borealis or northern lights, and by our country sages on account of their motion Merry Dancers, which are the constant attendants of our clearer evenings, and much relieve the gloom of our long winter nights.’

Intense periods of auroral activity can make the lights visible quite far south - Aristotle experienced the lights, detailing them in his work ‘Meterologica’ complete with his visions of jumping goats.  It is the reds at the lower end of the auroral spectrum that are able to travel farther south, and this will have influenced Galileo when in 1616 he named it boreale aurora - northern dawn.

Apart from periods of extreme activity, the Aurora could only be seen at higher latitudes. The occasional displays in the south were sensational and underlined the strange wonders of the north. The north was a threshold to another world.

Explorers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries travelled to the far north to bag the lights. A French expedition in 1838 contained within their party an artist who was there to create auroral images.

Norwegian Explorer Fridtjof Nansen portrayed the aurora in his woodcuts of the late nineteenth century and in one typifies the notion of the lone explorer communing with the remote beauty of the landscape. Often referred to as curtains or veils they suggest glimpses of a hidden landscape beyond the north.

Peter Davidson in his book ‘The Idea of North’ says:

‘The tattered curtains of the aurora have lent their strangeness to northern skies; they have been to many an aspect of the way that the extreme north is seen as a bridge between worlds.’

The image of a bridge to another world is utilised in Norse mythology where the arc of the Northern Lights is the bridge for dead souls to pass to the other world and the streaks of light are the fiery spears and shields of the Valkyries who ride the skies.

The Northern Lights have been recognised variously to be the shimmering reflections of shoals of silver herring; light bouncing off icebergs onto clouds; sunlight catching on the wings of migrating geese or in Danish folklore, swans trapped in ice flapping their wings in an attempt to free themselves.

The Finnish call the Northern Lights Revontulet, a name meaning fox fire. The Finnish understood the lights to be the Arctic Fox creating sparks of light with his shiny coat and his tail as he flies across northern skies brushing against mountains.

In Greenland the Igluik Inuit legend the Northern Lights are the dead playing ball with a walrus skull.

Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen visited with the Umingmaktormuit inuits - the Muskox People - in 1923 and heard about how their shaman could influence the lights, whistling to bring them closer and spitting to make the colours run together.

Sami believed that the lights could be provoked into attacking people. A 1998 article by Olsen & Fjeld in Baiki, a Sami journal refers to the tradition of fear and silence during the aurora:

‘ can produce threatening light storms in which sheets of funnels of light swoop down and burn the careless. Women will not go out bareheaded when the aurora is bright, as its internal force can even become entangled in the hair. Silence is maintained ...during these periods of extremely bright light so as not to irritate the force of the light storm, and, for the same reason, bells are removed from the reindeer.’

If observers of the Aurora Borealis are silent it seems the lights themselves are not. Many accounts talk of the sound of the lights.  The Sami name guovsahasat has been translated by some as ‘the light you can hear’. A 1906 dissertation on the lights by Lane Cooper says:

‘It is a very general belief in certain countries - for instance in the Orkneys, in Finmark, and among the Indians of the territories around Hudson Bay - that the aurora is accompanied by a particular sound, somewhat resembling the rustling of silk. The Lapps, who also believe in the existence of this sound, compare it to the ‘cracking’ which may be heard in the joints of the reindeer when in movement.’

In 13thC Norway a long history of trying to understand the lights was ongoing. ‘The Kings Mirror’ carries a description of the northern lights in Greenland and sets out the thinking of the day - that the lights could be one of three things: the reflections of fires that encircle the outer ocean; or beams of light escaping from the sun as it sits beneath the earth; or ice glinting in the sky.

The nature of the lights puzzled observers and those who heard about them, the desire to understand them scientifically increased during spells of extreme auroral activity. Inspired by the 1716 display Sir Edmund Halley, famous for his meteor studies, published a paper on the lights.

In the 18thC the Swedish scientist Celsius, of the temperature scale, concluded that the Northern Lights had an effect on the needle of a compass. Other Nordic scientists continued slowly building up knowledge of the phenomenon which, as Lucy Jago says in her book The Northern Lights, the Scandinavians thought of as very much their own, and as such, theirs to explore and examine.

One Norwegian, Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917) made it his life’s work and made expeditions to set up auroral observatories. He built a machine to test his theory that a magnetised sphere would create luminousity when bombarded with electron particles.

He features on the Norwegian 200 Kroner banknote.

Investigations into the lights continue today. Solar scientist Pål Brekke says ‘The aurora never hurt a sailor or a farmer’. It is only as we become more electronically dependent that big aurorae can cause destruction. They can disrupt technology, warp compass reading and interfere with space explorations. NASA is engaged in a programme they say on their website will ‘allow the first comprehensive look at the onset of substorms and how they trigger auroral eruptions.’

A sounding rocket range in Andøya, an island in northern Norway, is used to send back information from inside aurorae as well as above them. Increased knowledge of solar activity can help predict intense auroral activity. You can now register with an aurora watch website who will phone you to let you know when the northern lights will be out.

In the north of Finland there is a hotel that employs a night watchman. Eyes to the skies, his job is to rouse hotel guests if there is a good display. The Northern Lights seem to feature on the ‘things to see before you die’ list. Further north, where aurorae are more frequent, the more intrepid tourist can raise their chances of a show. Travel companies offer trips specifically planned for aurora hunters.

There is a feeling that the lights represent the force of nature, an unspoilt beauty which locates itself in the north. Contemporary boreans embrace the strangeness inferred on the north by the lights, taking them as a symbol of remoteness.

There is a boreal romance attached to the lights. In our scientific age, it is a good thing to see the lights, they no longer portend danger and disaster, in fact for some northern communities they spell money.


Rebecca Marr