Today’s auroras are a relatively peaceful phenomenon – whether they take the form of gently dancing curtains of light, a quiescent, reddish ‘cloud’, or spectacular rays of light, they are more likely to enthrall than terrorise the people watching from polar latitudes. Appearances can be misleading, as scientists are finding out in recent years.
Modern research on the potential effects of intense solar Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) on the earth and an ever-growing awareness of the possibility of extreme geomagnetic storms seem to rekindle interest in the so-called ‘Carrington Event’ of 1859, when “skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras”, causing severe damage to the telegraph networks of the time. Between then and 1958, altogether 6 well-documented auroras were strong enough to be visible within 30º or indeed 20º of the equator.
Crucially, various peoples have preserved memories of the potential intensity of the polar lights. Motifs that specialists in folklore and religions routinely dismiss as quaint curiosities of a superstitious past can equally be read as cultural adaptations of genuine and reliable recollections of natural events. Such motifs typically postulate an intimate connection of the auroras with divine beings or ‘ancestors’ and times when the world passed through a phase of destruction and renewed creation. …
Francis Eagle Heart Cree (1920/1921-2007), elder and song keeper of the Ojibwe, North Dakota, often used to tell about the northern lights – that his people referred to them as the ‘ancestors’; that our day corresponds to their night and vice versa; and that many ancestors had been literally drawn up into the sky in order to live on in the lights.
In June 2003, during the preparations for the so-called ‘Thirsty Dance’ performed in the Turtle Mountains, Francis revealed that there had been a time when the northern lights were all over, much larger and all-encompassing, and would come closer to the ground, touching it frequently. According to him, today’s thunders, lightning and northern lights are what remain from a time “when the Thunderbirds hovered overhead and carried away the ancestors if you threatened or got too close to them. … the earliest songs came from them, not the animals. The pulsing, reverberant, humming, chanting Ooowwwmmm, hiii, heyyy, . . . is the sound the Thunderbird auroras made.”
During this era, the whole atmosphere was active and animate, and the few plasma phenomena we see today are mere remnants of the “Sky Dancers” of olden times. Coming from a man who was never exposed to formal western education and stood in an age-old, unbroken lineage of cultural continuity, this testimony forms a striking parallel to the Australian belief that the polar lights used to be much more powerful in the past.