Lover of the Light Feeling the Northern lights

The Aurora Polaris - a natural phenomenon of absolute beauty. The Earth attracts matter from the sun which travels at enormous speeds through space and sucks it in at the policies, subsequently creating the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis. Colliding with particles in our upper atmosphere at some 150 miles above the surface the aurora creates a shimmering spectacle, a curtain of light which has amazed and astounded mankind for thousands of years. I have been fortunate enough as a travel photographer who loves the cold to shoot the beautiful Aurora in Iceland, Lapland and Svalbard, and I'd love to share some of my images with you.

The aurora drawing across the sky towards me - seen here in Longyearden, Spitsbergen.

In the high Arctic Circle, which begins at 66º33'N, the winter can be a long, long time. When you reach higher latitudes the hours of darkness get longer and longer until you reach a point where the sun sets in late October and doesn't rise again until February. 24 hours of darkness for months on end can cause chaos on the human mind and throw peoples body clocks way out of sync, and yet in the settlements up at these extreme latitudes life goes on as normal for those who stay behind rather than relocating during the dark times. This constant darkness creates perfect conditions for Aurora hunters, and the more darkness you experience, the more chances you have of seeing the lights dance across the skies. The aurora can shine at any time of the day or night, but we can only see it during the hours of darkness. The permanent darkness of the Arctic winter means that it can appear at any time and illuminate the landscape, which provides a much needed relief to the people and animals underneath. One such example of animals who are extremely hardened to the cold and are fortunate enough to see the Aurora every time it falls are Icelandic Horses. These horses are as tough as they come and endure all manner of weather conditions. They even have their own gait, unmatched by any other type of horse, which allows them to comfortably move around on a difficult terrain. I often wonder what these horses think of the Aurora when they see them during the winter of each year - whether they appreciate it's beauty or if it's just another fact of life for them.

The Northern Lights have been mentioned throughout history and the beliefs that have been associated to them by each culture have altered and evolved wildly. The first written record is from China some 4,600 years ago.

Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area.

Ancient Greek essayist, who wrote for Greek and Roman cultures, wrote of the Aurora in 467BC

During seventy days there was an enormous and furious figure in the sky. It was like a flaming cloud, which did not stay at it's position but moved windingly and regularly, so that the glowing fragments were flying in all directions and fire was blazing as the comets do

The Aurora even gets a mention in the Old Testament of the Bible. Here is an extract from Ezekiel, 1:4

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the sky

Which, to be honest, is an accurate description which I absolutely wouldn't agree with. The Aurora, once it begins, appears from nowhere and dances in various forms across the sky. It illuminates in red, green and blue, and the colour is determined by the gas particles being excited in our atmosphere. It has forms which range from streaks across the sky through to coronal stacks or apparently straight lines rising straight up into space.

The light emerges here from behind the mountainous terrain of Svalbard at 78ºN

It's worth noting the cultural mythology associated to the Aurora, which is filled with fascinating explanations of what makes the lights dance, is almost as spectacular as the lights themselves.

The Sámi people occupy an area of the Arctic which is modern day Lapland. This indigenous culture make use of the land and roam constantly to find food for their vast herds of reindeer, each identified from tribe to tribe by unique ear markings. While roaming Northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, they have likely had an unparalleled proximity to the Northern Lights in comparison with the rest of humankind. Their legends surrounding the Aurora are plentiful, but perhaps most interestingly they believe that when the lights are in the sky one must behave solemnly and respectfully owing to the assertion that the lights were thought to comprise the energies of the souls of the dead, which meant that bad fortune awaited anyone who showed them disrespect.

The Aurora in the land of the Sámi over Lake Inari in Finnish Lapland

I have a habit I've developed when looking for the Aurora, which I'm not ashamed to admit. I sing Pray by Take That, sometimes at the top of my lungs, because rightly or wrongly there appears to me to be a correlation between me singing that and the Aurora appearing. I'll point out, however, that on my most recent Aurora mission I was singing Pray and the lights came out, then I started to sing Nothing Compares To You and they suddenly exploded and filled the entire night sky, so I may be reassessing my tactic. But the point is this - had I been caught singing by a Sámi person then perhaps they wouldn't have been too impressed with me. They say that if you whistle a tune under the Aurora you would summon them closer and closer until they picked you up and took you away with their energy! The Sámi beliefs about the lights aren't solely negative, however. They are considered to be full of the power to aid conflict resolution and have been relied upon to settle feuds.

When viewed from directly underneath, as here in Svalbard, the lights appear to shoot off in all directions in a Corona

In China the lights were believed to be the fiery breath of Dragons fighting in the sky. In Japanese cultures it is believed that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good fortune for the duration of their life. The Eskimos of Eastern Greenland call the lights 'Alugsukat' which means 'Secret birth.' Estonian mythology says that the lights are said to occur when a celestial war is taking place and what you are seeing is the reflections of the sleighs and horses racing across the skies. In Scotland the lights are called 'Fir Chlis' which translates from Gaelic as 'The Merry Dancers.' The

The Fox Indians of Wisconsin saw the Northern Lights as an ill omen. They feared the lights, believing that they were the ghosts of slain enemies awaiting their deadly revenge. The Algonquain Indians didn't have such a negative view of the lights. They believed that after Nanahbozho created the Earth he travelled to the far north where he built great fires, the light from which reflected southwards to remind people of his everlasting love. The Makah Indians also believed the lights were caused by fire, but this time created by dwarfs lighting bright, colourful fires. The Mandan Indians believed the lights were fires upon which soldiers from the northern lands were slowly cooking their dead enemies in huge pots.

Is Nanahbozho showing his everlasting love?

In Estonian mythology the lights are said to shine when a celestial war is taking place. Another Estonian legend connects the lights to whales playing in the sky. The Eskimos of Labrador believe the lights to be torches lit by the dead who were playing football in the heavens. The word for the lights there is 'aksarnirq' which translates to 'ball player', and in this case the call is a walrus skull. Further west, the Eskimos of the Lower Yukon believed the lights were the graceful dance of animal spirits. The Eskimos of the Hudson Bay had a more negative view, however. They believe that the lights are the spilled light from the lanterns of demons searching for tragic lost souls.

A selfie while I waited for the dance to move toward me at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

My favourite stories of the Aurora come from the Scandic countries. The general Scandinavian explanation is that the dancing whirls of green light are a reflection of huge shoals of herring in the sea. Whenever the lights were visible, fishermen were expected to be blessed with good catches. Over in Sweden a winter with frequent displays of the lights served to predict a good yield of crops the following year. Norse mythology connects the lights with war. It was believed that the lights appeared when sunlight reflected on the shiny shields of the Valkyries who were racing across the sky on their way to their resting place, Valhalla. In Svalbard the lights are barely referred to and it's the setting sun reflecting from beyond the horizon of the flat Earth which is accountable for the lights. Icelanders believed that the presence of the lights would ease the pain of childbirth, but it isn't all good news for mothers. They also thought that pregnant women who looked at the lights would give birth to cross eyed children. In Norwegian folklore the lights were thought to be the spirits of old maids dancing in the sky. My favourite explanation comes from Finland. A Finnish myth explains the lights as being a magical Arctic Fox sweeping it's tail across the snow and sending snow crystals up to the heavens, resulting in a spectacular light show. In fact, the Finnish name for the Northern Lights, revontulet, translates to 'Fox Fires.'

One of nature's most spectacular displays, the Aurora, is named after the Greek Goddess of dawn. It's technically challenging to photograph, often very elusive, and every time I see it I dance with joy and a beaming grin takes over my face. Whatever myth or legend is ascribed to this incredible, mesmerising phenomenon, I shall forever walk with my gaze turned skyward in awe and wonder

Created By
David Williams


Photography Copyright David Williams 2014/15/16

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