What Is the Classical Origin of the Aurora Borealis?

Who Named the Northern Lights after Greek and Roman Gods?

Apollo and Aurora (1671) by Gérard de Lairesse. Wiki Commons, Public Domain

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, takes its name from two classical deities, even though it was neither an ancient Greek nor Roman who gave us that name.

Galileo's Classical Notion

In 1619, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei coined the term “Aurora Borealis” for an astronomical phenomenon observed mostly at very high latitudes: shimmering bands of color arcing across the night sky. Aurora was the name for the goddess of the dawn according to the Romans (known as Eos and usually described as "rosy-fingered" by the Greeks), while Boreas was the god of the north wind.

Although the name reflects Galileo’s Italian worldview, the lights are part of the oral history of most of the cultures in the latitudes in which the Northern Lights are seen. The indigenous peoples of America and Canada have traditions related to the auroras. According to regional mythology, in Scandinavia, the Norse god of winter Ullr was said to have produced the Aurora Borealis to illuminate the longest nights of the year. One myth among the caribou hunter Dene people is that reindeer originated in the Aurora Borealis.

Early Astronomical Reports

A Late Babylonian cuneiform tablet dated to the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II [ruled 605-562 BCE] is the earliest known reference to the Northern Lights. The tablet contains a report from a royal astronomer of an unusual red glow in the sky at night, on a Babylonian date corresponding to the March 12/13 567 BCE. Early Chinese reports include several, the earliest dated to 567 CE and 1137 CE.

Five examples of multiple simultaneous auroral observations from East Asia (Korea, Japan, China) have been identified in the last 2,000 years, occurring on the nights of January 31, 1101; October 6, 1138; July 30, 1363; March 8, 1582; and March 2, 1653.

An important classical Roman report comes from Pliny the Elder, who wrote of the aurora in 77 CE, calling the lights a "chasma" and describing it as a "yawning" of the night sky, accompanied by something that looked like blood and fire falling to earth.

Southern European records of the Northern Lights begin as early as the 5th century BCE.

The earliest recorded possible viewing of the Northern Lights may be "impressionistic” cave drawings which could depict auroras flaming in the night sky.

Scientific Explanation

These poetic descriptions of the phenomenon belie the astrophysical origin of the aurora borealis (and its southern twin, the aurora australis. They are the closest and most dramatic example of space phenomena.  Particles from the sun, which may emerge in a steady stream called the solar wind or in giant eruptions known as coronal mass ejections, interact with magnetic fields in the upper atmosphere of Earth. These interactions cause oxygen and nitrogen molecules to release photons of light.