Just what exactly are the Northern Lights and how do they come to form?

Just what exactly are the Northern Lights and how do they come to form in the night sky? Where in Iceland is the best place to see them, and at what time of the year? Where else in the world aside from Iceland can you witness them? All these questions and more will be answered as we delve into the amazing science and mythology behind the Aurora Borealis.

If there’s one surefire way of putting life into perspective, it’s to look upon the Northern Lights. 

Having occurred long before mankind ever did, this spectacular solar phenomenon has only recently been deciphered by modern science, though it has long been of inherent fascination to the world’s people, with incredible myths and tales inspired by them and then delicately woven into the fabric of very different societies, bringing them together in ways never before expected. 

Travel bloggers like to regard the Northern Lights as a “Must-See” on the customer’s bucket list. And, while its true that seeing them feels beyond a privilege, the very idea of trying to commodify such a flamboyant and mysterious natural occurrence seems somewhat backwards.

The Northern Lights most commonly appear as luminescent green ribbon.

After all, they come and go as they please, with no promise of overstaying their welcome and with no apparent consideration for the money you spent trying to find them.

They may appear for a staggering three hours, or a disappointing three minutes. They may be green, purple, red and gold, or merely a dim shade of pine. I’m afraid there is no controlling an experience like this, and if you don’t believe me, ask a Northern Lights tour operator. They’ll tell you the same.

Still, it exists above us, even now, waving and invisible, full of hidden delight and powerful, kaleidoscopic energy. Those granted with the lights in all their majesty will be in a for a breathtaking experience, quite unlike anything else on earth. It is as if the night sky comes alive, as though it is communicating with you, personally. 

Little wonder then that the world’s ancient people considered the lights a little more ethereal than we do today. But what exactly was their interpretation of the light, and who were lucky enough to witness it?

The Northern Lights in Mythology 

The Northern Lights were considered a bridge to Valhalla in the Old Norse religion.Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Hermann Burghart (1834-1901).

Long before the dawn of modern science, the world’s ancient people looked to the glittering night sky with big, existential questions. Without an understanding of even basic astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, optics or geography, their understanding of and relationship with the universe was skewered, resembling nothing as to what is regarded as rationally legitimate today.

And yet, from this misunderstanding came a patchwork of fantastic myth, spread across a great range of cultures, all linked to what was collectively shared; the movement of the stars. From these myths came value ratified value systems, traditions, a means of interpreting, simplifying and understanding the complex nature of mankind’s place in the universe. 

The Northern Lights dancing over Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.

Regarding how the Northern Lights fits into all of this, well, in many cases, it plays a starring role. The Chinese, though rarely privy to the Aurora, considered the lights a battle of good and evil between two great dragons. The Inuits of North America interpreted them as a ball game played between their dead ancestors. In the place of a ball, they instead used a walrus head.

The Scottish, Irish, English and French all considered the lights an omen of coming strife, whilst alternatively, the Scandinavians associated them with bountiful fishing, painless childbirth and warmth. 

Greenlanders, rather depressively, considered the lights to be the souls of dead children, while the Finnish thought them either the glowing streak of a fire fox or the magical spume of water ejected from a whale. The Cree Indians believed them to be a reflection of the life cycle, an image of their ancestors dancing in the heavens. 

The Northern Lights over the Reykjanes Peninsula.

The Icelanders believed the lights to be about childbirth too. Women in labour were told to not look at the Northern Lights as they give birth for fear that the child would be born cross-eyed. But so too did they hold the aurora with spiritual esteem thanks to its prominence in Norse Mythology, the religion of Iceland’s earliest settlers.  

Commonly Asked Questions

Are the Aurora and the Northern Lights Different?

The Northern Lights refers to one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world, the aurora borealis. These Latin words refer to Aurora, Latin for sunrise and the name of the Roman Goddess of the dawn, and Borealis, the Greek name for the north wind. 

They are called the 'northern lights' because they are a glowing, flickering display of colours most commonly seen in the northern hemisphere. 

What colour are the Northern Lights?

The most common colour to see is fluorescent green, followed by orange and purple, and many shades of red, pink, blue and yellow. These colours are caused by gases in the air, mainly a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.

When do Northern lights happen?

The northern lights are similar to other weather patterns, in that they can be forecasted and need certain conditions to occur. They can happen anytime you have dark skies, anytime between dawn and dusk, and are least common in the summer months. They can occur all year round but are best seen between September and April.

Northern Lights over Jökulsárlón lagoon, found on Iceland's South Coast.

Where Can I See Northern lights in Iceland?

Anywhere... BUT... you do need clear skies in order to see them as the lowest altitude range of the Northern Lights is about 100 km above sea level.

It is also best to try and avoid light pollution, meaning that you should travel further away from urban settlements. Seeing the Northern Lights in the darkness of the Icelandic countryside is sure to be a phenomenal experience. It might also be wise to try and avoid seeing them at Full Moon. 

How do the Northern Lights happen?

The scientific explanation for why they happen is that energetically charged particles collide with atoms in high altitude atmospheres, and this solar wind is directed into the atmosphere by the Earth's magnetic field. 

A geomagnetic storm is a major part of space weather patterns and is caused by shock waves in the magnetic field, commonly associated with turbulent solar winds. It is caused by the temporary disturbance of the magnetosphere by an interplanetary medium

Where do Northern Lights appear?

They are more commonly called the northern lights because they are mostly visible from the northernmost countries, rarely occurring lower than at a 60°N latitude (and inversely, they are visible below the 60° S parallel too and are called southern lights or aurora australis).

The northern lights can easily be seen from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Northern Russia. During geomagnetic storms, the auroral zone is bigger and brighter, visible in lower altitudes (ie. some Baltic states or the British Isles), but the auroral zone is most active from 10° to 20° from the magnetic north pole. 

The Northern Lights above Gullfoss Waterfall, an attraction on the Golden Circle sightseeing route.

Did you enjoy our article What Are The Northern Lights? Did you manage to catch them when you were here? Make sure to leave your comments and thoughts in the Facebook box below. We look forward to seeing you in Iceland!