Throughout history, humans have gazed in awe at the astronomical wonder that is the aurora borealis. We’ve wondered what it is and told stories about the lights that shimmered above.
The Finnish name for the the northern lights is revontulet, meaning “fox fires.” Legend says that foxes made of fire lived in Lapland and their frisky tails whirled sparks into the sky. In Estonia, the name is virmalised, meaning spirit beings of higher realms. The Inuits of northern Greenland believed spirits were playing games, throwing a walrus skull across the sky. And now, scientists discovered the oldest known written record of the aurora, predating a previous finding by some three centuries. Researchers Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs, an independent researcher, and Hisashi Hayakawa from Nagoya University, found documentation in Chinese history, and published the findings in the journal Advances in Space Research.
The Earliest Recording
When solar wind, a stream of charged particles – protons and electrons – flow from the sun, and collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, it creates the northern lights. The particles crash into Earth’s ionsphere’s atoms and molecules releasing energy that visibly glows. The aurora can take different shapes (arcs, streaks, curtains) and colors (green, red, purple) depending on what atoms the solar wind collides with.
Van der Sluijs and Hayakawa found a passage in Chinese history called The Bamboo Annals, or Zhushu Jinian in Mandarin, that referenced these colors.
The passage, composed in the fourth century B.C., described a "five-colored light" in the northern part of the sky that occurred at the end of King Zhao of the Zhou dynasty's reign. Although researchers cannot pinpoint an exact date with certainty, they conclude that the Chinese saw the geomagnetic phenomena in the year 977 or 957 B.C. The Earth’s north magnetic pole, at that time, was known to have been inclined to the Eurasian side in the mid-10th century B.C. It was closer to central China by some 15 degrees than at present.
Therefore, it would have been possible for China’s king and all those in his sphere to see the aurora.
The Northern Lights Throughout History
References to the aurora have appeared throughout history, even in Stone Age cave paintings, dating back 30,000 years ago. In his book, Meteorology, written over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle described the aurora, saying "sometimes on a fine night we see a variety of appearance that form in the sky: ‘chasms’ for instance and ‘trenches’ and blood-red colors."
But prior to the Chinese passage, the earliest known recording of the northern lights happened around 679-655 B.C. Assyrian astronomers inscribed an aurora event on cuneiform tablets. Biblical accounts of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel described a vision that some scholars say resembles the northern lights. And the Babylonia King Nebuchadnezzar II noted an aurora in his astronomical diary dated 567 B.C.
Even in A.D. 34, Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar dispatched men to the Italian town of Ostia thinking it was burning in flames. It was not, and instead the aurora glowed overhead.
It wasn’t until 1619 though, that Galileo Galilei coined the term "aurora borealis." Derived from the Greek words "aurora" meaning "sunrise," and "boreas" meaning "wind," the Greeks believed Aurora to be the sister of Helios and Selene. Helios was the sun. Selene was the moon. It was Aurora who raced her colorful chariot across the sky to alert her siblings to the dawn of each day.
Later on, Henry Cavendish recorded the first scientific observations of the northern lights in 1790. Using triangulation, the French-born English scientist determined the aurora borealis occurred approximately 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. It was British astronomer Richard Carrington, in 1859, who linked the aurora borealis with the sun.
And even though Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, in the early 1900s, was the first to explain what caused the northern lights, Benjamin Franklin also had a theory on a ship sailing across the Atlantic. He noted a concentration of electrical charges in the North Pole that intensified by snow and moisture caused the lights.
From cave people to the king of China, from Roman emperors to our founding fathers, human kind has long looked up at the aurora in awe and documented proof of it.