Fearful omens

"It then happened that… there appeared horsemen charging in midair…charges and countercharges on this side and that, with brandished shields and bristling spears, flights of arrows and flashes of gold ornaments… Therefore, all prayed that this vision might be a good omen."
2 Maccabees, chap. 5, verses 1-4

Fearful omens
Where aurora were rare, their appearance portended omens, much like comets or meteor showers did.

People living far from the Arctic can only see the aurora on the rare occasion that it is powerful enough to reach their latitude. In these cases, the lower portion may be obscured by the curve of the earth and only the upper red portion visible. People were often horrified to see the northern sky glow the color of blood, believing it to be a harbinger of disaster or war.

The philosopher Seneca wrote of Romans during a rare, red aurora rushing off to save the port of Ostia thinking the town was ablaze. In 1583, thousands of French villagers made pilgrimages to the church in Paris after seeing "warnings from Heaven" and "fire in the air."

Violent battles
The aurora was also associated with battles; people imagined they saw warriors wielding drawn swords or spears clashing in the sky. The bible contains several accounts of visions that can probably be attributed to the aurora.
As late as 1716, tenants of the Earl of Derwentwater saw visions of his execution in a particularly bright, active aurora. Afterward, the aurora was known locally as Lord Derwentwater's Lights.

The King's Mirror
This famous Norwegian work was written in the mid 13th century. A prince interviews his father, the king, on various topics including the source of the northern lights. What makes this particular work interesting is that the aurora is discussed as a natural phenomenon rather than a mystical, supernatural one.

 


Medieval woodcut of
a European aurora
click to see larger image

Helpful Links
the King's Mirror
from the Society for
Medieval Military History


Red aurora
click to see larger image

 


The aurora as heavenly battle
click to see larger image
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Geophysical Institute
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site last modified: August 2003 maintained by Asahi Aurora Web Author