The time is a few minutes past midnight, on the night between the seventeenth and the eighteenth of August; the place, Svinøya, an outlying island close to the town of Svolvær, the unofficial capital and most populous locale of the Arctic archipelago of Lofoten in northern Norway. I am standing by a bench on the tip of a breakwater, facing the city’s waterfront. Next to me is my colleague Heinrich, a South African who, by a succession of unlikely events has ended up, like me, working in the tourism industry of this Scandinavian nation.
Tomorrow isn’t just a normal day at work, it is the season’s last cruise ship and our employer sent us from our home of Tromsø all the way down to Lofoten; an eight hour car ride through some of the most stunning vistas there are which I have done too many time to count, but not enough not to be amazed — every single time — by the wild majesty of its landscape. The ride was in and of itself uneventful, and we got into town early, ate well (codfish pizzas, a local specialty) and looked forward to the next day’s tour. With the forecast promising fiery temperatures (21° Celsius/ 70° Fahrenheit) and continued clear skies for tomorrow, we both waited in anticipation, not only for the fat paycheck that comes with such assignments, but also to see if this beautiful summer weather might make our wealthy North American patrons loosen their purses further than usual when tipping. But until then and before going to bed, Heinrich and I have some time to kill, and we decide to go to Svinøya to hunt for the northern lights.The northern lights, or aurora borealis, have held a very special place in both my worldview and my day-to-day life all the way since I moved from the scorching shores of the Mediterranean to their comparatively more frigid Arctic counterparts. While prior to this move I certainly knew about their existence, I wasn’t especially interested in them or even really enthused about soon being able to stare at their luminous, heavenly shapes. Still, I do clearly remember the very first time I saw them, seven years or so ago.
While riding the bus back home one evening, I unaffectedly directed my gaze at the sky, to discover, to my great surprise, where grayish clouds would normally stand, a green arrow of light pierced the horizon. Upon realizing that what I was seeing wasn’t an arrow cast by Apollo’s mighty silver bow but the aurora borealis, I threw myself out of the bus and ran to a friend’s house where we spent a good hour silently gazing at greenish arches, spikes and other moving figures morphing into each other, illuminating the eastern sky.
Over the following couple of years, I became more and more involved with the northern lights, not only regularly seeing them in the winter night, but actively seeking them, informing others about the phenomena and, since 2011, professionally guiding guests to see what, in the northern lights hunter jargon we simply call, “the lights.”
As a northern lights guide, I am generally expected to, well, talk about the aurora. Most often tourists get very quickly down to business and want to know all about the practical aspects of the lights: What are they? How can we find them? Where and when is the best place/time to see them? How to photograph them, etc., but when one is expected to guide a six- to seven-hour-long tour, researching and finding extra information (“ammunition,” in the guiding jargon) can always be useful; this is how I started to look more closely into the folklore and mythology of the northern lights.
After going through the relatively limited pool of sources on the subject (an area which would benefit from further research), it appears that in many mythologies and folk belief systems, the northern lights were associated with the ancestors, the gods, and the hereafter. In the Inuit homelands, for example, the aurora was most often seen as an aerial ball game played by the spirits of the dead either with a walrus head, a human head or even stillborns’ afterbirths! In medieval Russian chronicles, the lights were described as heavenly armies fighting each other, an image that can be traced back all the way to the Roman Empire and the fourth century writer Julius Obsequies. To go back to the Arctic, the people of the Tlingit nation of southern Alaska believed that the aurora was the light of torches lit by the fallen dwelling in the heaven of Kee-wa-kow-anne to guide the souls of those who died a violent death.There is no doubt that Pagan and Polytheist peoples hold or held the northern lights in high esteem, regardless of what they believed them to be. Such a sacralization of what is, according to modern science, a chemical reaction between solar and gas particles in the high atmosphere is remarkable and even extends in some cases to Christian philosophy and mysticism. The author and Christian minister Harald Falck-Ytter, for instance, saw in the aurora a symbolic reflection of the Holy Spirit, whose at first unfathomable, yet very corporeal nature is gradually revealed to humankind as it progresses towards its destiny.
Even for non-religious people the aurora remains not just a sight to behold, but often the symbol of something greater. How many times have I witnessed guests literally losing all composure at the view of particularly well-defined northern lights? Most people, I have noticed, react to such lights in a similar manner: a mixture of awe, excitement, hysteria and frostbite.
“The northern lights are killing me,” an American tourist of mine once stated, a feeling that I can confirm, is shared by others. Indeed, every winter, thousands upon thousands of travelers are starting to head to our Arctic wasteland to pay up to several hundreds of dollars (the Norwegian industry rate amounts to about 120 dollars per person per tour) in what is increasingly referred to as a modern-day pilgrimage.
When the “hunting season” finally arrives, various plans and schemes are devised, friendly rivalry between guides flares up anew and new recruits are introduced to the bizarre ritual of northern lights-hunting in which individuals compete to find the best frostbitten night spot to gaze at illuminated winter skies. Because it is impossible to know if such a “hunt” will be successful on the grounds of weather, solar activity, and ultimately, plain old luck, one simply must surrender to fate, a fate that can sometimes be cruel, but which is much more often than not generous beyond comprehension. I can barely count the number of times when I was dead certain that the aurora would snub us, only to be proven wrong when in the middle of the woods, on an isolated mountain pass, and even in cases of severe snowstorm the lights finally appeared in all of their glory.
While not every auroral display qualifies as a life changing experience, a moderately strong northern lights storm is enough to bring sheer happiness and life-warmth to any onlooker. Most northern lights hunters, especially in the lower echelons of the industry, are people driven by a sheer passion that is generally referred to as the “green-fever,” a moniker perfectly fitting for the frenzy inhabiting many of us during the aurora season; every opportunity to watch, photograph or experience the northern lights in any way possible becomes more of a duty than a mere obsession, and missing a especially beautiful display feels more like a fault than just a missed opportunity. Even for the casual onlooker, such a devotion would appear as rather peculiar.As far as I am concerned, I personally know how much I am indebted to the lights. For now five winters, chasing the elusive aurora has been my main, and sometimes sole, source of income. When I moved to Iceland back in 2013, my only plan for survival was to find work as a northern lights hunter. Discard that, and I would probably not have been able to live there anymore and continue my studies in old Norse religion. A class comrade of mine, Josh Rood, editor of the Óðroerir Heathen journal, whom I took with me on a few tours once joked that the northern lights were the very source of my life force, considering that without them, I could not even afford to eat, let alone pay the rent.
Not that the job pays fantastically, mind you; most northern lights hunters, myself included, make barely enough to survive and could only compete, at best, with grocery store clerks and waiters if one’s employer is honest or competent enough. Yet there is still something that keeps me, and I can only guess, others, going back, year after year, winter after winter. Could it be an age-old remembrance of our once Pagan beliefs and worldview, in which not only the aurora, but various natural phenomena and nature itself were viewed as sacred by all? What pushes so many to reach the end of the world to simply look at the skies?
Back in Svinøya, Heinrich and I were certainly not engaging in such a deeply philosophical conversation. Waiting like sitting ducks for an aurora that clearly was not going to show herself, we passed the time by drinking some locally-produced brews and jeering at the drunken teenagers enjoying one of the very few warm evenings of the year sitting just a few yards away. At midnight, theoretically the darkest moment of the night, the northern half of the sky was still milky white and its darker, southern counterpart was illuminated by the brightest of full moons. Only in the uppermost edge of the sky was the sky dark enough to reveal a handful of stars and thus possibly and in theory, northern lights as well; but, as nothing happened and the beer supplies inevitably dwindled into oblivion, we made the decision to leave.
Mere moments afterwards, Heinrich, whose superior eyesight enables him to engage with the outside world without the help of glasses, stops and points to the jet-black southern sky. Far away on the horizon, a subtle arch appears, soon heading closer to us and taking the form of a downward spiral of pale-green color: the aurora has shown herself at last, almost two months before the beginning of the season. Ecstatic, we grab our DSLR cameras and start shooting, our hearts pumping with excitement and raw, unaltered joy. Finally we, Heinrich, the anti-theist existentialist and I, the ever-questioning Pagan, agree that this is a good sign for the coming season and head back to the hotel. The super-rich Americans will have one more story to hear in the tour bus tomorrow.After half a decade of hunting for the elusive lights, and likely hundreds of sightings, I came to the conclusion that the main reason people from all walks of life, over the whole world head towards the far north to experience the shimmering spectacle of the aurora borealis stems from a desire to reconnect with nature and the primordial wilderness. As a more and more significant proportion of the world’s population moves to large cities in which engaging with nature is all but a romantic and sadly, futile dream, our psyche somehow calls us back away from this sterile modernity and exhorts us to look back at what was ours, and what we once were a part of.
Not only are the northern lights a potent reminder of our pre-modern and pre-monotheist past in the form of the gods, the ancestors and the afterlife, they can only be adequately experienced in the wild, where the artificial city lights are nowhere to be seen and cannot stop us from focusing our sights beyond our immediate and bustling environment. Around this potent, almost mystical attraction has developed not only a multimillion-dollar industry but a whole subculture; a stiflingly dynamic subculture; a sky-gazing subculture; a nature-worshiping subculture; a Pagan subculture? Mayhaps, depending on who you ask, but in my aurora-drenched eyes at least, nothing is more certain.