Until relatively recently, astrology was one of the most important methods by which people predicted the future. In a world in which the gods were presumed to dwell above us, unusual astral events were considered to be humanity’s most efficient tool by which to understand the state of the universe. If you want to know what will happen in the future you should look to the stars.
The Mayans predicted eclipses; Halley’s Comet was considered a “portent” of the Norman conquest of England; an eclipse accompanied the death of Jesus; and, most famously, a star guided the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Certain atmospheric phenomenon like the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) have been associated with death and destruction for millennia. Now, scientists working on ancient accounts of star-gazing have discovered the earliest reference to the Northern Lights in a very unexpected location.
The authors of a new study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, have announced that they discovered references to a “red sky” and “red glow” in ancient Assyrian tablets from Mesopotamia housed at the British Museum in London. The descriptions, the lead researcher astrophysicist Hisashi Hayakawa told Livescience, “are quite consistent with the early modern descriptions of auroral display.” The descriptions of this phenomenon were found on three tablets that date to between 679 and 655 B.C. The next earliest reference is a Babylonian text known as the “Astronomical Diaries” which dates to the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II about a century later on the 12/13 March 567 B.C. And just like the Assyrian tablets, the Babylonian account refers to a “red glow” in the sky.
Given that, today, the Northern and Southern lights appear around the earth’s magnetic poles, we might wonder how it is even possible that someone in the ancient Near East (a region roughly equivalent to Iraq-Turkey) could possibly have seen these lights? Indeed, the ethereal glow of the Auroras is the result of collisions between electrons from the magnetosphere (the area controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field) and oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere. In other words, the magnetic field is important. The different colors of the lights are the result of whether or not the electrons crash into oxygen or nitrogen and how energetic the collision actually is: oxygen produces either a green-yellow light or a red light and nitrogen emits a blue light.
The answer is that because the Earth’s magnetic field is in flux, magnetic north was closer to the ancient near east 2500 years ago than it is today. Approximately 10 degrees closer, in fact. The shifts in the magnetic field makes it more likely that the Aurora Borealis would have been visible to ancient Assyrians. The red glow described in the cuneiform tablets may well be the kinds of low-altitude auroras produced by low-energy collisions of electrons and oxygen.
As late as the early modern period, said Hayakawa, it was “not something extremely surprising to see aurorae in the Middle East.” They are recorded in Alexandria, Cairo, and Baghdad in the 19th century. The fact that descriptions of a red sky appear so rarely in astronomical texts suggests that the phenomenon described in the tablets is not simply the kind of vivid red sky we sometimes see at sunset.
For ancient astronomers, who worked without the benefit of telescopes, phenomena like this would have had enormous significance. Some North American Inuit call the auroras aqsarniit (or ‘ball players’) because they believe that the auroras are the spirits of the dead playing football with the head of a walrus. Other Alaskan legends attest to the belief that the Northern Lights were a series of torches that lit the narrow pathway to heaven for the souls of the deceased. Further south, the Algonquin held that they were a fire lit by the creator god, Nanahbozho, as a sign that he was watching over him.
In France and Italy, by contrast, the red lights were supposed to be a bad omen that predicted death, usually in the form of disease or death. Similarly, in the British Isles, an appearance of the red glow of the Northern Lights in Scotland and England in the 18th century was seen as a prediction of the bloodshed of the French Revolution. But the bad fortune predicted by the lights could be more specific and augur the death of a particularly powerful individual. In the northern part of England the lights were known as Lord Darwentwatter’s leets (lights) because they shone brightly on the eve of the third Earl of Darwentwatter’s execution in 1716. There was a general sense, therefore, that the appearance of the Northern Lights brought with it ill-fortune.
This is not to say that every European culture has associated the Northern Lights with misfortune. Fishermen in Sweden have held that the lights are the reflection of schools of herring and a prediction of good fishing conditions the following day. People in Estonia believed that the Auroras were sleighs taking wedding guests to a celebration in the heavens.
If all of this sounds a bit hokey bear in mind that traces of our affection for the stars persist even today. Eclipses still have a certain mystical quality to them; shooting stars are seen as especially lucky; and even ordinary stars are the occasion for wishes. And this is before we get into the cultural valence of Scorpio season, the emotional consequences of Mercury being in retrograde, or the concept that everyone can be divided into one of twelve Greek-mythology derived signs of the zodiac that determine both our personalities and our future.