The Northern Lights and the Dragon

An image from 1533 (before Galileo coined the term “Aurora Borealis”) which depicts the “wondrous dragons” that were seen in the air coursing through the night sky over a town in Germany.

Recently, a coronal hole rounded the surface of the Sun, stirring up the solar wind so that, as the wind raced earthward, scientists posted forecasts for possible geomagnetic storms, the kind that can cause beautiful displays of the aurora, or northern lights.

In the poet’s world, the aurora are not associated just with the sun, but with dragons and serpents and monsters that slink through the northern night sky and which threaten those who see them ~ but as elusive and disintegrative realities, all they can do is threaten:

Shakespeare described the aurora as dragons cutting through the night in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; the American poet Wallace Stevens described them as a serpent shedding its shimmering skin, with eyes open and fixed on us from every sky; and Robert Service experienced them as monsters reveling in the sky in his “Ballad of the Northern Lights”.

So we sewed him up in a canvas sack and we slung him to a tree;
And the stars like needles stabbed our eyes, and woeful men were we.
And on we went on our woeful way, wrapped in a daze of dream,
And the Northern Lights in the crystal nights came forth with a mystic gleam.
They danced and they danced the devil-dance over the naked snow;
And soft they rolled like a tide upshoaled with a ceaseless ebb and flow.
They rippled green with a wondrous sheen, they fluttered out like a fan;
They spread with a blaze of rose-pink rays never yet seen of man.
They writhed like a brood of angry snakes, hissing and sulphur pale;
Then swift they changed to a dragon vast, lashing a cloven tail.
It seemed to us, as we gazed aloft with an everlasting stare,
The sky was a pit of bale and dread, and a monster revelled there.

When the dragon or serpent or monster showed up, it was usually a sign that, despite the potential threat, an opportunity was at hand for those able to read the sign, and act with ready willingness. Such action was always met with great reward. And though the dragon constellation Draco is always overhead (with eyes open and fixed on us in every sky according to Stevens), he seems to be in static pose, until he starts breathing fiery color on the winds of dawn.

German poet and scientist Goethe described the same kind of idea in a scene in his Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, which is a fitting thought as we move through the current solar wind storm, as as we enter deeper into the darkness of the season. Goethe wrote:  “The old Man looked to the stars, and then began speaking: “We are assembled at the propitious hour; let each perform his task, let each do his duty; and a universal happiness will swallow-up our individual sorrows, as a universal grief consumes individual joys.”

You can read Goethe’s Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily at this link.

You can hear my weekly radio segment on the dragon and aurora on Interlochen Public Radio, at this link.

May you have good luck chasing the elusive color, and goodwill in the finding, for then the responsibility for beauty in the world be yours!