by Joan Marie Galat
Illustrated by Lorna Bennett
The magic light show that is the aurora–aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere–has delighted, terrified and perplexed cultures through the world for centuries. In Stories of the Aurora, her fifth book in the astronomical non-fiction series Dot to Dot in the Sky, Joan Marie Galat provides both the science behind the phenomena and the stories of ancient cultures told to explain them.
In addition to her discussion of plasma, magnetic fields, solar winds and the ionosphere, Joan Marie Galat shares with readers where and when to look for auroras, and how to find them. But, it’s Joan Marie Galat’s examination of the different links of the aurora stories to the spirit world, including as omens, dancing spirits or fires, and the six stories from various northern cultures that bring a new perspective to a well-explained sky phenomenon.
The Inuit believed that the aurora was associated with the spirits of the dead, perhaps playing a kicking game, and a representation of a level of heaven. The Norse have a story, here titled Skirnir’s Journey, in which Frey marries the frost giant maiden Gerda and it is their union that brings the lights dancing above the earth. Another Norse legend has the lights produced by the armour and shields of the Valkyries as they race across the sky to do Odin’s bidding. The Greeks believed that the glowing lights were as a result of the goddess of the dawn, Eos. The Wabanaki/Algonquin legend The Rainbow Belt relates how a chief follows his often-absent son and enters the Land of the Northern Lights where his son and others don bands around the heads and their waists that shine and stream wild lights as they play a ball game. Finally, in Land of Eternal Memory, the Mi’kmaq and French-Canadians tell of a young man touched by magic and his beloved fairy wife, saddened by a separation, who are taken to a place where no one forgets those for whom they care. There they are transformed into the aurora, shaking when they look down upon the Land of Forgetfulness, dancing with the joy of their togetherness.
Stories of the Aurora is an interesting take on a non-fiction topic, providing both the science and the fiction of the aurora. While I might have modified the organization of the text and filtered the stories to emphasize the origin tales of the aurora, the book balances the two aspects equitably and provides plenty of information for discussion of the subject.