I made two trips to see the Northern Lights, because the first was unsuccessful. During the first, unsuccessful trip, our guide was a cheerful middle-aged Icelander who seemed to have a great love for the Northern Lights. Our tour guides on both nights gave us an explanation of the science underlying the phenomenon and on the first night our guide was particularly interested in explaining the details. He was halfway through describing the role sunspots play in generating charged particles when our bus passed a pair of large rocks on the side of the road, and he broke off his explanation to tell us about the other half of Icelandic natural lore, with a tale of the elves who lived in the rocks.

The elves and the motorway
When the motorway was built it was only two lanes wide, so in the ’70s it had to be widened. The process of widening the road would have put the two huge rocks squarely in the median strip between the two sides of the road, and this would be a huge problem. The rocks were home to a couple of elves, and it would be unseemly to expect them to cross the motorway. The rocks would have to be moved. So, as any sensible road-building company would, the engineers called in a local resident with knowledge of elves, and she (?) gave them the advice they needed to move the rocks outside the motorway in a sufficiently respectful manner. Our guide explained to us that “only” about 20% of Icelanders believe in elves, but the rest of Icelandic society respects this belief and try wherever possible to be respectful around places where elves are believed to live “as if we were in someone else’s garden.”

He then went on to explain the effect of charged particles on the excitation states of atoms, and the role of valence band transition in determining the colour of the aurora. Once he had got through that he gave some theories the Icelandic people came up with to explain the aurora before the advent of atomic science. They actually came charmingly close: one theory held that the aurora was caused by glaciers re-radiating light captured during the day. But my favorite theory, which he explained on the way home, links the aurora with the milky way and Viking religion, and I think includes a much nicer explanation for the milky way than the greeks gave us.

The winter road
Icelanders call the milky way the “winter road,” because it is only visible in winter. This is because of the high longitude, but actually when we saw it the milky way was stunning, really like a road paved with stars rather than a faint smattering of stars (of course you can’t see it at all in Tokyo[1]). So the early Vikings saw this and imagined that the Winter Road was the path that their warriors took to Valhalla. They then guessed that the Valkyrie met the warriors halfway, and the Northern Lights are the reflection of the valkyrie’s radiance from the warriors’ armour.

I think that’s much more romantic than milk sprayed from a jealous goddess’s breast. Iceland itself is a romantic, wild and majestic place, and its history seems to merge with myth in some ways, lending its politics and culture a similar air of romance. I’ll be saying more about this soon, and also talking about historical Iceland as a role-playing setting.

fn1: actually the clarity of light in Iceland and the purity of the water really is stunning, and has me thinking that we who live in more polluted countries really underestimate the value of clean air. In the debate about nuclear power, for example, opponents of nukes tend to assign clean air a very low value in their arguments, even though air pollution is a significant cause of mortality. Iceland with it’s entirely renewable power system, low population density, and atlantic winds to blow away car exhausts, has incredibly clean air and water, and it’s noticeable as soon as you arrive here. It’s amazing, actually.