As early as spring, people may spot an increasing number of teams coming
and going from the Arctic, in the name of atmospheric research. Researchers
aren't unusual in the north, of course. But while most scientists come to
the Arctic for issues related to geology, climatology and biology, the
latest teams will probably be arriving to study that most ancient and
breathtaking of northern phenomena: the arsarniit (also rendered in English
as aqsarnit). This phenomenon is known to southern peoples as the aurora
borealis, or the "northern lights."
Since the arsarniit are a planetary phenomenon, rather than a
climatological one, they are older by far than even the cold which we
consider so "Arctic" today. They play over our heads today; but hundreds of
millions of years ago, they played over the heads of north-adapted
dinosaurs, over the lush greenery of long-extinct plants. As most modern
people know, the arsarniit result from gases interacting with loose
electrons and ions in the atmosphere -- one of the reasons a solar flare
makes for a particularly entertaining light show. But pre-modern peoples,
unsurprisingly, had vastly different theories of what the arsarniit are.
The shifting movements of the lights have inspired most cultures to opt for
an explanation of them as dancers or gamers. Celtic peoples, for example,
referred to them as the fir chlis, or the "nimble men" or "merry dancers."
It was believed that these were fairy clans gaming for the favor of their
In Scotland, it was observed that particularly strong arsarniit activity
made the local stones seem reddish; this was considered a sign that the
game had gotten too rough, becoming a conflict in which fairy blood fell to
the ground. Nevertheless, tradition predominantly depicts the arsarniit as
more game than battle. Thus, the Irish poet William Allingham, in "The
"Going up with music on cold starry nights
To feast with the Queen of the gay Northern Lights."
Inuit beliefs regarding the arsarniit were in many ways similar. Inuit,
too, believed that the arsarniit in fact represented a great spiritual
game. Most people assume that the Inuktitut term arsarniit directly
translates into northern lights, but this couldn't be further from the
truth. In fact, the word is devoid of even the vaguest reference to light.
The root of the word is actually arsaq, the ball in a traditional game that
has been called "Inuit football," but is really more akin to rugby. This
arsaq (which is traditionally constructed from seal or caribou hide) is a
pivotal feature in the pre-colonial Inuit belief concerning the arsarniit,
since it is approximately the size of a walrus head: The arsarniit
themselves are the ancestral dead, whose spirits play with their "walrus
head" throughout eternity. In other words, they are playing with an arsaq.
Translated in the most literal way, arsarniit would actually mean something
like "of the many ball players."
As with the Celtic beliefs, there are elements both musical and potentially
gruesome to the Inuit arsarniit tradition. Pre-colonial Inuit believed, for
example, that if one whistled to the arsarniit long enough, they would
gradually drift lower. Whistlers be warned, however: Keep up the whistling
for too long, and the arsarniit will dive down, severing your head from
your shoulders in one fell swoop.
While this may seem like a rather horrific belief, Inuit have the best
reasons of perhaps all peoples to feel a sense of awe concerning the
arsarniit; while they appear as little more than a ghostly glow where they
are seen in southern climes, the lights appear directly over the heads of
those who live in the north. There, they appear like great, green ribbons,
stretching from one horizon to another. As they swell in size, they ripple
and swirl, edged with dancing whorls of pink and violet. Most eerily, they
hiss and crackle, like an invisible congress of voices babbling above.
In modern times, the arsarniit have always made for a pretty show, but have
elicited little spiritual or scientific interest. Scientists, for example,
have known for quite some time that radio waves directed at the arsarniit
produce scant amounts of light, but too little for the naked eye to see.
This has all changed, however. Last year, researchers from Cornell
University and the Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts directed radio
bursts at an especially low part of the arsarniit -- at about 100
kilometers, where ions dissipate more quickly than at higher altitudes. As
with whistlers piping aloud until those arsarniit finally swoop, the radio
bursts caused the northern lights to manifest odd green speckles that have
never been reported before. So, with this new proof that radio can cause
visible change in the aurora borealis, researchers are interested in seeing
if they can replicate the effect. If so, this might arm them with a useful
new tool for studying, perhaps even predicting, climate change.
Lately, a less subtle occurrence has been observed in regard to the ball
players in the sky: The arsarniit are actually moving. Soon, they may leave
the eastern Arctic entirely, where they may be visible only from the
Alaskan coast and Siberia. Even the most conservative of scientists seem to
agree that this presages change for the planet itself, and may be the first
signs of an inevitable polar shift -- magnetic north becoming south, as it
was in the ancient past.
It is not difficult to imagine how the angakkuit -- the shamans -- of long
ago would interpret such events: They would say that some dread event
provoked the ball players to take their arsaq game elsewhere. The ancestors
of many cultures have ever stood beneath the arsarniit, wondering,
regarding it through a spiritual lens. But when younger eyes regard those
players in the sky, they may watch for signs of our very future.
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25
years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern
world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.