Land & Nature / New Found Rituals | Aurora Borealis

The festive season, with all its sparkle, is soon to be upon us. But rather than become swept up in the chaos and commerce of it all, we have stepped away to look at the new rituals that are entering our twenty-first century lives. Rituals that involve snow, ice and stars – deep winter elements that we all long for at this time of year. We began with stargazing, then ice skating. Here we look at the Aurora Borealis…

We didn’t travel to Iceland to see the Northern Lights; we travelled to Iceland because it seemed to be the very opposite of our South London lives. We travelled for the hot springs and the crystal clear air and the bars, housed in cosy shacks, and for the piercing cold that would greet us when leaving our thermally-heated, corrugated-iron-roofed home. We had grown up in Dublin and felt a draw to this place, perhaps there was something in our shared Viking ancestry that pulled us together, a kind of wildness. Friends had often spoken with delight of their reception on the island, of its warmth and joviality, of people coming together in defiance against the island’s freezing remoteness, and so we had anticipated this. What we had not anticipated was the solitary, unparralleled beauty of the Northern Lights.

I’d been thinking about Iceland for a long time, pining after it I suppose, and so when the time finally came to go I considered it closer to a pilgrimage than a city break. We booked to stay in a little apartment in the Old Harbour in Reykjavik, facing snow-capped peaks that punctuated the tiny industrial port. It’s probably more industrial a city than anyone could imagine given the otherworldliness of its reputation – it’s not at all twee, it is robust.

On our best day, mild for October, we rented bikes and cycled to the lighthouse and then on to a thermal pool, carved deep into the landscape. We sat there for hours, drinking beers in water warmed in the earth below, listening to idle gossip imparted by strangers. We alternated between dips in the North Atlantic and trips to the sauna on a little peninsula, opposite a row of fish factories.

It was on our way to the airport that evening that we saw the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis and so named, I learned later, after the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind. Our Icelandic bus driver, warm and pleasant, announced over the speakers that something in the sky was causing a bit of a stir up front and that we could get out to have a look if we liked. Giddy like children we stood on the side of the road in the desolate blackness of the near Arctic winter night, surrounded by lunar-like rock, and from there the clouds danced for us. A glowing electric green to a deep hot pink tripped across the horizon. It’s difficult to explain something so unexpected. The Vikings thought the Northern Lights were fires at the edge of the sky and in Inuit folklore they are the souls of animals they had hunted – psychedelic whales and seals. But we had not reckoned on this ecstatic display and so, stunned, stood in silence, heart-racing at the wonder of it all, at this closest thing to magic.

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Words by Jeanette Farrell

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