According to the History Channel, on this day in history, December 11, 1719, the first recorded sighting of the aurora borealis took place in New England. Rather than awe, the Northern Lights roused fear and alarm of the Judgment Day in those who witnessed it. The display of green, red, and white lights spread brilliantly—or ominously—across the sky.
An aurora is a natural light display brought about by the collision of energetic charged particles from outside the atmosphere with atoms from the upper atmosphere, generally occurring in the high latitude regions of the Arctic or the Antarctic. The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, were what the New Englanders witnessed. The lights generally occur in bands, curtains, or streamers of red, green, blue, and violet light. Sunspot activity increases their brilliance.
French astronomer Pierre Gassendi named the phenomenon in 1621. The name aurora borealis comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. The Cree call it the “Dance of the Spirits.”
Although 1719 marked the first recorded sighting of an aurora, it wasn’t the first sighting—and it wasn’t the first time witnesses interpreted it as a bad omen. New England denizens had first seen the northern lights in March 1718 and feared it was a sign of dire calamities to come. During the Middle Ages, Europeans who sighted auroras commonly believed they were a sign from god of impending doom. After repeated sightings, however, the fear slowly turned to awe, writes Sidney Perley in his book, Historical Storms of New England.