Crowned in AD 925 on the king’s stone, after which Kingston upon Thames is named, Aethelstan was the first Anglo-Saxon monarch of a unified England, an achievement he realised the following year when he conquered Northumbria.
It was a victory portended, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the approximately contemporaneous historical record of the period, by the appearance of “fiery lights in the northern part of the firmament”, a phenomenon described earlier in those annals as “immense sheets of light, rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying in the sky”. In other words, the northern lights.
As wonders of the natural world go, they are awe-inspiring. But they are also rare. Even during the geomagnetic storms that cause them, they are visible only when there is no cloud cover, most frequently between latitudes of 60° and 72°, which is well inside the Arctic Circle.
In Kingston (latitude 51.4123°) this spring, however, the sight of them – or at least a virtual version – is guaranteed, thanks to a temporary three-channel video installation on the roof of Riverside Walk, projected on to a semi-transparent fine mesh made from stretched fishing net. (Kingston’s coat of arm consists of three silver salmon on a blue ground, representing three fisheries that are mentioned in the Domesday Book, after which the town became known as Kyngeston super Tamisiam, from the Latin for sieve or filter.
Also known as the aurora borealis after the Roman goddess of the dawn (Aurora, sister of the sun, Helios, and the moon) and the Greek god of the north wind (Boreas), this otherworldly phenomenon is created by a solar wind of charged gas particles that glow when they come into contact with the Earth’s magnetic field. The colours are caused by the reaction of different gases: oxygen produces a green or, occasionally, red light and nitrogen a blue one.
As to what they presage, it depends on whose mythology you subscribe to. The ancient Chinese saw them as good and evil dragons locked eternally in conflict. While several Native American tribes regarded them as the spirits of the deceased trying to communicate with those on Earth. But the Romans saw hope, associating them with new beginnings and the dawn of another day.
Written by Claire Wrathall