An aurora was described by the Greek explorer Pytheas in the 4th century BC.
Seneca wrote about auroras in the first book of his Naturales Quaestiones, classifying them, for instance as pithaei (barrel-like); chasmata (chasm); pogoniae (bearded); cyparissae (like cypress trees), and describing their manifold colors. He wrote about whether they were above or below the clouds, and recalled that under Tiberius, an aurora formed above the port city of Ostia that was so intense and red that a cohort of the army, stationed nearby for fire duty, galloped to the rescue. It has been suggested that Pliny the Elder depicted the aurora borealis in his Natural History, when he refers to trabes, chasma, falling red flames and daylight in the night.
The Australian Aboriginals associated Auroras (which are mainly low on the horizon and predominantly red) with fire. A In the traditions of Aboriginal Australians, the Aurora Australis is commonly associated with fire. For example, the Gunditjmara people of western Victoria called auroras puae buae (ashes), while the Gunai people of eastern Victoria perceived auroras as bushfires in the spirit world. The Dieri people of South Australia say that an auroral display is kootchee, an evil spirit creating a large fire. Similarly, the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia refer to auroras seen over Kangaroo Island as the campfires of spirits in the Land of the Dead. Aboriginal people in southwest Queensland believe the auroras to be the fires of the Oola Pikka, ghostly spirits who spoke to the people through auroras. Sacred law forbade anyone except male elders from watching or interpreting the messages of ancestors they believed were transmitted through an aurora.
Bulfinch’s Mythology relates that in Norse mythology, the armour of the Valkyrior sheds a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the northern skies, making what Men call the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. There appears to be no evidence in Old Norse literature to substantiate this assertion. The first Old Norse account of norðrljós is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá from AD 1230. The chronicler has heard about this phenomenon from compatriots returning from Greenland, and he gives three possible explanations: that the ocean was surrounded by vast fires; that the sun flares could reach around the world to its night side; or that glaciers could store energy so that they eventually became fluorescent.
Walter William Bryant wrote in his book Kepler (1920) that Tycho Brahe seems to have been something of a homœopathist, for he recommends sulfur to cure infectious diseases brought on by the sulphurous vapours of the Aurora Borealis.
In the 1740s Benjamin Franklin theorized in his paper Aurora Borealis, Suppositions and Conjectures towards forming an Hypothesis for its Explanation that an aurora was caused by a concentration of electrical charge in the polar regions intensified by the snow and moisture in the air:
May not then the great quantity of electricity brought into the polar regions by the clouds, which are condens’d there, and fall in snow, which electricity would enter the earth, but cannot penetrate the ice; may it not, I say (as a bottle overcharged) break through that low atmosphere and run along in the vacuum over the air towards the equator, diverging as the degrees of longitude enlarge, strongly visible where densest, and becoming less visible as it more diverges; till it finds a passage to the earth in more temperate climates, or is mingled with the upper air?
— Benjamin Franklin
Observations of the rhythmic movement of compass needles due to the influence of an aurora were confirmed in the Swedish city of Uppsala by Anders Celsius and Olof Hiorter. In 1741, Hiorter was able to link large magnetic fluctuations with an aurora being observed overhead. This evidence helped to support their theory that magnetic storms are responsible for such compass fluctuations.
A variety of Native American myths surround the spectacle. The European explorer Samuel Hearne traveled with Chipewyan Dene in 1771 and recorded their views on the ed-thin (caribou). According to Hearne, the Dene people saw the resemblance between an aurora and the sparks produced when caribou fur is stroked. They believed that the lights were the spirits of their departed friends dancing in the sky, and when they shone brightly it meant that their deceased friends were very happy.
During the night after the Battle of Fredericksburg, an aurora was seen from the battlefield. The Confederate Army took this as a sign that God was on their side, as the lights were rarely seen so far south. The painting Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church is widely interpreted to represent the conflict of the American Civil War.