Aurora Lore: Myths of the Northern Lights

Nowadays, we’ve come to accept the scientific explanation of the northern lights: it’s a particulate reaction with the atmosphere influenced by Earth’s magnetic fields. Pretty simple, right?

But when you’re standing right below them–staring straight up and watching the lights shimmer, dance, and change colors overhead–it becomes easy to understand why the aurora borealis is the subject of so many folk tales.

  Photo by Jackie Veats

Photo by Jackie Veats

It’s absolutely otherworldly.

Stories come from places as far apart as Iceland, Greece, and China, and legends of what the aurora borealis represented vary just as much. Here’s a compilation of some of the most popular aurora legends from cultures around the world.

International Folklore

Greenland: Indigenous Greenlanders believed that the aurora was made up of the spirits of children who had died in childbirth.

Iceland: In Iceland, the northern lights were thought to relieve the pain of childbirth, but only if the mother didn’t look directly at them. If she did, it was believed that she’d give birth to a cross-eyed child.

Finland: In Finnish, the word for aurora is “revontulet,” which translates to “fox fires.” In Finnish lore, the aurora is caused by a fox running so fast across the snow that its tail sparks flames up into the sky. The Sámi people believed that the lights were created by a whale’s water spew.

China: Because of their latitudinal location, the Chinese rarely saw the aurora borealis. However, when they did see a rare display, they thought the northern lights were the fiery plumes on the breath of good and evil dragons, battling each other across the night sky.

  Photo by Kenji Sato

Photo by Kenji Sato

Japan: Though Japanese legend isn’t so visual, the northern lights are still a good omen. According to Japanese lore, a baby conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good looks, good fortune, and good luck.

Russia: Similarly to the Chinese, Russians believed that the aurora was a massive fire dragon. The difference? According to the Russians, the fire dragon would descend to earth while a village’s men were away in order to seduce the remaining women.

Greece & Rome: The Greeks and the Romans believed the northern lights represented the visible path of the dawn, named Aurora. She rode her chariot across the sky each morning to warn her siblings–the sun and the moon (Helios & Selene)–that a new day was coming.

England & France: The few times the English and the French happened to see an aurora display, the lights seemed to correlate with a war or other tragedy. So, to the English and the French, the red sky was an omen of bloodshed or ill fortune. 

  Photo by Jackie Veats

Photo by Jackie Veats

Myths from North America

Indigenous people in North America had the most diverse range of beliefs about the northern lights, believing it to be anything from a battle omen to walruses playing ball with a human skull.

An excerpt from The Labrador Eskimo by explorer Ernest W. Hawkes:

“The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss,
over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the
heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material
arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the
spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who
have died a voluntary or violent death, and the Raven, have been
over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to
guide the feet of new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora.
They can be seen there feasting and playing football with a
walrus skull.

The whistling crackling noise which sometimes accompanies the
aurora is the voices of these spirits trying to communicate
with the people of the Earth. They should always be answered
in a whispering voice. Youths dance to the aurora. The
heavenly spirits are called selamiut, “sky-dwellers,” those who
live in the sky.”

  Photo by Jackie Veats

Photo by Jackie Veats

To the Saulteaux tribe of Canada, the northern lights were the dancing of human spirits.

The Fox people of Wisconsin believed the lights were spirits of enemies killed in battle come back to visit pestilence and famine; the Mandan people of North Dakota thought they emanated from fires lit by powerful warriors–over which large cauldrons filled with dead enemies simmered.

Some Inuit groups thought they were spirits of animals they’d hunted, like belugas, caribou, seals, and salmon. The Menominee of Wisconsin said they were huge torches friendly giants used on hunts to help spear fish.

A popular legend stated that the lights were human spirits playing ball with a walrus skull. People on Nunivak Island told it the opposite way, where walrus spirits played the game with a human head.

The Algonquin people believed it was the fire of Earth’s creator retired to the north, its bright reflection in the sky a reminder that he still remembered and cared for his people.

Only the Native people of Point Barrow believed it was evil; they carried knives and weapons when traveling outside at night to defend themselves.

So, which myth best describes the northern lights?

We’ll let you decide for yourself!

  Photo by    Nickolas Warner

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