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History of the Northern Lights: folklore, myths and legends

9 min read

Lights in the sky have occurred since the dawn of our planet.
Dinosaurs walked under them, and our ancestors too, just as we do today. They are a constant of our world – always there, even when it’s too bright for us to see them.
For centuries, people have been sharing stories of the Northern Lights.
Without scientific understanding, of course, our ancestors were forced to fill in the gaps with fantastic stories of gods, monsters and not only, that taught people to respect, fear, or worship the lights in the sky.
Actually the light show we see from the ground is caused by electrically charged particles from space entering the Earth’s upper atmosphere at a very high speed.
The particles originate from our star, the sun, that is constantly pushing out a stream of electrically charged particles called the solar wind, and this travels out from the sun at between 300 and 500 km per second in all directions.
As the Earth travels around the sun, a small fraction of particles from the solar wind are intercepted by our planet.
Around 98% of these particles are deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field, and continue their journey into deep space, but there is a small percentage of particles leak through the Earth’s magnetic field and are funnelled downwards towards the Earth’s magnetic North and South poles.
When these charged particles hit the atoms and molecules high up in our atmosphere, they become excited, and this creates two glowing rings of auroral emission around the North and South magnetic poles, known as auroral ovals.
As they decay back to their original state, they emit distinctive colours of light, and It’s this light we see when we look at the Northern Lights.

And why different colours?
Well, the Earth’s atmosphere is made up of different atoms, like oxygen and nitrogen, and they cause the colours we can see in the Northern Lights.
These atoms become excited at different levels in the atmosphere.
The most common colour seen in the Northern Lights is green. Basically, when the solar wind hits millions of oxygen atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere at the same time, it excites the oxygen atoms for a time and then they decay back to their original state, when they emit the green hue we can see from the ground.
The red light we sometimes see is also caused by oxygen atoms. These particles are higher up in the atmosphere and are subject to a lower energy red light emission. The red colour is always there, but our eyes are five times less sensitive to red light than green, so we can’t always see it.

While technically, the Northern Lights are present for much of the year, there aren’t enough hours of darkness to see them during the summer months, even above the Arctic Circle.
The winter season in the Arctic lasts from late September to late March/early April.
During this time, the Arctic sky is dark enough for the Northern Lights to be visible in the right conditions, but the aurora is at its most active around the equinoxes in March and September.

It’s no wonder the charm of a phenomenon like aurora borealis have influenced folklore and stories through the ages.
Imagine gazing up at green, red and purple lights flickering across the night sky.
Charming, for sure. Scary? Yes, too.
Today we know the science behind the lights, but back then, stories painted them as everything from bridges to the afterlife to dangerous monsters, as well as players or warning signs.

Back in time, the Northern Lights have inspired some of the most dramatic stories in Norse mythology.
The Vikings, for example, celebrated the lights, believing they were earthly manifestations of their gods.
Other Norse people feared them, telling stories of the dangers they posed and developing a variety of superstitions to protect themselves.
Odin was the chief god and ruler of Asgard, revered by all Vikings. They believed he lived in Valhalla, where he was preparing for Ragnarök, a series of events that would precipitate the end of the gods and begin the world anew.
In Viking legend, Ragnarök was predestined and would be Odin’s greatest battle, so he needed the bravest warriors at his side.
In short, during every battle on Earth, Odin would pick the warriors who would die and join him in Valhalla. The Valkyries, female warriors on horseback, who wore armour and carried spears and shields, were tasked with leading Odin’s chosen warriors to Valhalla.
The Vikings believed the Northern Lights illuminating the sky were the reflections of the Valkyries’ armour as they led the warriors to Odin himself.
In other legends from the same area, people claim the Aurora was the breath of brave soldiers who died in combat while, in others, it was believed to be the ‘Bifrost Bridge’, a glowing, pulsing arch which led fallen warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla.

On the other hand, for the Sámi, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people, the lights didn’t tell stories of heroism and bravery. Instead, they were to be feared and respected in equal measure, and the appearance of the Northern Lights was actually a bad omen.
Thought to be the souls of the dead, they believed you shouldn’t never talk about the Northern Lights, and It was also dangerous to tease them by waving, whistling or singing under them, as this would alert the lights to your presence.
In fact, If you caught their attention, the lights could reach down and carry you up into the sky with them. Really not a good thing.
A more disturbing interpretation was that the Northern Lights could reach down and slice off your head. Interestingly, still today, many Sámi stay indoors when the Northern Lights are illuminating the sky, just to be on the safe side, you never know.

Now we go to Finland, where the local name for the Northern Lights is “revontulet”, literally translated as “fire fox”.
This curious name comes from a local myth that Arctic foxes produced the Aurora. These creatures would run through the sky so fast that when their large, furry tails brushed against the mountains, they created sparks that lit up the sky.
A similar version of the same story tells that as the fire foxes ran, their tails swept snowflakes up into the sky, which caught the moonlight and created the Northern Lights. A version that would have also helped explain to the people why the lights were only visible in winter, as there is no snowfall in the summer.

However, these mythologies were by no means the only ones to take root in Norse societies.
In Icelandic folklore, for example, people believed the Northern Lights helped to ease the pain of childbirth, but pregnant women were absolutely not to look directly at them or their child would be born cross-eyed (!!!) while, in Greenland, people held the belief that the lights were the spirits of children who had died in childbirth dancing across the sky, and again, in Norway, the Northern Lights were believed to be the souls of old maids dancing in the heavens and waving at those below.

Whichever tale captures your imagination, and whichever is your favorite one, one thing is certain: the Northern Lights were assigned great power and significance by the peoples of ancient Nordic societies and the lights were as revered and admired as they continue to be still today.

Also in Europe the many sightings of the aurora borealis through time has given us a variety of interesting stories.
Although the phenomenon is most frequently and intensely seen in the Auroral Oval above the Arctic Circle, it do also make occasional appearances further south, when there’s a burst of solar activity.
When the aurora appears further south in Europe, the lights often take on a deep, reddish hue, and It would explain why in continental Europe many considered the dancing, blood red streaks to be an evil omen, a portent of war or other dangers.
For instance, in the late 18th century, the onset of the French Revolution threw the country into turmoil.
In the weeks before the monarchy was overthrown, a bright red Aurora was seen in the skies over England and Scotland and scared people reported hearing huge armies battling in the skies.
The Scots called the Northern Lights “Merry Dancers”, but, despite the cheery name, the so-called dancers were actually fallen angels or sky warriors engaged in an epic battle.
In the Hebrides, beautiful green heliotropes speckled with red, the so-called bloodstones, are a common sight, and the Scots believed these they were drops of blood that fell from the sky onto the stones as the Merry Dancers engaged in battle.

But, again, not everybody saw the Aurora as a harbinger of doom, above all in some northern European cultures. Estonians, for example, believed that the aurora lighting up the skies were wonderful sleighs taking guests to a spectacular wedding celebration in the heavens.
Some spoke of the aurora appearing when whales were playing games, while the Danes believed the lights were caused by mythical swans competing to see who could fly further north.
According to a legend, some of the swans became trapped in the ice and as they tried to escape, and they flapped their wings creating flurries of light in the sky.
Swedish fishermen, on the other hand, looked forward to seeing the aurora, as they thought the lights were the reflections of giant schools of herring swimming nearby. For them, a sighting like this brought good fortune and the promise of a hefty catch.
Moreover, in Greco-Roman mythology, Aurora is the personification of the dawn, and the sister of the sun and the moon. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that every day she raced across the sky in her chariot, alerting her brother and sister to the breaking of the new day. Watching the Northern Lights stretch across the sky, it’s easy to imagine how this story took form.

And what about North Americans?
Many of their stories surrounding the Northern Lights arose from the belief that they were the souls of departed ancestors, and It was even believed that the lights might be the spirits of the animals they hunted.
Some Native American popular stories depict the Northern Lights as torches held by the spirits who were tasked with leading the souls of the recently deceased over the abyss to the land of brightness and plenty. To communicate with people on Earth, they believed the Northern Lights made a whistling sound, which was to be answered by humans with whispers.
Eskimo tribes believed they could summon the Aurora to converse with their dead relatives, while Cree Indians believed strongly in the circle of life, and they also believed the lights were a way of communicating with their ancestors. When dogs barked at the lights, it was because they recognised their lost companions.
In Canada and northern Michigan, Algonquin tribes believed the creator of the Earth, Nanabozho, moved to the far north and lit a huge fire. The Aurora was a reflection of this fire, created to let his people know that even though he was far away, he was still thinking of them.
The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed what they saw were gentle giants fishing at night, and that the lights were created by their torches durin their activities.
Interestingly, the Inuits of northern Greenland believed the lights were the spirits of the dead playing celestial games with a walrus skull, while other local Inuit communities believed walruses were playing games with a human skull.

However, as you can imagine, not all native communities in North America were comforted by the presence of the Northern Lights and many believed they were an evil omen.
For example, although Great Plains Indians also believed the lights were the reflection of large fires, actually they were the reflections of giant flames under huge cooking pots, lit by northern tribes to cook their enemies while, in Hudson Bay, Canada, they believed the lights were the lanterns of demons chasing lost souls.
In Wisconsin, the Fox Indians thought the Northern Lights were the restless spirits of their slain enemies attempting to rise again for revenge, and were alsovan omen of pestilence and war.
In Alaska, Inuit communities also feared the lights and carried knives to ward themselves against the evil spirits inside the aurora.

Images from web – Google Research