The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, have baffled people for centuries, sending bright waves of red and green streaks of colour across the sky. From warring gods to shoals of fish the aurorae were seen as being both good and bad omens. Interestingly, mythology surrounding the phenomenon often aligned between people who were thousands of kilometres apart.
We have collected a few of our favourite explanations to share with you. However, it’s not until you’ve actually seen this natural light show that you can truly understand why so much mysticism arises around it! We offer a particularly special Northern Lights Astronomy Voyage for those who have dreamed of seeing this sight for themselves.
Legends have not only come about because of Aurora Borealis, but also the less viewed Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) that can be seen (sometimes) in southern Australia and New Zealand. Look out for an up-coming article World Mythology about Aurorae to learn more.
The Northern Lights in the Arctic
In Greenland, children born during the Northern Lights are thought to be more intelligent. The Inuit of Greenland believed that the lights were spirits trying to communicate with the living, while another legend told of dead spirits playing a game across the sky with a walrus skull.
Flipping that last legend on its head, the Cup’it Eskimo of Nunivak Island believed that the game was played by walruses with a human skull. Other Alaskan tribes were very afraid of the lights and would throw dog faeces and urine in to the air to make them go away.
Hudson Bay communities believed that the lights were a celestial farewell, being torches of dead spirits as they made their way up into the heavens.
The Chukchi see the Lights as an area of Heaven rarely seen, the home of those who died a violent death. Russian texts as recent as the 15th century discuss the Northern Lights as heavenly armies fighting.
The Lights are said to relieve the pain of childbirth as long as the mother does not look at them while giving birth. If she does, her child will be born cross-eyed.
Perhaps one of our favourite myths, the Lights were believed to be created by a celestial firefox, that runs so fast across the snow that his tail showers sparks into the night sky. The word for the Lights in Finnish is revontulet which means firefox. The Sami of Finnish Lapland believed the lights were spumes of water from whales.
The Lights were seen as heralding good news, indicating a good harvest or being the reflection of a large shoal of herring that would now fill the ocean. They were also said to be benevolent gods providing warmth and light through a distant volcano.
There are disputed claims as to whether the Vikings had any stories behind the Northern Lights, particularly because there is evidence to indicate there was very low solar activity at that time and so the Lights would have been weaker, rarer and mostly red. One of the most popular myths is that the lights were reflections off the armour of Valkyries, peering down at earth to decide who would leave a battle and who would die. This has been disputed for the lack of evidence within Viking texts, as it only comes into existence in more modern writings on the Vikings.
The more accepted myth is that the Lights were believed to be the Bivfrost Bridge, a glowing pulsating arch that led fallen soldiers to Valhalla (although some believe this was describing a rainbow and not the Lights).