Aurorae have been seen the world over for millennia due to solar activity. Without an understanding of modern day science, how did early people interpret the aurorae?
As we discussed in our Arctic Legends behind the Northern Lights article, 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.
The Northern Lights – beyond Scandinavia
As hard as it is to believe, the Ancient Greeks recorded sightings of aurora borealis. Plutarch described the streams of light as fire in the sky, while there was a belief that Aurora (meaning sunrise) was the sister of Helios (the sun) and Seline (the moon) and that sometimes she needed to travel across the sky in a multicoloured chariot to alert her siblings of a new day.
Again the celestial activity must have been extreme for the Ancient Romans to have seen the aurora, but there is mention of Aurora as the goddess of dawn in her flaming chariot or alternatively, of flaming military spears being hurtled across the sky.
Native American myths about the Lights tended to centre around death and destruction. One such example is the belief of the Wisconsin Fox Indians that they were their slain enemies, staring down at them and preparing for revenge. Another belief was that one should never wave, sing or whistle when the lights lit up the sky as it would attract the dead spirits – instead, one should clap to fend them off.
Although very rarely sighted in China, the lights were believed to be celestial battles between dragons that were good and evil. Some have suggested that this is where the idea of dragons originated. Can you make out dragons in the waving lines?
Even today, children conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed by good looks, intellect and good fortune in Japanese culture.
Again, the Lights are rarely seen this far from the poles, so there had to be huge solar activity for anything to show up in the sky. The result was extremely rare violent red streaks appearing across the sky. In France and Italy, these red streaks terrified communities and were thought to be harbingers of war, disease, famine, or anything else horrifying.
In England, the same red streaks were seen as signs of destruction. Legend claims that a few weeks prior to the French Revolution, red light danced across the sky and was later interpreted as signalling the ruckus that was to start across the Channel. In Scotland, the Northern Lights were known as the ‘Merry Dancers’ who were engaged in a bloody battle.
There are a number of myths in Estonian culture but the two most prominent are that of a pod of whales playing games above, or that of a magnificent horse drawn carriage carrying celestial guests to a heavenly wedding.
The Southern Lights
The Southern Lights are the same phenomenon as the Northern Lights but happen squarely over the uninhabited continent of Antarctica. As such, only when there is strong solar activity can they be seen in the nearest inhabited lands of New Zealand and Australia.
Some of the Maori of Aotearoa believed the Tahunui-a-rangi were the campfires of the ancestors who had rowed to the land of ice in the south. These lights reassured them that the ancestors would one day return to them.
Indigenous Australians have many celestial traditions, including about the Aurora Australis. For those tribes in Victoria and Tasmania, sighting the Lights was not that unusual whereas further up in Central and Northern Australia they were rather frightening as they were so irregular. Unlike the tradition in Scandinavian cultures were the lights were seen as a cause for celebration, in Australia, they usually indicated war and death. For example the Gunditjmara of western Victoria, described them as fire of Puae buae (“ashes”). While to the Gunai of eastern Victoria they indicated a coming catastrophe being raging bushfires in the spirit world.
Like many Aboriginal stories, the Lights were used to regulate communities to uphold the sacred law. For example, near Uluru, when hunters killed a sacred emu and broke Pitjantjatjara law, the aurora was seen as poisonous flames that signalled divine punishment.