Tag Archives: northern lights

Arctic Legends behind the Northern Lights

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

Greenland

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.

Alaska 

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.

Canada 

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.

Russia  

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.

Iceland

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.

Finland

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.

Sweden 

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.

Norse Mythology

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).


Contact Bentours today to book in your Northern Lights adventure! We have many great itineraries to offer or perhaps better yet, relax and admire the view on a Hurtigruten Coastal Voyage with our Northern Lights Promise.

World Mythology about the Aurorae

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

Ancient Greece

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.

Ancient Rome

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.

North America

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.

China

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?

Japan

Even today, children conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed by good looks, intellect and good fortune in Japanese culture.

Continental Europe

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.

United Kingdom

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.

Estonia

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.

New Zealand

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.

Australia 

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.


To see the mystical Northern Lights this year, call Bentours to organise an experience of the incredible natural phenomenon.

For the lesser seen Southern Lights, have a look at our Hurtigruten Expedition Voyages to Antarctica – you never know what you might see!