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Northern Lights Folklore and Ancient Myths

Information package about old stories and myths about northern lights.

Updated 28.3.2020 22:17:32

Northern Lights myths and old stories around the globe


The phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, has an ancient history steeped in unique myths and folklore, globally.  The word Aurora Borealis itself is derived from the combination of the Greek words, "aurora", which means "sunrise" and "borealis", which means wind.  This natural, colored light show takes place as a product of the sun's electrically charged particles streaming into the Earth's atmosphere.  These lights are observable above both of the Earth's magnetic poles in the northern and southern hemispheres.  Technically, this breathtaking occurrence is only called the "Aurora Borealis" in the north.  It's specifically called the "Aurora Australis" in the south.


These dazzling lights appear in delightful array of colors.  However, a pale green and pink are most typically witnessed.  Hues of green, red, yellow, blue, and violet can also be observed.  These lights manifest in varying ways that include but are not limited to arcs, streaming rays, patches, or ribbon-like patterns, which illuminate the sky with an otherworldly glow.  A myriad of unique legends and folklore surround this unusual light display that graces the night sky, worldwide.


Northern Lights has always fascinated people around the globe

The Ancient Romans believed the Aurora Borealis was the physical manifestation of Aurora, who was their Goddess of the Dawn.  In more recent Italian history, people believed that the lights were a harbinger of nasty things to come, such as plague, war, and even death.  As a matter of fact, in England, France, and Scotland, the skies shone red just weeks before the onset of the French Revolution and were thought to foretell of the event.


Ancient Greece held a particular fascination with the Northern Lights, which may be attributed to the fact that seeing the Aurora Borealis in such a southerly location is quite rare.  Like the Romans, the Ancient Greeks worshipped a sun deity, but in Greece, the belief was that Aurora was the sister of their sun-god, Helios.  The Ancient Greeks believed that Aurora flew through the sky at dawn in her rainbow chariot to signify to her brothers and sisters that a new day had begun.


In China, the appearance of the Aurora Borealis is exceedingly rare.  Early Chinese folklore denotes that dragons are a product of the Northern Lights.  It was thought that this cosmic light show was due to a fire-breathing battle in the sky between benevolent and malevolent dragons.


Among the Japanese, some believe that if a baby is conceived beneath the Aurora Borealis, the child will be physically attractive, smart, and have good luck bestowed upon them. 


In Australia, the Aboriginal people were familiar with seeing the Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights) and believed the occurrence was their gods dancing in the sky above. 


In North America, the Indigenous Americans had a plethora of different legends surrounding the Northern Lights among many of their tribes.  The Cree people believed the lights were a physical manifestation of the dead's spirits that lived in the sky.  They also held that these lights were an effort to communicate with their families and friends, who were among the living on Earth. 


The Algonquin people believed the Aurora Borealis was the light cast from a fire made by their creator, Nanahbozho and that the fire was Nanahbozho’s message to his people that he acknowledged them and was protecting them. 


Inuit tribes believed that the Northern Lights were dead human spirits embroiled in an intense match of ball where they used a walrus skull as the ball.  On Nunavik Island, the people held a similar belief, but conversely, they believed the Northern Lights were the spirits of departed walrus' playing ball with a human skull. 


The Makah people in what is now the state of Washington believed that the Aurora Borealis was created by fires burning in the north that was built by a dwarf tribe, who used it to cook whale blubber.  The belief was similar among the Mandan people of North Dakota. They believed that the lights were also fires, but they were thought to be used by warriors to boil their adversaries in large pots. Elsewhere in North American folklore, the Northern Lights' explanation ranges from spirit guides illuminating the sky to direct the recently deceased to heaven, spirits of the victims of a violent death, or even the spirits of deceased animals. 


Icelandic ancestors associated the Aurora Borealis with giving birth and believed that the lights helped ease the discomfort of delivering a child provided the expectant mother didn't look at them, because this would cause the child to be born cross-eyed. 


In Greenland, legend holds that the Northern Lights were also associated with birth, but the Aurora Borealis was believed to be child spirits who didn't survive childbirth or were stillborn. 


In Finland, the Aurora Borealis was thought to be caused by the "fire fox" that ran through the snow so speedily that sparks flew out of the creature's tail and shot into the evening sky.  In fact, the Finnish word for the Aurora Borealis, "revontulet” means “fire fox”.  Another legend told by the Sámi people who resided in the Finnish Lapland was that the lights were generated from the water that shot from the spouts of whales.


In Nordic Mythology among the Swedish, the Northern Lights were viewed as a positive sign.  The lights were views as a gift from benevolent gods that offered light and warmth through a volcano in the north.  They were also thought to be a reflection of light emanating from immense herring shoals that meant good luck to Norse fishermen.  Swedish farmers also thought the Aurora Borealis meant a bountiful harvest in the upcoming year. 


Another Norse legend points to the Northern Lights as the reflections cast from the armor and shields of Valkyrie, the female warriors who predicted which male warriors would likely die in battle and which ones would survive the day.  The Aurora Borelais was also thought to be a breathing, shiny arch, the “Bifrost Bridge”, which guided those lost in battle to their afterlife in Valhalla.


The Estonians held the belief that the Northern Lights were elaborate carriages drawn by horses that carried guests in the heavens to a splendid wedding in the sky. 


People across the globe are still fascinated with the Aurora Borelis to this day and even travel to some of the best locations on Earth to view them as highly sought after vacation destinations.  Some of the best places to see the lights are mainly locations closest to the Arctic Circle, such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.


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