Northern light Folklore and Mythology
Ancient Greece and the Romans
Aurora Borealis is derived from the Greek words “Aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “Boreas” meaning “wind”. For the ancient Greeks to have seen the lights there must have been some incredibly strong solar activity because sightings so far south are almost unheard of. The Greeks held that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and moon respectively, and that she raced across the early morning sky in her multi-coloured chariot to alert her siblings to the dawning of a new day.
The Romans also associated the Northern Lights with a new day believing them to be Aurora, the goddess of dawn.
The Northern Lights have intrigued (and scared) people right back since the dawn of man, and indeed still does to this day. Here are some of the many stories from some of the indigenous peoples of the world. If you have a story you know or can link to one (in any language) please let us know so we can add it to the page.
The Eskimos and Indians of North America have many stories to explain these northern lights.
One story is reported by the explorer Ernest W. Hawkes in his book, The Labrador Eskimo:
“The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss, over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who have died a voluntary or violent death, and the Raven, have been over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora. They can be seen there feasting and playing football with a walrus skull. The whistling crackling noise which sometimes ccompanies the aurora is the voices of these spirits trying to communicate with the people of the Earth. They should always be answered in a whispering voice. Youths dance to the aurora. The heavenly spirits are called selamiut, “sky-dwellers,” those who
live in the sky”.
The Point Barrow Eskimos were the only Eskimo group who considered the aurora an evil thing. In the past they carried knives to keep it away from them.
Omen of War
The Fox Indians, who lived in Wisconsin, regarded the light as an omen of war and pestilence. To them the lights were the ghosts of their slain enemies who, restless for revenge, tried to rise up again.
The Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska interpreted the northern lights as the dancing of human spirits. The Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River believed that the aurora was the dance of animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga.
Game of Ball
Most Eskimo groups have a myth of the northern lights as the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. The Eskimos of Nunivak Island had the opposite idea, of walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
Spirits of Children
The east Greenland Eskimos thought that the northern lights were the spirits of children who died at birth. The dancing of the children round and round caused the continually moving streamers and draperies of the aurora.
Fires in the North
The Makah Indians of Washington State thought the lights were fires in the Far North, over which a tribe of dwarfs, half the length of a canoe paddle and so strong they caught whales with their hands, boiled blubber.
The Mandan of North Dakota explained the northern lights as fires over which the great medicine men and warriors of northern nations simmered their dead enemies in enormous pots. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin regarded the lights as torches used by great, friendly giants in the north, to spear fish at night.
An Algonquin myth tells of when Nanahbozho, creator of the Earth, had finished his task of the creation, he traveled to the north, where he remained. He built large fires, of which the northern lights are the reflections, to remind his people that he still thinks of them.
China, Japan & Australia
Auroral sightings in China are also rare and would have been caused by a significant solar event so unsurprisingly, the ancient Chinese were in awe of the lights that sporadically illuminated their night sky.
It is said that many of the early Chinese legends associated with dragons were a result of the Northern Lights. The belief is that the lights were viewed as a celestial battle between good and evil dragons who breathed fire across the firmament.
In Japanese culture, the belief is that a child conceived underneath the Northern Lights will be blessed with good looks, intellect and good fortune. Indeed, there is a fascination with the Aurora in South East Asia and it is no coincidence that visitor numbers from the likes of Japan, Singapore and Malaysia have increased significantly in recent times.
Aboriginal Australians were more used to seeing the Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights) and watched in awe as their gods danced overhead.
It’s rare for the Northern Lights to appear over Southern Europe and such appearances require intense solar activity which usually results in red Auroras appearing in the night sky. Not surprisingly, on the rare, rare occasions that they do appear, they cause quite a stir and, until fairly recently, were enough to terrify a populace unaware of the Aurora’s origin.
The Finnish name for the northern lights “revontulet” is associated with the arctic fox. According to a folk tale, an arctic fox is running far in the north and touching the mountains with its fur, so that sparks fly off into the sky as the northern lights. Another version of the story says the fox throws the northern lights up into the sky by sweeping snow upwards with its tail. A more developed version then explains how moonlight is reflected from the snowflakes swept up into the sky by the fox’s tail.
In the Sami language, the northern lights are called guovssahasah. It means “the sun glowing in the sky in the morning or in the evening,” as in aurora, the Latin word for dawn. But this word could also be translated as “the fire lit by a bird, the Siberian Jay”. This word also refers to audible light, although no scientific proof of audible sound coming from the aurora exists (more on that subject on our Aurora Service Radio page!.
In Scottish Gaelic folklore the Northern Lights are known as the Na Fir Chlis – “the Nimble Men” (or also known as the merry dancers). The Lights were described as epic fights among sky warriors or fallen angels. Blood from the wounded fell to earth and spotted the “bloodstones” or heliotrope found in the Hebrides.
France and Italy
The poor residents of France and Italy for example believed the lights to be a bad omen heralding the outbreak of anything from war to plague and death. In Scotland and England, the skies are said to have blazed red just a few weeks prior to the French Revolution and were later considered to have been a sign of the coming strife in their Gallic neighbour state.
In Norse mythology, a bridge named Bifrost connected Earth and Åsgard, the home of gods. It most likely was modeled after rainbows or the Northern Lights, and was guarded by the god Heimdal. Scandinavian popular belief linked the aurora to dead women, especially to dead virgins. The Finnish name “revontulet” referred to the mythical firefoxes of Lapland, brushing up sparks with their tails. Some attributed the aurora to reflections from the shields of the Valkyries, warlike women chosen by Odin to guide fallen warriors to Valhalla. Others believed their glow came from the beautiful Viking goddess Freja, riding horseback.
In Greenland, the aurora was seen as the highest level in the afterlife, with good weather and easy hunting. The moving lights were thought to be spirits playing ball games with the skull of a walrus. The Nunivak islanders had the opposite belief – that the skull was human, and that the ball players were the spirits of walruses. Another Greenland belief was that the ball players were the souls of young babies, playing with their afterbirths. During the Klondike Gold Rush, the Northern Lights were said to reflect a great Mother Lode of gold.
Northern Lights as a Sign of Good Luck
Many beliefs around the northern lights see the phenomena as a good omen.
Fish and Fuitful Crops
For example, in the old days, many Scandinavians believed the Aurora was the reflection of huge schools of herring in the sea. And that fishermen would enjoy good catches of fish.
The Swedes used to believe a winter with much northern lights gave good crops the next year. Some Eskimos in Canada also believed the lights were the gods of harvest and hunting, and therefore took extra care not to offend the northern lights. Whatever that implies.
Northern Lights and Sex
The Aurora Borealis have also been linked to fertility and childbirth, and in Chinese and Japanese cultures it is still believed that a child conceived under the northern lights will be blessed with good fortunes.
In old Icelandic folklore it was also believed that northern lights would ease the pain of childbirth. At the same time though, they believed that pregnant women looking at the Aurora would have cross eyed children.
Northern Lights as a Sign of Bad Luck
In addition to the fear of cross eyed children, and being and omen of war and destruction, the northern lights have many other less happy myths relating to it.
Clap your Hands
The most widely known ´no-no´in the North is o avoid waving, singing or whistling at the northern lights.
People used to believe that the spirits would come down and take you away. And although most don´t really believe this nowadays, you very rarely come across anyone who would do it still. Should it happen to you – the way to fend off the spirits is to clap your hands.
Urine and Dog Poo?
Many Sami people would keep their families and children indoors during the display, or if they were outside they would cover up and try to hide from the rays.
Some Alaskan Inuits were similarly scared, but had a more ´practical´approach. They would hide their children, and sometimes try to throw dog excrement and urine up in the air to make the lights go away.
Scandinavian Northern Lights Myths
The Scandinavian name for the aurora translates as ‘herring flash’ as it was believed that the dancing whirls of green light were a reflection of huge schools of herring in the sea.
Whenever the lights were visible, fishermen were expected to be blessed with good catches of fish.
According to Swedish legend, a winter with frequent displays of the northern lights served to predict a good yield of crops the following year.
In Norwegian folklore, the northern lights were thought to be the spirits of old maids dancing in the sky and waving at those below them.
According to one popular Finnish myth, magical arctic foxes sweeping their tails across the snow and spraying it into the sky is the real reason for the spectacular light show. In fact, the Finnish name for the northern lights even translates as ‘fox fires’.
Norse mythology connected the aurora borealis with war. It was believed that the lights appeared when sunlight reflected on the shiny shields of the Valkyries who were racing across the sky on the way to their resting place, Valhalla.
Old Icelandic folklore believed that the northern lights would ease the pain of childbirth. It was not all good news for mothers though – it was also thought that pregnant women looking at the lights would give birth to cross-eyed children.