Myths and Legends

Myths and Legends

* All cultures show a lot of respect to the lights…

* In Greco-Roman mythology, Aurora is the personification of the dawn, and the sister of the sun and the moon. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that every day Aurora raced across the sky in her chariot, alerting her brother and sister to the breaking of the new day. Watching the Northern Lights stretch across the sky, it’s easy to imagine how this story took form.

* Some Native American stories depict the Northern Lights as torches held by the spirits who were tasked with leading the souls of the recently deceased over the abyss to the land of brightness and plenty. To communicate with people on Earth, they believed the Northern Lights made a whistling sound, which was to be answered by humans with whispers.

* Eskimo tribes believed they could summon the Aurora to converse with their dead relatives.

* Cree Indians (from West Canada) believed strongly in the ‘circle of life’ & ‘The dance of the Spirits’. They also believed the lights were a way of communicating with their ancestors, and when dogs barked at the lights, it was because they recognised their lost companions.

* In Canada and northern Michigan, Algonquin tribes believed the creator of the Earth, Nanabozho, moved to the far north and lit a huge fire. The Aurora was a reflection of this fire, created to let his people know that even though he was far away, he was still thinking of them.

* The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed what they saw were gentle giants fishing at night, and that the lights were created by their torches as they fished.

* The Inuits of northern Greenland believed the lights were the spirits of the dead playing celestial games with a walrus skull, while other local Inuit communities believed walruses were playing games with a human skull. They called the aurora ‘aqsarniit’ (literally ‘football players’)

* Great Plains Indians also believed the lights were the reflection of large fires, but not one made by a loving creator. Theirs were the reflections of giant flames under huge cooking pots, lit by northern tribes to cook their enemies.

* In Hudson Bay, Canada, they believed the lights were the lanterns of demons chasing lost souls.

* In Wisconsin, the Fox Indians thought the Northern Lights were the restless spirits of their slain enemies attempting to rise again for revenge – and were an omen of pestilence and war.

* In Alaska, Inuit communities also feared the lights and carried knives to ward themselves against the evil spirits of the aurora.

* Swedish fishermen looked forward to seeing the aurora, as they thought the lights were the reflections of giant schools of herring swimming nearby. For them, an aurora sighting brought good fortune and the promise of a hefty catch.

* Modern day myths exist too – the Japanese believe that babies conceived under the northern lights will become intellectuals.

* The great Aristotle himself (380 BC) thought the sky was vomiting little bits of flames.

* The ancient Chinese believed good and bad dragons were battling in the heavens.

* Popular belief in Asian countries, making love under the Northern Lights will result in very fortunate babies.

* Nordic countries, (including Northern Russia) Just don’t wave at them, as you might be taken away.

* Nordic countries, (including Northern Russia) Say you shouldn’t point and or whistle at the lights, it will bring bad luck.

* For the Sámi, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people of the north, the lights didn’t tell stories of heroism and bravery; instead, they were to be feared and respected in equal measure. The appearance of the Northern Lights was a bad omen.

Thought to be the souls of the dead, the Sámi believed you shouldn’t talk about the Northern Lights. It was also dangerous to tease them by waving, whistling or singing under them, as this would alert the lights to your presence. If you caught their attention, the lights could reach down and carry you up into the sky. A more sinister interpretation was that the Northern Lights could reach down and slice off your head!

* Some Sami tell their children you have to cover your head when the lights are out Explained of course by the fact that Northern Lights only appear at clear nights which are colder than clowdy nights, therefore: wear a hat! 

* In Finland, the name for the Northern Lights is revontulet, literally translated as ‘fire fox’, an elusive creature, believed to bring good luck to those who see it. Especially hunters look for it, but it is hard to spot. These fire foxes would run through the sky so fast that when their large, furry tails brushed against the mountains, they created sparks that lit up the sky.

A similar version of this story tells that as the fire foxes ran, their tails swept snowflakes up into the sky, which caught the moonlight and created the Northern Lights. This version would have also helped explain to the people why the lights were only visible in winter, as there is no snowfall in the summer months.

* Odin was the chief god and ruler of Asgard, revered by all Vikings. They believed he lived in Valhalla, where he was preparing for Ragnarök – a series of events that would precipitate the end of the gods and begin the world anew. In Viking legend, Ragnarök was predestined and would be Odin’s greatest battle, so he needed the bravest warriors at his side.

During every battle on Earth, Odin would pick the warriors who would die and join him in Valhalla. The Valkyries – female warriors on horseback, who wore armour and carried spears and shields – were tasked with leading Odin’s chosen warriors to Valhalla. The Vikings believed the Northern Lights illuminating the sky were the reflections of the Valkyries’ armour as they led the warriors to Odin.

In some legends, they claim the Aurora was the breath of brave soldiers who died in combat. In other stories, the Aurora was believed to be the ‘Bifrost Bridge’, a glowing, pulsing arch which led fallen warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla.

* In Icelandic folklore, they believed the Northern Lights helped to ease the pain of childbirth, but pregnant women were not to look directly at them or their child would be born cross-eyed.

* In Greenland, people held the bittersweet belief that the lights were the spirits of children, who had died in childbirth, dancing across the sky.

* In the late 18th century, the onset of the French Revolution threw the country into turmoil. In the weeks before the monarchy was overthrown, a bright red Aurora was seen in the skies over England and Scotland and people reported hearing huge armies battling in the skies. The frightened onlookers believed it foretold of impending war and death.

* The Scots called the Northern Lights “Merry Dancers”, but, despite the cheery name, the ‘dancers’ depicted fallen angels or sky warriors engaged in an epic battle. In the Hebrides, bloodstones are a common sight. These beautiful green heliotropes are speckled with red. The Scots believed these red specks were drops of blood that fell from the sky onto the stones as the Merry Dancers engaged in battle.

* Estonians believed that the aurora lighting up the skies were wonderful sleighs taking guests to a spectacular wedding celebration in the heavens.

* Danes believed the lights were caused by swans competing to see who could fly further north. According to legend, some of the swans became trapped in the ice and as they tried to escape, they flapped their wings creating flurries of light in the sky.

* The oldest images of the aurora borealis is a couple of cave paintings in Rouffinac in France (3000 BC).  One of the first drawings is from 1570: depicted as candles in the sky. 

* It wasnt until the 1600s that weve started to understand the science behind the lights.

* One of the first photos was taken in 1892 by Sophus Tromholt who was a Danish teacher, astrophysicist and an amateur photographer. He worked as a teacher at Tanks School in Bergen, Norway and was granted a scholarship by the Danish and Norwegian states to study the northern lights. During the first International Polar Year 1882/83, he established a scientific northern lights centre in Kautokeino. His Northern lights studies pioneered the modern Northern lights science.