The Northern Lights are recognized as one of the most significant natural sights of the Arctic Circle. For generations, humans have observed the Northern Lights, creating many myths and legends around them, though in recent years, scientists have been able to pinpoint their exact cause and nature. Tourists from around the world can now view the Northern Lights for themselves thanks to the miracle of modern technology.
Despite occurring in one of the most remote regions of the world, the Northern Lights loom large in the histories and mythologies of many peoples and cultures, even those who did not traditionally inhabit the Arctic. Read on to learn about the history of the Northern Lights.
The History of the Northern Lights
Auroras have been occurring on Earth for as long as the Earth has existed. They are created by the sun’s interaction with Earth, specifically when solar wind—particles emitted by the sun—come into contact with the magnetosphere, the protective barrier around Earth generated by its magnetic field. Much of the magnetosphere extends into outer space, but at the North and South Poles, it intersects with the atmosphere, which is why virtually all auroras occur within these zones.
It is believed that humans have been observing and noting the Northern Lights going back before the earliest known empires. Cro-Magnon cave paintings stretching back to 30,000 B.C. are believed to depict auroras in the form of “macaronis,” blots that represent mysterious lights in the sky. The oldest confirmed aurora sighting was in China in 2600 B.C., when Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Emperor Shuan-Yuan, noted “strong lightning” in the air that illuminated the night sky.
Many peoples in North America, Europe, and Asia developed myths around the Northern Lights, even if they did not live in areas where auroras were common. It is from the ancient Greeks that we derive the name “aurora borealis,” with “aurora” meaning “sunshine” and “borealis” meaning “wind.” The Greeks held that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and the moon, respectively, and that auroras were the result of Aurora darting across the sky in a chariot to inform her siblings that a new day was dawning. The Romans had a similar myth, seeing them as the manifestation of the goddess of dawn, which they also called Aurora.
Due to the rarity with which auroras occur outside of the Arctic, their presence in southerly latitudes inspired many myths, some positive, some negative. During much of the second millennium A.D., the French and Italians believed that auroras were a bad omen signaling great suffering to come, whether in the form of war, plague, or something else. Just prior to the French Revolution, a red aurora was observed in England and Scotland and was later seen to be a warning of the troubles that would soon beset Europe.
In China, auroras had a more positive reputation and were believed to be caused by two great celestial dragons fighting in the skies: one good, one evil. In Japan, it was historically believed that children conceived during an aurora would be blessed with good looks, intelligence, and fortune. It is for this reason that the Japanese are particularly interested in aurora tourism. The Australian aborigines also occasionally observed auroras, believing them to be an apparition of the gods dancing in the sky.
The Native Americans also developed a number of unique mythologies concerning the Northern Lights. The Cree people believed auroras to be the spirits of their dead ancestors trying to communicate with them, while the Algonquin saw auroras as a fire created by Nanahbozho, the legendary progenitor of their tribe. The Makah tribe of Washington state believed that auroras were fires created by a tribe of dwarves to boil whale blubber, while the Mandan people of North Dakota saw auroras as fires that great warriors used to devour their enemies.
The most vivid myths concerning the auroras and North American aboriginals come from the peoples who inhabited the Arctic Circle, where the Northern Lights are most commonly seen. The Inuit believed that auroras were the spirits of departed humans playing kickball with the skull of a walrus. The natives of Nunavik Island believed the opposite: that the Northern Lights were the spirits of dead walruses playing ball with the skull of a human.
A rich tapestry of myths also developed around the Northern Lights in Scandinavia. In Iceland, auroras are associated with childbirth, and it is believed that women who give birth during an aurora will not experience labor pains provided they don’t look at the aurora; if they do, the child will be born cross-eyed. Greenlanders also associate the Northern Lights with childbirth, believing auroras to be the spirits of stillborn babies.
In Finland, auroras were traditionally believed to be caused by the mythical fire fox, a creature that ran so fast across the snow that its tail gave off sparks. Indeed, the Finnish word for aurora, “revontulet,” translates into English as “fire fox.” The Sámi, an indigenous people residing in northern Scandinavia, believed the Northern Lights to be caused by whales ejecting spume into the air, while the Swedes believed that auroras were a sign of good fortune, caused by the gods providing warmth by igniting a volcano far to the north.
Auroras also figure prominently in Norse mythology. One Norse legend states that the Northern Lights was actually reflections from the shields and armor of the Valkyries, female warriors responsible for guiding warriors who died in battle to Valhalla, one of the realms of the Norse afterlife. Another legend suggests that auroras were a bridge connecting Midgard, the realm of mortals, to Asgard, the land of the gods.
It was not until the Renaissance in Europe that scientists took note of auroras and began to study them in greater detail. It was Galileo Galilei who coined the term “aurora borealis” in 1619, due to his mistaken belief that they were caused by sunlight reflected into the atmosphere. The English astronomer Henry Cavendish conducted extensive studies into auroras during his lifetime, discovering in 1790 that they were caused by light within Earth’s atmosphere, pinpointing their location to roughly 60 miles (100-130 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.
In 1902, Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland made a major breakthrough in our understanding of auroras, discovering that they were caused by electrical currents flowing through the upper atmosphere. This discovery helped in the development of neon lights, which operate on the same principles that auroras do, using electricity to make neon gas produce light. Later discoveries in the 20th century further refined our understanding of auroras by tying them to the sun’s emission of solar wind.
Due to their natural beauty and wonder, the Northern Lights have occupied a large role in human mythology and history. Peoples around the world have viewed them as portents of doom, bringers of good fortune, or simply signs that their ancestors are watching over them. Regardless of how you view the Northern Lights, they are a sight that you won’t soon forget. If you’re curious about auroras, book a tour and see one for yourself.