The Northern Lights is known as one of the Arctic Circle’s most fascinating and well-known tourist attractions. Every winter, hordes of outsiders flood into Alaska, Norway, Greenland, and other Arctic lands to witness the night sky lit ablaze in a panoply of colors. While the Northern Lights are better understood now thanks to modern scientists, throughout history, many people came up with elaborate myths to explain why they occurred.
A wide variety of cultures have observed the Northern Lights due to either their proximity to the Arctic Circle or their explorations of it, and their myths reflect the diversity of the peoples who inhabit the world. Here are some of the best-known myths about the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights in Cultures Around the World
Analyzing the myths of some Arctic peoples is difficult due to a lack of proper documentation. Many Arctic cultures, such as the Norse and the Inuit, either lacked writing systems entirely or the means to write things down, meaning that much of the knowledge these people possessed has been lost. As a result, much of what we know about them, including how they viewed the Northern Lights, comes from oral legends or outside observers.
The most extensive documentation on how ancient peoples viewed the Northern Lights comes from the Norse people of Scandinavia, also known as the Vikings. Prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia, Norse people practiced a pagan religion that had a well-developed pantheon of gods and legends. According to this mythology, the Northern Lights were reflections from the armor and shields worn by the Valkyries, a group of maidens who served the god Odin and welcomed those who died in battle to Valhalla, one of the realms of the Norse afterlife.
The Norse also had a number of other myths relating to the Northern Lights. According to them, auroras were also the physical manifestation of the Bifröst, a bridge of light linking Asgard, the land of the gods, to Midgard, the land of mortals. Gods would use the Northern Lights to descend to the material realm from time to time, while mortals would ascend the aurora upon death to meet their fate in the afterlife.
The varied cultures of Scandinavia also developed a number of local myths about the Northern Lights, unrelated to the Norse religion. The Finns believed that auroras were caused by fire foxes running so fast across the sky that their tails caused sparks. Indeed, the Finnish word for auroras, “revontulet,” literally translates to “fire fox.” The Sami people of northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway believe that the Northern Lights are caused by the spume of water that whales eject when they surface for air.
In Iceland, the Northern Lights are associated with childbirth. Legend holds that women who give birth during an aurora will avoid labor pains provided they don’t look directly at the aurora; if they do, the child will be born cross-eyed. Greenlanders also associate the Northern Lights with childbirth, believing them to be the souls of babies who have died in labor. Swedes view auroras as a sign of good news, forecasting strong harvests for farmers and good catches for fishermen in the coming year.
While the ancient Greeks and Romans lived far to the south of where the Northern Lights can typically be seen, recorded observances by explorers and occasional freak aurora occurrences further south led them to develop their own myths about the phenomena. Indeed, the name “aurora borealis” is Greek in origin; “aurora” means sunrise, while “borealis” means wind. Greeks and Romans saw the Northern Lights as a manifestation of their respective gods. The Greeks saw it as Eos, the sister of Helios (the sun) and Seline (the moon), while the Romans saw it as the goddess Aurora.
The various native peoples of North America have similar beliefs about the Northern Lights, the most common being that they are the spirits of departed ancestors. A few tribes also believe that the Northern Lights are spirit guides wielding torches, leading the dead to the afterlife. The Inuit of Greenland and Canada have a more elaborate view, seeing auroras as the spirits of their dead ancestors playing a game of ball with a walrus’ skull.
The Chinese and Japanese also have elaborate myths about the origin of the Northern Lights. The Chinese believe that auroras are caused by battles between celestial dragons, one of whom is good and the other evil. The Japanese view the Northern Lights as a sign of good fortune, with children born during them to be endowed with intelligence and good looks.
Finally, while auroras are uncommon in Australia, they have occurred with enough regularity over the centuries for the aboriginal peoples of this continent to mythologize them. Australian aborigines believe that auroras were gods dancing in celebration. Note that due to Australia’s position south of the equator, auroras seen in this part of the world are more properly called “aurora australis.”
As one of the world’s most spectacular and unique sights, the Northern Lights has spawned an entire panoply of myths and legends. If you are ever lucky enough to witness the Northern Lights, you will see why for yourself; no other event on Earth carries the same beauty and majesty as auroras. If you’re curious, why not book a tour and see for yourself?