Tales of the Northern Lights
WORDS ANNE MARIE SCANLON
Oh, it was wild and weird and wan, and ever in camp o’ nights
We would watch and watch the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights.
And soft they danced from the Polar sky and swept in primrose haze;
And swift they pranced with their silver feet, and pierced with a blinding blaze.
They danced a cotillion in the sky; they were rose and silver shod;
It was not good for the eyes of man — ‘Twas a sight for the eyes of God.
Robert Service, “The Ballad of the Northern Lights”
I remember the first and only time I saw the northern lights. I was seven years old, and visiting family in Fort McMurray, Alberta. One late night, my family and I were lying at the edge of a small lake; I looked up and was completely amazed by the sight that greeted my eyes. Fingers, long, green and blue fingers, were stretching down from the sky from all directions. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, and it seemed as though these celestial beings were coming at me from all directions, wanting to scoop me up. They took up the entire sky and as soon as one light would disappear into the vastness of the sky another would reach down, so close to my face. I lay there transfixed for what felt like hours (in reality it was probably only half an hour). My Dad told me what I was seeing were the northern lights. I thought they were angels.
The northern lights (Aurora borealis) are a visual occurrence that can be seen in many different skies across the world. They have spawned countless stories, poems, songs, and folklore. At times, the northern lights can be a faint light in the sky. The northern lights can take on the shape of a sparkling ribbon, a swirling arch, or simply patches of colour. Other times they are a faint glow in the distance, always moving. The varying colour, brilliance, and form all depend on different factors: the sun, the earth’s magnetic field, the time of year, the location, and the time of day. The spectacle of the lights does happen during the day, but is seen only at night because the sun’s bright light outshines the northern lights. People living in places like Alaska, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are frequent spectators of the lights.
Today, thanks to science and technology, the northern lights are no longer a mystery. However, for centuries and centuries, residents of the north were baffled by the occurrence in the sky and came up with their own explanations. The stories the northern lights have inspired could fill a book, but this article will explore a few of the myths and folklore that have survived through the centuries.
Myths surrounding the northern lights date back at least as far as the Viking Age. The Old Norse word for the northern lights is norôrljós. The first time the term is used is in the book The King’s Mirror, which dates to 1250, after the end of the Viking Age (800–1100AD). In the book, the early settlers of Greenland describe their reactions upon seeing the northern lights for the first time. They had several theories for what they were seeing. They thought perhaps Greenland lay on the outermost edge of the earth and the light they were seeing was the leftover sun of the day. Others believed the icebergs and snow that dominated the scenery were so powerful they were able to emit these flames.
In more recent years, many have suggested a connection between the god Ullr and the northern lights. His name means “glory, or shining” and scholars have thought there was a connection there despite the lack of concrete proof in Old Norse literature. Also, there are some mentions in Old Norse mythology that the armour of the Valkyries “sheds a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the northern skies” and that this is the cause of the northern lights.
In North America, much of the folklore relates to the spiritual world and departed ancestors. The tales tell of the native peoples’ special relationship with death. For the most part, they do not fear it: they believe the northern lights are their departed loved ones, or animals they worshipped and hunted, that live in the sky.
The anthropologist Ernest W. Hawkes wrote The Labrador Eskimo after his 1914 trip to the coast of Labrador. Hawkes travelled alongside those he was studying and his book (published in Ottawa in 1916) reports on everything he saw, from clothing to burying rituals. Hawkes spent many months at a time among aboriginal people and recounts many of their rituals and myths in his book. One of the myths from his book is below:
The Heavenly Regions
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 accompanies 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 wholive in the sky.
Hawkes travelled the whole of the Labrador Peninsula with Inuit companions, and this story would have been told to him the same way it had been relayed orally through generations. All cultures in the world have some story version of an afterlife and this one demonstrates their lack of fear and their willingness to embrace death.
Many native North Americans had stories and beliefs that the northern lights were a negative force. The Point Barrow Inuit considered the northern lights an evil thing, and they carried knives to keep it away from them.
The Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island claim the northern lights used to have no colours. Children were warned to stay inside at night or they would be stolen away by the lights. According to the stories, some children didn’t listen and were carried away. It is said that the colours visible to us nowadays are the colourful parkas of the children as they dance in the sky.
Some Inuit folk tales claim that the northern lights are alive, and if you whistle at them they will come closer and snatch you away. Children were warned not to whistle at the northern lights for fear of being taken or having their heads cut off.
The Fox tribe of Wisconsin regarded the northern lights as an omen symbolizing war and pestilence. They feared the northern lights, believing them to be spirits of their former enemies who wanted to rise up and claim their vengeance.
Other native groups in North America held a more positive belief about the northern lights. The Menominee people of Wisconsin believed the northern lights were torches used by friendly giants of the North to help them spear fish at night. Athabaskan natives believed they were the spirits of the dead, who were watching over them, and at times they believed these spirits, or ‘sky dwellers,’ were trying to communicate and send them messages. The Dogrib, an
Athabaskan-speaking Dene First Nations people who reside in the Northwest Territories of Canada, tell a tale about the origins of the northern lights. A summary of the story is below.
Dogrib Tale of the Northern Lights
Caribou-footed was a young man who had endured many hardships in his life and travelled far. He travelled northward along the Yukon River and encountered a Great Chief named Nesnabi, who gave him shelter. One day, Caribou-footed decided to venture out into the world. Nesnabi wished him well and provided him with seven arrows and the following advice: “These are enough to help you. But if you should shoot a bird or animal in a spruce tree, and if the arrow should stick to the branches, take care that you do not go after it. If you do go after it, something strange will happen to you.”
Our hero soon shot an arrow at a squirrel in the branches of a red spruce tree. Forgetting the advice of Great Chief Nesnabi, Caribou-footed climbed the tree to fetch the arrow that had missed the squirrel. As he climbed higher and higher up the red spruce he entered the Sky Country. All he could see was a great white mass of shining snow; no people or animals were to be found. He soon discovered that the Sky Country was barren because Hatempka, the Chief of the Sky Country, had lost his medicine belt, which was his great power. Caribou-footed accepted the challenge to retrieve the medicine belt in hopes to bring back life and happiness to the Sky Country, and to win the hand of Hatempka’s daughter. Against all odds he retrieved the medicine belt and saved the people of the Sky Country. Caribou-footed stayed in the country and later on in life, when Hatempka was gone, he became the chief of Sky Country. The legend concludes that when the northern lights are visible in the sky, in the far North Country, “the fingers of Caribou-footed are beckoning us to the home beyond the sky. Soon some of us will pass to that great country where he has found a home for us, far, far away.”
In these instances native groups have intertwined the mysteries of the northern lights with the unknown of the afterlife. Similarly, Alaskans believed that the spirits of the dead were watching over them and sending them messages, attempting to communicate with them. They called them ‘sky dwellers’ and thought they were their deceased relatives.
Many Northern European myths about the northern lights feature animals or the belief that the northern lights are omens that can determine the future. Each culture holds different beliefs about what causes the northern lights and the stories showcase the diversity of their respective cultures. In Sweden, people thought the lights were dancers dancing happily in the sky. Many believed the lights were dancing a polka, a well-known folk dance. Likewise, the Sami once believed that the lights in the sky were the souls of their ancestors dancing in the sky, perhaps to a polka.
The Finnish name for the northern lights is revontulet, which is associated with the Arctic Fox. Finnish people thought that foxes with sparkling fur were running over the mountains of Lapland (the land north of the Arctic Circle), and that their fur touching the mountains created sparks that flew up into the sky. These lights were referred to as ‘fox fires’ at times. Another version of the story says that the lights are caused by moonlight reflecting off the snow that the fox sweeps into the sky with his tail. In Estonia, people believed that whales played a game at night, which included a water jet.
Many Scandinavians thought they saw schools of herring swimming across the skies in the lights, and that this foretold that their fishermen would be fortunate and catch many fish. In Icelandic legends the northern lights were thought to ease the pain of childbirth. However, if an expectant mother were to look up at the lights, she would have cross-eyed children. Natives of the Faeroe Islands off the coast of Iceland warned their children never to leave home without wearing a cap, as they feared the lights would burn their hair.
At times the northern lights glow a deep red and many cultures have taken this as an omen of war and death. In Ancient Roman times, the sky glowed bright red during the rule of the emperor Tiberius (42 BCE to 37 CE). Tiberius thought the seaport of Ostia on the Tiber River was on fire. He sent his army to extinguish the flames but when his men arrived they could find nothing except a blazing sky. In Scotland and England, blood-red lights were seen in the sky before the French Revolution. This rare colour is typically the only hue of the northern lights that is visible in Southern Europe.
The northern lights have also been reported in China and Japan. Both cultures believe that a baby conceived under the northern lights will have good luck and good looks. In Ancient China, people believed that dragons came from the northern lights, and that the lights they saw were the dragons’ fiery breath.
The Science of the Northern Lights
Today scientific studies can explain what causes the northern lights, and we no longer need to depend on the stories of those before us. The northern lights are caused by the interaction of high-energy particles (usually electrons) with neutral atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. The Earth’s magnetic force directs particles from the sun towards the sky directly above the magnetic poles. The sun’s magnetic field gives off a high energy and as it rotates on its axis, sunspots are created. On the surface of the sun, the temperature is exceptionally hot and gas molecules collide regularly, causing particles to escape the sun’s magnetic field. The Earth’s magnetic field is capable of repelling the escaped particles, however, it is weakest at either pole and so the particles are able to come into contact with the Earth’s atmosphere in these areas. The northern lights are the result of the sun coming into contact with gases in our atmosphere like nitrogen and oxygen. When scientists first began studying the northern lights they tracked solar wind and flares to determine when and where northern lights would occur. These methods are still used today.
While science can explain the cause, there are still questions surrounding the lights that remain today. One of them is “Do the northern lights make sound?” There is little evidence to back this up, but many stories and people in recent times have reported hearing snapping, swishing, and crackling sounds during a sighting of the northern lights. Some people believe that the noises may simply be the wind, or perhaps the shifting of the ice and snow nearby.
There are countless myths, stories, and songs that attempt to explain the northern lights that shine in the sky. The real scientific answer is perhaps less interesting and entertaining than the folk tales, especially the more imaginative ones. The different people attempting to explain what they saw in the sky spanned countries and continents. However, they all shared the same goal of deciphering the mysterious lights they saw in the sky, just like I did as a child many years ago.
Many of the stories involving northern lights were passed down orally, and it’s possible that many of them have been lost forever. The stories of the folklore allow us a glimpse into the life and culture of the creators of the stories. The legends reflect the values they carried and upheld in their societies: some honoured the dead, while others feared the northern lights and the unknown. However old the story, the northern lights have outlived them all and their ethereal glow will outlive us and our stories as well.