(Note: this is a slightly rewritten excerpt from my second book Sun, Moon and Stars. I hope that isn’t out of line, but I still like the piece as it is.)
In the same year so bright a light illumined a wide spread of lands in the middle of the night that you would have thought that it was high noon. On a number of occasions fiery globes were also seen traversing the sky at night-time, so that they seemed to light up the whole earth. (The History of the Franks IX.4)
The Northern Lights are a more personal topic than many in this blog. I grew up in Labrador, which is in the sub-Arctic of Canada, and we did get some good displays. (For the best, you go further north, above the tree line.) Apart from the great colour show you can get, the thing I most remember about them is the hush – people would stop and look, and no one made any noise, just watched the pink and green bands undulate across the sky. It wasn’t hard to see why the Innu and Inuit were in awe of them.
The colours are all fluorescent. The main one is the kind of green that, as Bill Bryson put it, you see on radar screens. That’s the most common kind – it needs a real disturbance in the Van Allen Belt before you get other colours like neon-tube pink or white.
Even where I lived there was a variance in pattern. You could get just a small band high in the sky, or else a huge sheet of colour that moved in the sky like a curtain in a light breeze. I love it, and even now if I’m home in the winter I’ll stand outside in minus 30 F weather to watch them. And of course it’s only really cold, dry, frosty weather that brings them on.
A Soli-Terran Production
The aurora, borealis and australis, is a soli-terran joint production. Peaks in sunspots or solar storms can cause explosions of gases on the sun, which send magnetic particles into space. Propelled by solar wind, these can reach Earth in two days.
When they do, some of the particles get sucked into the Earth’s magnetic field, and are drawn towards the Poles. There, these charged particles enter the atmosphere, and crash against air molecules to produce the electrical storms we call the aurora. In peak years for sunspots, the aurora borealis can be seen as far away from the North Pole as Mexico.
Spirits in the sky
The aurora has attracted plenty of myths and legends, as you might expect from such a flashy phenomenon. The Inuit called the Northern Lights aqsarniit, the football players. (A favourite Inuit pastime was a football game using a walrus’ head, the object being to kick it so the tusks stuck in the ground.)
These football players were dead spirits who lived in the sky. The Inuit believed that they could bring these spirits of the dead closer by whistling at them, but if they got too close you could twist your tongue upright at them, or make faces at them.
Another explanation for the lights was that the spirits lit torches to show the way for new ones coming to join them. It seems that only people who died violently or killed themselves went to the aurora-people. The East Greenland Inuit said that it was still-born or exposed children who went the spirits, where they played in the sky. According to the Inuit there are storms after a big display.
A bit further south, the Passmaquoddy or Pestemohkatiyek of Maine also saw a celestial ball game in the aurora. They told how the Morning Star chief travelled the Milky Way to get his son back from the Lights. When he got there, he saw that the ball players wore lights on their heads and rainbow girdles. He retrieved his son and the Chief of the Northern Lights helped them get back home.
The Iroquois called the lights Hodonäi’a, and considered them divine personifications along with the thunder and wind. The Menominee of Wisconsin said that there was a race of giants (manabai’wok) which no one saw any more, but when they went out hunting or fishing their lights were visible in the sky.
The Fox, like the Inuit, said that you could summon the lights, and when they came you could hear them running. In Ottawa legend, the demi-god Nanabush told the Ottawa (of Ontario) that although he was leaving them, he would return once in a while to see how they were doing, and the sign that he was there would be the fire in the sky.
The Tlingit said that all who died violently went to the afterworld in the north, ruled by Tahit, who decided whether warriors and women giving birth would die, as well as what sex children would be. When souls in her domain prepared for battle, the aurora borealis would be red.
In an echo of Tahit, the Chuvash of Russia called the northern lights Shuratian-Tura, Birth-Giving-Heaven, and said that the display was the sky giving birth to a son. Giving birth during a display came under her patronage, and was supposed to be painless.
Souls of the Dead, and Sky-Battles
The Lapps of Finland said that the lights are those who have died in battle, still fighting in the air. It was these spirits that made them afraid of the Northern Lights. Similarly, the Russian Lapps said it was the souls of murder victims, who lived in a house where they constantly attacked one another, and avoided the sun, which they feared.
The Chukchee of Siberia also thought that anyone who died violently went to live in the northern lights. The Baltic people said that the display in the sky was the Murgi (spirits of the air) or Iodhi (souls of the dead) fighting in the air. The Estonians shared in the common view; they saw it as a heavenly war. Nor was this strictly pagan, since some Finns said that it was angels fighting in the sky.
Another kind of sky-battle associated with the aurora borealis was the fire-flying of Lapp shamans, who used to settle quarrels by fighting in that shape. Their spirits would send the shamans light, which came from the aurora, and the two lights would fight with much crackling and noise until one shaman’s light was extinguished, which killed him. (Oddly, the Inuit also insist that the northern lights make noise, although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they do.)
Others took a more cheerful view of the aurora borealis, saying that they were dancers in the sky. The Norwegians and Finns said that it was old maids dancing. In Norway there was a folk belief that the souls of unmarried women went to the northern lights after death, as in the saying, “She is so old that she will soon pass away to the northern lights.”
The Finns explained the aurora by saying that the old maids were making fire. The Scots combined the two themes by calling them the Merry Dancers, who were fighting for the favour of a woman. The Swedes called them Polka, after the dance.
They also have connections to Norse myth. There have been several suggestions as to who might be the embodiment of the northern lights. Finnur Magnusson, a nineteenth-century writer, suggested that they might be the Valkyries, with their flashing shields, and argued that many of their names suggested light and flashing.
Another candidate is the Einherjar, the slain warriors who live in Valhalla. Warriors living in a hall in heaven and rising to fight each day as sport fits with the folklore of the northern lights. Another warlike story about the aurora is Swedish folklore that said that if the lights were in the south, that was the breath of Thor and his rams, but in the north the breath of the giants, his opponents.
To the Dogrib of the Yukon, the lights were a sign that people were going to die soon. They called it Ithenhiela, after a young man in one of their stories. He escaped a cruel giant who had him as a slave, and went to the sky country. He rescued the sky chief’s magic belt and the chief’s daughter married him. The northern lights were Ithenhiela’s fingers as he beckoned people to come to the afterworld.
As for the aurora australis, there are myths about that amongst the Maoris and Australian Aborigines, although the lights were usually only visible over Antarctica and the polar sea. The Maori said they were the distant fires from ancestors who had gone much further south, and now were signalling their relatives in the hope of being rescued. They called it Tahu-Nui-A-Rangi, the Great Burning in the Sky.
The south-eastern Australian Aborigines thought of it as Mungangana, the sky-god Mungan’s fire. Others in the area said it was blood, meaning that people were being killed. Like many other peoples, they saw it as an actively harmful entity.
The aurora seems harmless, but it carried ideas about death and ill fortune with it. The aurora also had good meanings to some peoples, of course, who saw it as a sign from a god or ancestor. Perhaps the most “scientific” legends about it were those that saw the aurora as a battle or tumult, echoing the crashing of charged solar particles against air molecules, which creates the vivid colours in the sky.
Bone, Neil, The Aurora: Sun – Earth Interactions, Praxis Publications Inc., Chichester, 1996.
Brekke A. and A. Egeland 1983: The Northern Light: from Mythology to Space Research, Springer.
Bryson, Bill 1992: Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Morrow/HarperCollins.
Falch-Ytter, Harald, Aurora: the Northern Lights in Mythology, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1985.
Gregory of Tours (trans. Lewis Thorpe) 1974: The History of the Franks, Penguin Classics.
Petrie, William, Keoeeit – The Story of the Aurora Borealis, Pergamon Press, New York, 1963.
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