Thanks to scientific research, we now know what causes the northern lights. But long before we had the ability to study the skies, people inevitably assigned meaning to the aurora.
Long before we understood that the lights were caused by electrically-charged particles from the Sun hitting our atmosphere, the lights were worshipped, loved and feared in equal measure.
Many of the myths and legends are based in northern countries where people would have seen the lights regularly. Yet some of these bizarre and entertaining stories come from places much farther south, where an aurora display would have been a much rarer occurrence.
Of course, knowing which of these stories were genuine belief and which were simply stories—perhaps even more modern interpretations—is hard to pin down. But even so, they serve to show the broad range of human imagination at work about a phenomenon that even though we understand, still feels magical today.
The Sami of northern Scandinavia
For the indigenous Sami of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, the lights were feared and respected. Perhaps that’s due to the regularity that they would have seen them, most nights during the long, northern winter.
Sami people believed the lights represented the souls of the dead and it was improper to discuss them. Waving at them was frowned upon too as if you caught their attention, the Sami believed the lights would reach down and carry you away.
Even today, some Sami people choose not to look directly at an aurora display.
The fire foxes of Finland
The northern lights are referred to in Finnish as revontulet, which literally translates as fox fire. According to Finnish folklore, Arctic foxes would run so quickly that their furry tails created sparks when coming into contact with the mountains.
An interesting point about this myth is that there is some truth to it, as an Arctic fox’s fur can actually create tiny sparks of static electricity in the very dry air of northern Finland.
The northern lights in Norse mythology
It’s commonly thought that Norse mythology features many references to the aurora, but evidence is thin.
One often-quoted myth is that the lights were thought to be the ‘rainbow bridge’ that connected Midgard and Asgard—the home of the humans and the home of the gods. This could have been the lights especially when they take the form of an arch, but this reference could just have easily been a rainbow seen by day.
Other stories suggest the lights were the reflections from the armour and shields of the Valkyries—female spirit warriors that transported Odin’s chosen fallen warriors to Valhalla.
Northern lights myths in the Americas
Just as the Sami beliefs, many former north American beliefs about the northern lights centered on them being souls of the dead. Some Native American stories claim the lights were spirits leading away the recently departed. Other indigenous communities believed they could communicate with the dead when the lights were active.
Beliefs about the aurora varied greatly among communities. The Fox Indians of Wisconsin believed the lights were the restless spirits of their dead enemies and an omen of war to come, whereas the Menominee Indians believed they were torches used by friendly northern giants to aid fishing at night.
Algonquin tribes in Canada and northern Michigan believed the lights were the reflection of a fire lit by the earth’s creator, Nanahbozho, intended to demonstrate that the creator was still thinking of them despite being far away.
Inuit communities of Alaska were among those to fear the lights. They even carried knives to protect themselves.
Legends from elsewhere in the world
Some believe the northern lights are responsible for a surprising number of other myths and legends around the world. For example, the early dragon legends of China and parts of Europe could well have been sparked by a rare ‘once in a lifetime’ sighting of the aurora.
Anglo-Saxon chronicles document dragon sightings above northern England that were seen as an omen of war. Some explain the sightings as comets or meteorites but recent climate research suggests an alternate explanation.
“It is possible that what was reported in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles were the writhing forms of the northern lights, which some historians believe to be the origin of all European dragon myths,” said Jim Snee at Heritage Lincolnshire.