Northern Lights Folklore

The Northern Lights have intrigued (and scared) people right back since the dawn of man, and indeed still does to this day. Here are some of the many stories from some of the indigenous peoples of the world. If you have a story you know or can link to one (in any language) please let us know so we can add it to the page.

North America

The Eskimos and Indians of North America have many stories to explain these northern lights.

One story is reported by the explorer Ernest W. Hawkes in his book, The Labrador Eskimo:

“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 who
live in the sky”.

Evil Thing
The Point Barrow Eskimos were the only Eskimo group who considered the aurora an evil thing. In the past they carried knives to keep it away from them.

Omen of War
The Fox Indians, who lived in Wisconsin, regarded the light as an omen of war and pestilence. To them the lights were the ghosts of their slain enemies who, restless for revenge, tried to rise up again.

Dancing Spirits
The Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska interpreted the northern lights as the dancing of human spirits. The Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River believed that the aurora was the dance of animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga.

Game of Ball
Most Eskimo groups have a myth of the northern lights as the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. The Eskimos of Nunivak Island had the opposite idea, of walrus spirits playing with a human skull.

Spirits of Children
The east Greenland Eskimos thought that the northern lights were the spirits of children who died at birth. The dancing of the children round and round caused the continually moving streamers and draperies of the aurora.

Fires in the North
The Makah Indians of Washington State thought the lights were fires in the Far North, over which a tribe of dwarfs, half the length of a canoe paddle and so strong they caught whales with their hands, boiled blubber.

Stew Pots
The Mandan of North Dakota explained the northern lights as fires over which the great medicine men and warriors of northern nations simmered their dead enemies in enormous pots. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin regarded the lights as torches used by great, friendly giants in the north, to spear fish at night.

Creator Reminder
An Algonquin myth tells of when Nanahbozho, creator of the Earth, had finished his task of the creation, he traveled to the north, where he remained. He built large fires, of which the northern lights are the reflections, to remind his people that he still thinks of them.

Europe

Finland
The Finnish name for the northern lights “revontulet” is associated with the arctic fox. According to a folk tale, an arctic fox is running far in the north and touching the mountains with its fur, so that sparks fly off into the sky as the northern lights. Another version of the story says the fox throws the northern lights up into the sky by sweeping snow upwards with its tail. A more developed version then explains how moonlight is reflected from the snowflakes swept up into the sky by the fox’s tail.

In the Sami language, the northern lights are called guovssahasah. It means “the sun glowing in the sky in the morning or in the evening,” as in aurora, the Latin word for dawn. But this word could also be translated as “the fire lit by a bird, the Siberian Jay”. This word also refers to audible light, although no scientific proof of audible sound coming from the aurora exists (more on that subject on our Aurora Service Radio page!.

Scotland
In Scottish Gaelic folklore the Northern Lights are known as the Na Fir Chlis – “the Nimble Men” (or also known as the merry dancers). The Lights were described as epic fights among sky warriors or fallen angels. Blood from the wounded fell to earth and spotted the “bloodstones” or heliotrope found in the Hebrides.

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