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Colors in the Night Sky: Northern Lights in Myths and Legends

Updated on April 17, 2018
fairychamber profile image

Folklorist and a story teller who loves to explore myths from all corners of the world.

Magic of the north

Growing up in north-western Finland I´v seen northern lights several times. Living near the sea dancing lights I saw were mostly green but every time when I went up north to visit my grandparents I saw northern lights in all colors of the rainbow. Still today when I see northern lights during dark October nights I see them as true miracle of nature and I understand how they captivated minds of the people in the past same way as they captivate the imagination of a modern human. There are several myths told about the northern lights and I will share some of them with you.

Estonian celestial wedding

In Estonia there is interesting myth told about the birth of the northern lights. According to Estonian myths northern lights were created when humpback whales were playing games and their scales are reflected into the night sky.

Another Estonian folk tale tells us that northern lights are born when spectacular horse drawn carriages are carrying heavenly guests into magnificent celestial wedding.

Firefox of the saami´s

In the Lapland of Finland northern lights were believed to be created by a magical giant fox called Tulikettu. Foxes were hunted because of their fur and it was believed that great fox hunter was also a great shaman. Tulikettu was like the Phoenix of all foxes and there could only be one fire fox at time. It was believed that the hunter who catch the fire fox would live in great wealth for the rest of their life. Fire fox however was so fast that no one could ever catch it. When it ran in the snowy hills it´s fur and tail brushes would create sparks that would fly into the skies and turn into northern lights. Finnish word for northern lights revontulet literally means fox´s fires.

Lapland, Scandinavia and Greenland

According to another Saami myth northern lights were spume of water ejected from whales swimming in the arctic sea.

For fishermen in northern Sweden northern lights were good prophecy. Omen that there was large groups of herrings swimming by.

In Norse myths aurora borealis thought as reflections of the shining spears, armors and helmets of the valkyries. The warrior women who rode on horseback leading fallen soldiers to Valhalla. Sometimes northern lights were believed to be the Bifrost Bridge. Magical arc that lead straight into Valhalla the home of the gods and goddesses.

For the Inuits in Greenland northern lights were spirits of still born babies and even children that had been killed after birth.

Northern lights in Inuit and Native American myths

Native American myths about the Aurora Borealis vary great deal same way as the traditions and cultures of different tribes.

Algonquin´s the natives of Ottawa and Ontario in Canada believe that northern lights were created by their creator spirit Nanahbozho. For them it was a sign that he was always watching over them.

For the Menominee´s native American tribe of the Wisconsin area northern lights were torches used by evil giants when they speared fish at night.

Inuit´s living in Point Arrow, the most northern point of Alaska believed strongly that northern lights were evil and suspicious and they could come down from the skies and kill a man. They carried knives with them to protect themselves from them.

Inuits of Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea thought that northern lights were created by a walrus spirits who were playing with human skulls.

Makah´s native american tribe from the Washington state told stories about a tribe of dwarfs who boiled whale blubber. Another myth which connects Aurora to cooking comes from Mandan from north Dakota where people believed that in the northern lights there lived great warriors who cooked their enemies heads in massive pots.

Aurora in the Greek Mythology

Aurora Borealis are a rare sight in such southern parts of Europe as Greece but for the ancient Greece there was nothing that could have not be explained without the presence of gods and goddesses. In Greek Aurora means sunrise and boreas means the wind. Aurora was the sister to Helios the sun god and Seline the moon goddess. In Greek myth sun and the day are born when Helios and Seline ride in the skies with their celestial wagons. Sometimes Aurora joins the ride but her wagon is made of vivid dancing colors. She is assisted by god of the northern wind Boreas who gives her chariot a nice blow.

Fight of the dragons, Northern Lights of the east

It is not very common to see Aurora Borealis in the firmament of Japan or China but when they are seen they are considered to be mystical powerful occasions.

In Japan child conceived under northern lights is believed to receive good looks, intelligence and great fortune.

In China Aurora Borealis are connected to the stories and legends about mighty dragons. Lights in the skies are good and evil dragons testing their powers against one another and breathing fire.

Australian Aboriginals do not see northern lights but southern lights Aurora Australis. For the aboriginals Aurora Australis represent their beloved deities and spirit dancing in the celestial sky.

Central Europe and Britain

Northern Lights are rare phenomena in central and southern Europe. Before people knew the science behind the northern lights people lived in an atmosphere where all supernatural things were frightening and northern lights terrified people. In Italy and France northern lights were thought to predict war, plague and mass deaths.

In north of Scotland where northern lights are more common they are called dancing merry men representing souls of the soldiers who died in a battle.

Be careful when you whistle

Some Native American tribes believed that northern lights were trickster spirits who would come down if someone whistled and would kidnap the person.To protect themselves person should clap. This made the lights retreat and people would be safe from them.

In Greenland expecting mothers were told not to whistle otherwise child would be born crossed-eyed.

Saami´s in Lapland also had superstitions about whistling. If they would whistle the lights would come down from the skies, chase them and burn their hair. Because of this still today many saami´s test their powers by whistling to the northern lights.

Northern Lights Video

Northern Lights & Star Sky in the Saami Mythology


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    • fairychamber profile image

      Niina Niskanen 3 months ago from Wrexham

      It´s very interesting. Probably had to do a lot with the culture as well.

    • K S Lane profile image

      K S Lane 3 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

      It's fascinating how different groups of people can interpret things in such completely different ways, like how in France and Italy the lights are interpreted as being a sign of death whereas in the north they're thought of as being something magical and positive. Great Hub!