History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (2023)

Norse myths and legends

The Northern Lights have inspired some of the most dramatic tales in Norse mythology. The Vikings celebrated the lights, believing they were earthly manifestations of their gods. Other Norse people feared them, telling stories of the dangers they posed and developing superstitions to protect themselves. These Norse myths and legends come from the Nordic countries in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic.

Heroes lighting up the sky

Odin was the chief god and ruler of Asgard, revered by allVikings. They believed he lived in Valhalla, where he was preparing for Ragnarök – a series of events that would precipitate the end of the gods and begin the world anew. In Viking legend, Ragnarök was predestined and would be Odin’s greatest battle, so he needed the bravest warriors at his side.

During every battle on Earth, Odin would pick the warriors who would die and join him in Valhalla. The Valkyries - female warriors on horseback, who wore armour and carried spears and shields - were tasked with leading Odin’s chosen warriors to Valhalla. The Vikings believedthe Northern Lightsilluminating the sky were the reflections of the Valkyries’ armour as they led the warriors to Odin.

In some legends, they claim the Aurora was the breath of brave soldiers who died in combat. In other stories, the Aurora was believed to be the ‘Bifrost Bridge’, a glowing, pulsing arch which led fallen warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla.

Danger in the lights?

For theSámi, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people, the lights didn’t tell stories of heroism and bravery; instead, they were to be feared and respected in equal measure. The appearance of the Northern Lights was a bad omen.

(Video) Myths and Legends of the Aurora Borealis | Earth Unplugged

Thought to be the souls of the dead, theSámibelieved you shouldn’t talk about the Northern Lights. It was also dangerous to tease them by waving, whistling or singing under them, as this would alert the lights to your presence. If you caught their attention, the lights could reach down and carry you up into the sky. A more sinister interpretation was that the Northern Lights could reach down and slice off your head! To this day, many Sámi stay indoors when the Northern Lights are illuminating the sky, just to be on the safe side.

Mythical fire foxes

InFinland, the name for the Northern Lights isrevontulet,literally translated as ‘fire fox’. The name comes from the rather beautiful myth that Arctic foxes produced the Aurora. These fire foxes would run through the sky so fast that when their large, furry tails brushed against the mountains, they created sparks that lit up the sky. A similar version of this story tells that as the fire foxes ran, their tails swept snowflakes up into the sky, which caught the moonlight and created the Northern Lights. This version would have also helped explain to the people why the lights were only visible in winter, as there is no snowfall in the summer months.

A widespread fascination

These complex mythologies were by no means the only ones to take root in Norse societies.

InIcelandicfolklore, they believed the Northern Lights helped to ease the pain of childbirth, but pregnant women were not to look directly at them or their child would be born cross-eyed. InGreenland, people held the bittersweet belief that the lights were the spirits of children, who had died in childbirth, dancing across the sky, while in Norway, the Northern Lights were believed to be the souls of old maids dancing in the heavens and waving at those below.

(Video) Aurora Borealis | Northern Light Myth and Legends 4K

Whichever fantastical tale captures your imagination, one thing is certain, the Northern Lights were assigned great power and significance by the peoples of ancient Nordic societies. Whether a harbinger of good or evil, the lights were as magical and revered as they continue to be today.

  • History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (1)
  • History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (2)
  • History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (3)
  • Photo: Shutterstock and

North American Myths and Legends

Many of the stories surrounding the Northern Lights in North American communities arose from the belief that they were the souls of departed ancestors. It was even believed that the lights might be the spirits of the animals they hunted. But not all North American legends painted the Northern Lights as quite so benevolent.

The Northern Lights and the circle of life

SomeNative Americanstories depictthe Northern Lightsas torches held by the spirits who were tasked with leading the souls of the recently deceased over the abyss to the land of brightness and plenty. To communicate with people on Earth, they believed the Northern Lights made a whistling sound, which was to be answered by humans with whispers.Eskimotribes believed they could summon the Aurora to converse with their dead relatives.Cree Indiansbelieved strongly in the ‘circle of life’. They also believed the lights were a way of communicating with their ancestors, and when dogs barked at the lights, it was because they recognised their lost companions.

InCanadaand northernMichigan, Algonquin tribes believed the creator of the Earth, Nanabozho, moved to the far north and lit a huge fire. The Aurora was a reflection of this fire, created to let his people know that even though he was far away, he was still thinking of them. The Menominee Indians ofWisconsinbelieved what they saw were gentle giants fishing at night, and that the lights were created by their torches as they fished.

The Inuits of northernGreenlandbelieved the lights were the spirits of the dead playing celestial games with a walrus skull, while other local Inuit communities believed walruses were playing games with a human skull.

(Video) The Legend of the Northern Lights | Alaska Legend

The Northern Lights and omens of death

Not all native communities in North America were comforted by the presence of the Northern Lights and many believed they were an evil omen.

Great Plains Indiansalso believed the lights were the reflection of large fires, but not one made by a loving creator. Theirs were the reflections of giant flames under huge cooking pots, lit by northern tribes to cook their enemies.

InHudson Bay, Canada, they believed the lights were the lanterns of demons chasing lost souls. InWisconsin, the Fox Indians thought the Northern Lights were the restless spirits of their slain enemies attempting to rise again for revenge – and were an omen of pestilence and war. InAlaska, Inuit communities also feared the lights and carried knives to ward themselves against the evil spirits of the aurora.

  • History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (4)
  • History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (5)
  • History of the Northern Lights: Myths and Legends (6)
  • Photo: Jens Mayer, Allen Hwang and Richard Hoeg

European Myths and Legends

The many sightings of the aurora borealis in Europe through time has given us a rich trove of myths and tales.

Before man could explain the origin of the auroras through science, people invented stories to make sense of their existence. Whilethe Northern Lightsare most frequently and intensely seen in the Auroral Oval above the Arctic Circle, they do also make occasional appearances further south, when there’s a burst of solar activity. Across history, there have been many auroral sightings in Europe, which has given us a rich trove of myths and tales.

(Video) Northern Lights Myths and Legends

Omens of bloodshed

When the aurora appears further south in Europe, the lights often take on a deep, reddish hue. It would explain why in continental Europe, many considered the dancing, blood red streaks of the Aurora to be an evil omen. When the lights appeared as an ominous, crimson presence in the skies above Europe, they were often seen as a portent of war or other dangers.

For instance, in the late 18thcentury, the onset of the French Revolution threw the country into turmoil. In the weeks before the monarchy was overthrown, a bright red Aurora was seen in the skies overEngland and Scotlandand people reported hearing huge armies battling in the skies. The frightened onlookers believed it foretold of impending war and death.

The Scotscalled the Northern Lights “Merry Dancers”, but, despite the cheery name, the ‘dancers’ depicted fallen angels or sky warriors engaged in an epic battle. In theHebrides, bloodstones are a common sight. These beautiful green heliotropes are speckled with red. The Scots believed these red specks were drops of blood that fell from the sky onto the stones as the Merry Dancers engaged in battle.

Positive omens

Not everybody saw the Aurora as a harbinger of doom. Many northern European cultures viewed the sight of the aurora as an auspicious sign.Estoniansbelieved that the aurora lighting up the skies were wonderful sleighs taking guests to a spectacular wedding celebration in the heavens.

Often, the myths explained the lights using stories about animals and nature. Some spoke of the aurora appearing when whales were playing games, while theDanesbelieved the lights were caused by swans competing to see who could fly further north. According to legend, some of the swans became trapped in the ice and as they tried to escape, they flapped their wings creating flurries of light in the sky.

(Video) Celtic Myths & Legends Northern Lights, Storm Kelpies & Green Maidens

Swedishfishermen looked forward to seeing the aurora, as they thought the lights were the reflections of giant schools of herring swimming nearby. For them, an aurora sighting brought good fortune and the promise of a hefty catch.

InGreco-Romanmythology, Aurora is the personification of the dawn, and the sister of the sun and the moon. The ancientGreeksandRomansbelieved that every day Aurora raced across the sky in her chariot, alerting her brother and sister to the breaking of the new day. Watching the Northern Lights stretch across the sky, it’s easy to imagine how this story took form.


What is the myth of the Northern Lights? ›

A widespread fascination

In Greenland, people held the bittersweet belief that the lights were the spirits of children, who had died in childbirth, dancing across the sky, while in Norway, the Northern Lights were believed to be the souls of old maids dancing in the heavens and waving at those below.

What is the history of the Northern Lights? ›

In 1619 A.D., Galileo Galilei coined the term "aurora borealis" after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning. He had the misconception that the auroras he saw were due to sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

What are the 5 different myths about the Aurora Borealis? ›

5 strange Northern Lights myths
  • A baby conceived under the Northern Lights will be beautiful and lucky. ...
  • The Northern Lights ease the pain of childbirth. ...
  • If they turn red, run. ...
  • Don't whistle at the Northern Lights. ...
  • Time to go fishing.
16 Oct 2020

What does the Bible say about the Northern Lights? ›

The northern lights is also mentioned in the Bible, in the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. In the 2,600 years old description it says:” I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north–an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.”

Is Northern Lights a true story? ›

Science, biography, and arctic exploration coverage in this extraordinary true story of the life and work of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, the troubled genius who solved the mysteries of one of nature's most spectacular displays.

Why is the Northern Lights important? ›

Observing auroras — and discovering what causes them to change over time — gives scientists insight on how our planet's magnetosphere reacts to the space weather near Earth.

Who found the northern lights first? ›

In the early 17th century, the astronomer and scientist Galileo Galilei named this phenomenon Aurora Borealis. Aurora was the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas was the Greek name for the north wind. Galilei thought that an aurora was caused by the sunlight reflected from the atmosphere.

What is the real name of the Northern Lights? ›

The aurora borealis, also known as the 'northern lights', is one of the most spectacular displays in the night sky.

How the Northern Lights got its name? ›

Though it was Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei who coined the name "aurora borealis" in 1619 — after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas — the earliest suspected record of the northern lights is in a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France (opens in new tab).

Is aurora borealis A mystery? ›

Scientists explore the mysteries of the Aurora with a stunning light show. It's hard to tell, but behind the beautiful, glimmering greens and blues of the Northern Lights hides a world of violence.

Who is the God of the Northern Lights? ›

The origin of the Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights

Galileo coined the phrase Aurora Borealis in 1861 by adding a second word derived from the Greek god of the northern wind, Boreas.

Can Northern Lights be touched? ›

Secondly, the aurora are essentially photon emissions from nitrogen and oxygen molecules, so you can't really touch it (as much as you can 'touch' a sunbeam). Even the gas that emits the photons is extremely tenuous.

How long does an aurora last? ›

A good display may last for no longer than 15-30 minutes at a time, although if you're really lucky, it could extend to a couple of hours or longer. To see the Northern lights, the sky needs to be dark and clear of any clouds. Some people claim the aurora comes out when temperatures are colder.

Can humans actually see the Northern Lights? ›

Auroras appear to the naked eye as a very faint, white glow in the night sky to the magnetic north. Many auroras are totally invisible to the naked eye or can only be seen by looking at them indirectly, i.e. out of the corner of your eye. It is extremely rare to see them in colour with the naked eye.

Do the Northern Lights actually move? ›

The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, appear in a clear night sky as swirling rivers of greenish-blue light. They move and dance unpredictably; sometimes barely perceptible, then suddenly growing vivid. In simple terms, the auroras can be explained as an interaction of the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field.

What colour are the Northern Lights in real life? ›

Most Northern Lights are green in colour but sometimes you'll see a hint of pink, and strong displays might also have red, violet and white colours, often seen by aurora chasers on Northern Lights trips. The reason for all these colours lies in the composition of our earth's atmosphere.

How old is the northern lights? ›

These rock paintings could be the very first recordings of the northern lights in the history of mankind – they can be dated back to 30,000 years before our time. There is a lot of documentation about the northern lights in the cultures of eastern Asia.

How fast do the northern lights move? ›

Specifically the lights originate from collisions between gas molecules on the surface of the sun, releasing large quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation. The speed at which the solar flares normally travel is around seven million miles per hour (11,265,408 kph).

What is the Northern Lights made of? ›

Auroras occur when charged particles (electrons and protons) collide with gases in Earth's upper atmosphere. Those collisions produce tiny flashes that fill the sky with colourful light. As billions of flashes occur in sequence, the auroras appear to move or " dance " in the sky.

What country has Northern Lights? ›

The Northern Lights can be seen in many countries in the polar north: Norway, Greenland, Iceland, Swedish and Finnish Lapland, Scotland, Siberia, Canada and Alaska. Generally, the higher the latitude, the better the chance of experiencing the aurora.

How do you explain the Northern Lights to a child? ›

In a simple definition, northern lights are some shades of lights seen in the north pole of the earth. Northern light is also familiar as a name aurora borealis. For explaining this to your kids, you should make them familiar with some common words such as atmosphere, earth's core, atoms, molecules, poles, gases etc.

Will Northern Lights ever disappear? ›

We can never say with absolute certainty that the Aurora Borealis will appear in the night sky but, even as we move through the declining stage of Solar Cycle 24, it is inaccurate to say that the Northern Lights are set to disappear.

What are the northern lights like in real life? ›

Let's get this clear: Northern Lights can white-ish, green, pinkish, reddish, blueish – depending on so many factors. Northern Lights can be bright and brilliant in colour, they can look soft and gentle, they can simply be a glow in the sky.

What powers does aurora have? ›

Aurora has the powers of flight and superhuman speed and reflexes (theoretically able to approach light-speed.

Why are Northern Lights green? ›

The most common colour seen in the Northern Lights is green. When the solar wind hits millions of oxygen atoms in the Earth's atmosphere at the same time, it excites the oxygen atoms for a time and then they decay back to their original state, when they emit the green hue we can see from the ground.

What do Northern Lights mean? ›

The Northern Lights feature prominently in Norse mythology. One legend suggests that the lights were reflections or glow from the shields and armour of the Valkyrie, female warriors who would choose who may die in battle and who may live to fight another day.

Can Northern Lights be black? ›

Summary: While our understanding of how the aurora's shimmering curtains of colour are formed, scientists have struggled to explain the black patches between the bright beams. Now scientists have discovered what happens at the heart of these so-called "black aurora".

Is 2023 a good year for Northern Lights? ›

There are no guarantees, but stronger displays are therefore more likely around the spring equinox on March 20, 2023 and around the autumn equinox on September 23, 2023.

Do the Northern Lights smell? ›

While Northern Lights was bred to be grown indoors, cannabis growers favor this low odor strain which produces flowers quickly. After the flower is cured, the buds of the Northern Lights strain smell subtly of pine and citrus.

Is 2025 a good year to see Northern Lights? ›

During the winter of 2020, the Northern Lights viewing was typical for a solar minimum year. But from 2020 onwards, there will be a slow ramp-up in solar activity, and auroras should increase in frequency, peaking in 2024/2025 with the Solar Maximum.

What is the rarest aurora color? ›

On rare occasions, sunlight will hit the top part of the auroral rays to create a faint blue color. On very rare occasions (once every 10 years or so) the aurora can be a deep blood red color from top to bottom. Pink hues may also be seen in the lower area of the aurora.

Is 2022 a good year to see the northern lights? ›

"There will continue to be aurora viewing opportunities in 2022," Steenburgh said. "The solar cycle is indeed ramping up and as solar activity increases, so do the chances for Earth-directed blobs of plasma, the coronal mass ejections, which drive the geomagnetic storms and aurora."


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