Aurorae – strange shimmering lights in the sky – occur when Earth's magnetic field attracts particles from the Sun that slam into the atmosphere. They are most common at high latitudes around the Earth's geomagnetic poles. [Click on the link to "Aurorae – Polar Light Shows" at the bottom of this article for an explanation.]
Galileo (1564-1642) gave the name aurora to what is also called the northern lights. In Roman mythology Aurora was the goddess of the dawn. Each morning she threw open the gates of dawn to allow her brother the Sun god to drive his chariot across the sky.
Eventually it was necessary to call the northern phenomenon aurora borealis – borealis means north – because in the 1770s Captain Cook ventured into the southern hemisphere and discovered that there were southern aurorae too.
So the term aurora borealis actually means northern dawn, and that’s a very good description of it as seen from lower latitudes. Only the top of the activity is visible there, low on the northern horizon like a false dawn.
Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of legends, stories and beliefs about the aurorae, particularly the Northern Lights, because many more people live in the Arctic region than live close to Antarctica. Here is a small selection from those beliefs and stories.
Interestingly, the oldest stories come from places where aurorae are rarely seen, but where there are written records going back more than two thousand years. Because of their rarity, the aurorae were viewed with fear, especially since in lower latitudes are were often red.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to aurorae as dragons, and witnesses were – from their point of view – speaking literally when they reported dragons in the sky. The twisting sinuous shapes of an aurora could easily have been interpreted in this way.
The Chinese also associated the aurora with dragons – some suggest that aurorae are the origin of the Chinese dragon. Although the European dragon is malevolent, the Chinese dragon is a symbol of wisdom and good fortune. Therefore an aurora was seen in a positive light. The exception was a red aurora which the Chinese also considered a bad omen.
For the peoples of the northern lands the aurora is a familiar phenomenon. In Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland, the Eskimos – the various Inuit and Yupik peoples – have an intimate relationship with the aurora. The snippets I'm giving you do not do justice to the richness of their traditions.
One belief that is commonly cited is that the aurora are spirits playing ball games with a walrus skull. However the Cupik of Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea claim the contrary idea that the aurora represented walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
In eastern Greenland many thought that the draperies and streams of the aurora were the dancing spirits of children who had died at birth. But for the Lakota Sioux in North America, rather than the spirits of the dead, the dancing spirits were those waiting to be born.
Many north Alaskan Inuit saw the lights as spirits with torches seeking the souls of the recently dead in order to guide them. But the Algonquins – who would have seen aurorae less frequently – believed that the light was a reflection of fires that the creator Nanahbozho, far to the north, made to show his people that he hadn't forgotten them.
Moving back to Europe, in the north of Scotland and the northern isles, aurorae are often visible. They are traditionally known as the Nimble Men (na Fir Chlish in Gaelic) or the Merry Dancers. The moving shapes certainly do sometimes look like dancers, though we must remember that this isn't ballroom dancing. These dancers were warriors and red in the aurora meant that blood had been shed.
One northern European tradition links aurorae with the Valkyries, the shield maidens of Odin. The Valkyries chose brave warriors who had died in battle and took them to Valhalla. There they were wined and dined and kept ready for Ragnarok, the final battle. The aurora were caused by light glinting on the Valkyries' shields.
The Finnish name for northern lights is Revontulet, which translates as foxfire. An old folk belief was that the friction from the magical fox's tail brushing the snow created the cold fire of the aurora.
An ancient Swedish name for the Northern Lights is Sillblixt, meaning herring flash. In Norway and Sweden there was an old belief that the aurora was a reflection of enormous schools of herring in the ocean.
In Småland in southern Sweden, there was a tale that the swans held a competition to see which one could fly farthest into the north. This turned out not to be such a good idea, for the ones that were most successful froze in the sky. When they struggle to come loose by flapping their wings, aurorae occur. I’ve seen auroral shapes that looked rather like swans.
The fascination of this beautiful phenomenon continues for storytellers, for there are many modern stories that also incorporate them. Probably the best known is Phillip Pullman's trilogy which starts with Northern Lights and in which the aurora is a bridge to another world. The aurorae inspire paintings, jewelry, fabrics and other decorative arts, as well as photographs. Click here to see an image by Stephane Vetter that was highly commended in the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2011.
I have collected illustrations related to this article on the Pinterest board Tales of the Northern Lights.
(1) "First People – The Legends" http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/EskimoStoryOfTheNorthernLights-Eskimo.html
(2) "Web Exhibits: Causes of Color" http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/rC.html