The aurora borealis is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic sights on earth. Commonly known as the northern lights, these colorful streaks that slowly dance across the sky can only be seen near the poles where conditions are right for them to appear. Today we understand what causes this incredible natural display: Electrons from the sun interact with the gas particles in the atmosphere, and the reaction produces light. However, the technology needed to come to this realization has only been discovered in recent times - before we could know what was going on, we came up with our own explanations.
Here are a few northern-lights legends from around the world:
Spirits of the dead
Many different cultures believed the lights in the sky were the physical manifestations of spirits who had died. In some legends, the aurora was simply where spirits went. Many Eskimo groups in North America characterized these spirits as being energetic and playful - often they were imagined to be playing a game like soccer with walrus skulls. Others didn't think the lights were spirits themselves, but put there by spirits. For example, a Labrador Inuit legend says that spirits who had died violent deaths could access the path between heaven and the afterlife. These spirits held lanterns to guide other spirits on their way toward whatever came next. Sami legends also see the streaks as spirits, but in a much scarier way. They believed that if you mocked or disrespected the lights, the spirits would come down and beat you to death. For this reason, Sami people tended to stay inside and quiet when the aurora shone in the sky.
Some people believed the northern lights were evidence of non-human beings. For example, the Mandan tribe in North Dakota believed the display came from the torches of friendly giants who needed help to see when fishing at night. In Finland, people said the lights were caused by a mystical fox that threw sparks into the sky with its tail. Auroras are also partially responsible for some of the early dragon lore that came from China and Europe. In parts of Russia, they were associated with a fire dragon, which came out of the sky at night to seduce women whose husbands were away.
Gods and demons
In Norse mythology, earth and Asgard, the home of the gods, were connected by an enormous bridge. This bridge was possibly inspired by the northern lights. Other Norse legends surrounding the lights describe them as reflections from the weapons and armor of gods marching to battle.
The Inuit people who lived near the Hudson Bay in Northeast Canada thought the bands were caused by demons carrying lanterns. These creatures were looking for lost souls to steal away, and their lanterns would help guide their way or even lure spirits in. The Algonquin tribe thought the lights were reflections of giant fires started by the maker of Earth and a sign that he still cared for his creations.
Of course, there are some utterly practical (if inaccurate) interpretations of what the northern lights meant, as well. Swedish sailors thought the lights were reflections coming off large schools of herring, and that seeing the aurora meant they would have a good day of fishing ahead of them. People in parts of Scotland thought the display was an indication there was bad weather on the horizon.
When you travel to the arctic, the odds are good you'll get a glimpse of these lights for yourself - maybe you'll come up with your own stories for what they mean.