We know today that the aurora borealis, commonly called the “northern lights” occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun zoom into Earth’s atmosphere. The phenomenon is most commonly witnessed during fall and winter months at high-latitude locales, including Alaska and northern Canada. When you witness the lights streaking across the sky, reaching a height of up to 620 miles, surely you can understand how so many cultures came to develop mystical stories about them.
The aurora, with its striking colors and dance-like movements—seems otherworldly. The lights gave some communities feelings of comfort and happiness while others dreaded their re-appearance, considering them a bad omen.
Here are just 15 such tales:
1. When they witnessed the lights, many Inuit, the Arctic’s indigenous peoples, believed they were spirits of the dead playing a game with a walrus skull as the “ball.” The Inuit of Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea flipped its take on this story believing that it was walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
2. Indigenous Greenlanders believed that the lights were dancing spirits of children who had died at birth.
3. For Wisconsin’s Fox Indians, the aurora gave them a sense of foreboding—representing their slain enemies preparing for revenge.
4. In Alaska, some Inuit groups saw the lights as the spirits of the animals they had hunted, namely beluga whales, seals, salmon and deer.
5. In Norse mythology, the lights were the spears, armor and helmets of the warrior women known as the Valkyries. They rode on horseback, leading fallen soldiers to their final resting place at Valhalla.
6. The Inuit of Hudson Bay dreaded the lights, believing they were the lanterns of demons pursuing lost souls.
7. In Finland, a mystical fox was thought to have created the aurora, its bushy tail spraying snow and throwing sparks into the sky.
8. Some Algonquin peoples believed their cultural hero, Nanahbozho, relocated to the far north after he finished creating the Earth. He lit large fires, which reflected back to his people in the form of the northern lights. This let them know he was thinking of them, even though they were far apart.
9. In perhaps the best oxymoron in British folklore, Scottish legend refers to the lights as “Merry Dancers” engaged in bloody battle.
10. Indians of the Great Plains of North America thought the light display came from northern tribes who were cooking their dead enemies in huge pots over blazing fires.
11. Inuit in Point Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost spot, believed the aurora was evil. They carried knives to protect themselves from it.
12. In Estonia, one legend said the lights appeared when whales were playing games. Another said they were sleighs taking guests to a spectacular wedding feast.
13. Wisconsin’s Menominee Indians saw the lights as torches used by benevolent giants used when they speared fish at night.
14. Fishermen in northern Sweden took the lights as a good prophecy, believing they were reflecting large schools of herring in nearby seas.
15. If you whistled at the aurora, some Native Americans believed it would sweep down and take you away. Clapping your hands, however, caused the lights to retreat, keeping you safe. Meanwhile, in northern Scandinavia, the Sami people hid indoors during the light show.
The active Northern Lights, also known as aurora, are nature's most beautiful color display. In Finland normally just before midnight, when it is dark enough, a green glow appears in the sky, normally in the form of an arc across the whole sky, directed from east to west. Later during the night, this light might get structured, so bright as to make shadows on ground - and what is most fascinating, start moving fast, covering sometimes the whole sky! Today we know what the lights are. Electrically charged particles come down from space and hit the atmosphere. The air particles in turn, in fact oxygen atoms and ionized nitrogen molecules, get energy in the collisions with the incoming electric particles. Then the air glows the excess energy away, in the form of light emission. This light emission we know as the Northern Lights. We can detect those electric particles, which originally cause the Northern Lights, of course, by using satellite instruments. But more than 100 years ago - nobody knew what the lights were!
There are various forms of the Northern Lights. One classification counts more than 30 different forms. The shape of the arc usually resembles a band. A band can be diffuse or rayed. Sometimes, when the rays are clear, you would imagine a curtain in the sky, the lower part might be green and the upper part beautifully red. Sometimes you see a bluish red especially in the lower edge of the shapes and rays. And what are the rays, that we see so often? They are just the tracks of the particles from space, made visible to us by the Northern Lights. The electrically charged particles follow the direction of Earth's magnetic field. The magnetic field guides particles from space around the pole areas. Around the magnetic North Pole there is continuosly a ring of light, we call it the auroral oval. Above the South Pole, there is a similar ring of light. In fact, the Southern Lights are a mirror image of the Northern Lights.
If you want to see what really happens on sky, the best position is to lie on your back on the snow and just enjoy. The most probable time to see the Northern Lights is the so called magnetic midnight. Here it occurs a bit before the normal midnight. The normal time window for seeing the lights could be from 10 to 11.30 pm. But it might be better to stay awake between 9 pm and 1 am. A real enthusiast would stay awake the whole night, starting at 6 pm and ending at 6 am. During active nights beautiful forms, such as e.g. the pulsating aurora, could be seen also during the early morning hours. But normally we see just a glow in the North, around the magnetic midnight, the quiet Northern Light. If there is no activation of the light, we can then go back to our beds and take a peaceful sleep. But if you see any brightening in the light, be aware. The lights might get active, and you would the be lucky enough to witness the most beautiful color display of the nature, the active aurora.