Monday, 1 October 2012 3:05 PM
The dancing green light of the aurora borealis – a mysterious and captivating natural phenomenon which occurs in the Arctic skies – has thrilled, intrigued and in some cases scared societies for centuries. From believing the Northern Lights to be a shoal of herring fish, to the fires of enemies boiling in pots, we’ve picked out some of the most interesting myths surrounding the Northern Lights:
The Finnish for aurora borealis is "Revontulet", literally meaning "Fox Fires". The Sámi (indigenous people of the Arctic) believed that the Northern Lights came about when an arctic fox ran over the northern fells, leaving swirls of snowy mist in its wake that rose up to the heavens creating the aurora. In the Sámi language the Northern Lights are called “guovssahasah”, meaning "the sun glowing in the sky, in the morning or in the evening," as in aurora, the Latin word for dawn.
The Scandinavian name for the aurora translates as “herring flash”, believing that the dancing whirls of green light were a giant shoal of herring in the sky.
The Chinese believed it to be the fiery breath of fighting dragons. Some believe that the Chinese actually began using the image of dragons from viewing the swirling arcs of the aurora borealis, which resemble the curved shape of the popular Chinese dragon symbol.
In Norse myths, the Northern Lights were connected with war; they believed it appeared when sunlight reflected of the armour of the Valkyrie, warrior daughters of the Gods.
The Inuits of the Hudson Bay area associated the aurora with bad omens, believing that the Northern Lights came from the lanterns of demons searching for lost souls.
Similarly, many Eskimo populations believed the Northern Lights to be the spirits of the dead, playing a ball game with the skull of a walrus. The Eskimo word "aksarnirq" can be translated as ball player.
In the folklore of the Eskimos of eastern Greenland, the auroras are the souls of stillborn babies. The Northern Lights can be called by the name "alugsukat", which means a secret birth.
However, the Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River believed that the aurora was the dance of animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga whales.
The Estonian people had a similar belief; their myths indicate that the aurora was related to the games whales play.
Plains Indians, indigenous peoples who inhabited the rolling hills of the Great Plains of North America, also had a rather negative view of the cause of the aurora, believing it to be the glow from fires of the northern tribes simmering their dead enemies in enormous pots.
The Scottish believed the dancing light to be "Nimble Men" and "Merry Dancers” who sometimes danced and sometimes waged war.
Whatever people believed the Northern Lights to be, it’s clear that it continues to fascinate to this day. Check out our Northern Lights guide for when, where and how to see it in 2012/2013 and see it for yourself!
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