The Northern Lights are known as one of the most famous attractions of the Arctic. This dazzling natural light display has captivated the imaginations of humans for generations, resulting in the creation of many myths and legends prior to the advent of modern science and astronomy. Thanks to the wonder of modern technology, tourists from around the world can now visit the Arctic and witness the Northern Lights for themselves.
Despite the remoteness and bitterly cold climate of the Arctic, the Northern Lights have a large role in the histories of many cultures around the world, even those who lived outside of the Arctic Circle. Read on to learn about the Northern Lights in world history.
The History of the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights has been a fixture of the Arctic sky for as long as the Earth itself has been around. Auroras are created by the sun’s interactions with the Earth, specifically when charged particles emitted by the sun, sometimes known as solar wind, impact the magnetosphere, an invisible barrier that surrounds Earth and is created by the magnetic field. While most of the magnetosphere is located in the space around Earth, at the North and South Poles, where the magnetic field originates, the magnetosphere intersects with the planet’s atmosphere. This is why almost all auroras occur within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.
Humans have witnessed the Northern Lights since before the dawn of recorded history. Scientists who have analyzed Cro-Magnon cave paintings dating back to 10,000 B.C. believe that some of them depict auroras through “macaronis,” markings that are viewed as representing unknown lights in the night sky. The oldest recorded Northern Lights sighting occurred in China in 2600 B.C.; according to Chinese history, Fu-Pao, the mother of Shuan-Yuan, the Yellow Emperor, observed “strong lightning” in the air that lit the sky up.
Many cultures in Eurasia and North America created legends and myths focused on the Northern Lights, even those who did not live in regions of the world where auroras occurred with regularity. Indeed, the ancient Greeks are from whom we take the name “aurora borealis”: “aurora” means “sunshine” and “borealis” means “Wind.” The Greeks believed that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, their personifications of the sun and moon, respectively, and that the Northern Lights was created by Aurora racing across the sky in a chariot to tell her siblings that a new day was beginning. The Romans had a similar legend, believing that auroras were the physical manifestation of Aurora, the goddess of dawn.
Because auroras are rare outside of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, their appearances in more temperate regions of the world were often seen as harbingers of doom. For much of the second millennium A.D., both the Italians and French saw auroras as a warning that plague, war, or some other calamity that would cause massive suffering would soon strike. Right before the French Revolution began, observers in England and Scotland witnessed a red aurora, which was believed to be an omen of the upheaval and strife that would soon engulf Europe.
In contrast, auroras had more positive connotations in East Asia. The Chinese believed that auroras were created by two massive celestial dragons doing battle in the night sky: one dragon was good and the other was evil. The Japanese traditionally believed that children conceived during the Northern Lights would be bestowed with intelligence, physical attractiveness, and good fortune, which is one reason why Japanese make up a disproportionate percentage of aurora tourists. The aboriginal peoples of Australia also saw auroras from time to time and believed that they were a visualization of their gods dancing in the heavens.
In North America, the Native Americans also witnessed auroras and developed an array of legends around them. The Cree people saw auroras as the spirits of their departed ancestors attempting to speak with them, while the Algonquin believed that auroras were fires set by Nanahbozho, believed to be the founder of the Algonquin people. The Makah people of Washington state saw auroras as fires lit by dwarves in order to boil whale blubber, while the Mandan of North Dakota also believed that auroras were fires lit by legendary warriors and used to eat their enemies.
Perhaps the most fascinating myths concerning the Northern Lights are from the Inuit and other peoples of the North American Arctic, since this is the region where auroras most frequently occur. The Inuit historically believed that auroras were created by the souls of dead humans playing a game of kickball using the skull of a walrus. Interestingly, the native peoples of Nunavik Island had the opposite belief: they saw auroras as the souls of departed walruses playing kickball with the skull of some unlucky human.
Another region of the world known for its deep Northern Lights lore is Scandinavia. Icelanders associate auroras with pregnancy, believing that women who give birth during the Northern Lights will have pain-free delivery so long as they don’t look at the aurora at all; if they do, their child will be cross-eyed. The people of neighboring Greenland also associate auroras with childbirth, albeit in a more morbid fashion; they believe the Northern Lights to be the souls of babies who died during birth.
The Finns traditionally believed that auroras were caused by the fire fox, a mythical creature that purportedly ran so fast that its tail gave off sparks into the night sky. This is reflected in the Finnish word for aurora, “revontulet,” which literally means “fire fox” in English. The Sámi people of far northern Scandinavia saw auroras as being caused by whales shooting spume into the sky, while the Swedish associate auroras with good fortune, created by the gods setting off a volcano in the far north in order to create warmth.
The Northern Lights also has a prominent role in Norse mythology, the pagan religion that dominated Scandinavia during the time of the Vikings. One legend from this period relays that auroras were reflections from the armor and shields of the Valkyries, the female warriors who were responsible for shepherding warriors who died in combat to Valhalla, the most prestigious realm of the Norse afterlife. Another Norse myth states that the Northern Lights were a bridge that linked Midgard, the land of mortals, to Asgard, the realm of the gods.
It was not until the Renaissance began in Europe that scientists and astronomers began to seriously study auroras to find out how they worked. Famed astronomer Galileo Galilei was responsible for creating the term “aurora borealis” in 1619, a name that came about from his incorrect belief that they were the result of sunlight being refracted into the sky. Enlightenment-era English astronomer Henry Cavendish studied auroras in great detail during his career, concluding in 1790 that they were the result of light within the planet’s atmosphere itself. Cavendish even pinpointed the approximate location where auroras occurred: roughly 60 miles (100-130 kilometers) above the planet’s surface.
Another major breakthrough in aurora science was made in 1902, when Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland discovered that they created by electricity within the outermost reaches of the atmosphere. Birkeland’s findings helped in the invention of neon lights, which use the same type of natural processes that auroras do: using charged particles (electricity) to force neon gas atoms to create light. Successive findings in the 20th century furthered our knowledge of auroras by connecting them to the solar wind emitted by the sun, and studies into the cycles of solar activity have also allowed scientists to predict the strength and frequency of auroras to a certain extent.
As one of the most unusual and striking sights in the world, the Northern Lights have understandably captured the imaginations of humans across time. Depending on where you were, auroras were seen as ill omens of future disaster, predictors of prosperity and life, or simply messages from beyond the material world. But regardless of how you see auroras, they are an event that you will remember for the rest of your life. If you are interested in the Northern Lights, book a tour and see them for yourself.