Among the peoples of the Arctic, the Inuits are by far the Northernmost. Originating from the Bering Strait a thousand years ago, the first Inuits spread across the North-American Arctic and established their homelands in what later became known as Greenland, Northern Alaska, Northern Canada and Far-East-Siberia. (1)

Like the other Native American cultures, the Inuits are traditionally polytheists and their ancient world view includes numerous deities, spirits and supernatural beings. Myths and Legends of the various tribes were passed down orally, generation after generation until they were written down by western explorers and folklorists who made those stories available for the wider world (2).

Inuits have their Homelands in Greenland, Northern Canada, Far-East Siberia and Northern Alaska

Some of the most interesting Inuit tales relate to the spirits of the dead. A widely-known Inuit concept of the afterlife was that departing people would be sent to a different world depending on their acts on Earth and the way in which they died. In some parts of the Inuit homelands, the highest Heaven is the Aurora, where people who died violent deaths could enjoy an otherworld of peace and plenty (3).

The Inuits of Hudson Bay in Canada have another traditional tale linking the Aurora and the Afterlife: In their view, the Aurora is the reflection of the spirits of the departed entering the Land of the Dead (4):

The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who have died a voluntary or violent death, and the Raven, have been over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora.

The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss, over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who have died a voluntary or violent death, and the Raven, have been over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora.

Another interesting Northern Lights legend comes from the Arctic island of Igloolik, near Baffin Island. The tale, collected by the Danish Polar explorer Knud Rasmussen in the early 1920s mentions the Heaven called “Land of Day” (5):

Here, they are constantly playing ball, the Eskimos’ favorite game laughing and singing and the ball they play with is the skull of a walrus It is the game of the departed souls that appears as the Aurora Borealis.

The idea of the Northern Lights being the vision of a heavenly game of ball is widespread in the Inuit homelands, but the tale has many, sometimes rather odd variants. Indeed, in the West Alaskan Island of Nunivak, it’s the walruses that play ball with a human head! A bit more North in Norton Sound, the local children were told that the Lights were created by Spirits playing with the heads of disobedient kids and in parts of Greenland, the players of the ball game were the children themselves, still-born ones actually, who played a game with their afterbirth (6) !

Overall, Inuits of North-America are probably the people who told the most stories about the Northern Lights and nowhere else can we find so many harrowing tales connected to the Aurora. Those tales are almost always connected with the Afterlife and are shaped by the Inuits traditional way of life:  indeed, where else could one explain the Aurora as a spirits’ ball game with a walrus skull?

Sources:

  • (1) www.arctic-council.org (Accessed 27/12/2014)
  • (2) Davis, Neil (1992). The Aurora Watcher Handbook. Fairbanks. University of Alaska (164)
  • (3) ibid. (166)
  • (4) Hawkes, E.W (1916). The Labrador Ottawa. Government Printing Bureau. (153)
  • (5) Ramussen, Knud. (1929). Intelectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos. Copnhagen. Gylendhal. (94 – 95)
  • (6) Davis. (1992). (166 – 167)

Images Sources:

  • (I) Inuit Mummers wearing Masks. Origin Unknown
  • (II) Canadian Map of Arctic Expeditions (1879)
  • (III) Northern Light Arc (C) Lyonel Perabo (2014)
  • (IV) Painting by the Canadian Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok