In our science-dominated XXIst century just about everyone with access to the internet or a library can learn everything there is to know about the Northern Lights. Like so many once mysterious natural phenomena like the rainbow or thunder, the Northern Lights are now for the most part very well understood.
Still, we should not forget that while one may think otherwise, the Northern Lights weren’t actually properly researched until the late XIXth century. Indeed, until the experiments of the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1), colorful theories and superstitions revolving around the Northern Lights flourished.
It was the Norwegian Kristian Birkeland who discovered the physical reality of the Northern Lights
One of the most famous North-Norwegian beliefs about the Aurora for example focused on its dangerousness. The Northern Lights, while beautiful and a somewhat common sight in the Norwegian Arctic, were thought to be a potential cause of harm, especially towards children. As a result, parents would often tell their kids to behave and not mess around when the Aurora was out. But children being children, most would ultimately end up running outside anyway, waving, screaming and whistling at the Northern Lights, believing that such acts would make the Aurora dance (2).
This belief that the Aurora might be harmful to children was rather widespread in North-Norway, especially around Tromsø and in the Sámi heartland. The same belief was also present in the Faeroe Islands, where children would not be allowed to go outside without a hat if the Northern Lights were shining, due to fear that it might come down and scorch their hair (3). It is probable that this association between Northern Lights and danger is a remnant from old Pagan beliefs
“As children we often watched the northern lights with a feeling of awe, and the most courageous of us, in a mysterious excitement, would wave at them with white cloths. As part of a long tradition, we were told that the northern lights could be made to move if we waved at them (...)” Asgeir Brekke
In Sweden, people used to have a very different belief about the Northern Lights. Instead of seeing them as potential agents of chaos and danger, Swedes associated the shimmering lights of the Aurora with…fish! And not just any type of fish: The Northern Lights were said to actually be created by the reflection of the moonlight on the scales of big shoals of herring hovering just under the surface (4).
More romantic than the Swedes, the Danes explained the Northern Lights using somewhat cuter animals, namely swans. The story goes like this: When a huge herd of swans ends up soaring too close to the North Pole, their wings become frozen and the birds have to flap them extra hard to keep flying. At that moment, the rays of the sun get caught in the shimmering feathers and get refracted tenfold, creating the undulating Northern Lights (5).
In Sweden, the Aurora was said to come from the glow of herring shoals
On the Eastern shores of the Baltic Sea on the opposite side of Sweden and Denmark lays Finland, where, in its Northern half, the Northern Lights are a much more common sight than in most of the aforementioned lands. Incidentally enough, Finland also has yet another animal-related superstition concerning the Aurora Borealis.
In the scarcely-populated rocky fells of Northern Finland the most widespread tale revolving around the Northern Lights involve none other than the adorable Arctic fox. More specifically, it is said that the Northern Lights appear when the Fox dashes in the newly-fallen snow and hence raises powerful static energy between its furry tail and the snow that rises up in the sky in the form of an Aurora (6).
In Finland, the Aurora comes from the furry tail of the Arctic Fox
This short selection of tales focusing solely on the Nordic countries shows clearly that even long after Christianity and then science came to the land, people still came to their own conclusions about the mysterious Aurora Borealis dancing in the winter skies. They were not alone there in the sense that even renowned scientists often came up with some rather entertaining stories to explain the yet unexplainable Northern Lights. Much can, and will be written about those fascinating tales as well.
- (1) Brekke Pål and Broms Frederik. (2013). Northern Lights – A Guide . Oslo. Forlaget Press. (30 – 32)
- (2) Brekke, Asgeir. (2006). “Gerd Gymesdaughter and the northern lights” in Arctic Lights. Tromsø. Tromsø University museum. (7 – 8)
- (3) Ibid. (10)
- (4) Olaus Magnus. (1996). A Description of the Northern Peoples (P. Foote, Ed.). London. The Hakluyt Society (Original work published in 1555). Vol I. (36)
- (5) Brekke Pål and Broms Frederik. Op. Cit. (27)
- (6) Davis, Neil. (1992). The Aurora Watcher’s Handbook. Anchorage. University of Alaska Press. (169)
- (I) Drechsel, Wolf. Aurora appearing over Nuremberg the 5th of October 1591.
- (II) Kristian Birkeland and his “Terrella”, an artificial Northern Lights generator. Author unknown. Photo probably taken in 1902-1903.
- (III) Northern Light in the Tamok Valley the 26/01/2015 (C) Lyonel Perabo (2015)
- (IV) Olaus Magnus. (1996). A Description of the Northern Peoples (P. Foote, Ed.). London. The Hakluyt Society (Original work published in 1555). Woodcut representing herring fishing in Scania.
- (V) Arctic Fox. Labrador Inuit art (1880 – 1910) from the collection of the History Museum of Canada.