Tales from the North: the Legends of the Northern Lights

There is nothing more magical than seeing the Northern Lights. Standing under the winter sky, waiting for the mysterious lights to dance in the darkness, is one of the experiences that make people understand how wonderful nature is. I’ve already written about the places where you can see the aurora. Now it’s time to talk about the legends inspired by this extraordinary phenomenon. We can guess that primitive people, seeing the bright lights moving in the sky, thought of mysterious and supernatural forces. Perhaps they were scared by them, but we can’t be sure. What we do know is that Aristotle, in the fourth century before Christ, called the lights “leaping goats” and believed rising steam was interacting with fire. Even Hippocrates and the Latin philosopher Seneca mentioned them in their works. But how was it possible that the Aurora was visible in Greece and Rome?

Il tramonto invernale a Rovaniemi, prima dell'Aurora Boreale


The fact that we cannot see the Northern Lights in our latitudes today doesn’t mean that it’s always been this way. At the time of the ancient philosophers, the Earth’s magnetic pole was further south than it is now, so it is not surprising that the ancient Greeks and Romans could see them. Someone suggested they were comets or meteors. Others spoke of “fires”, and in fact Aristotle described them as red lights (red auroras are very rare today). But the first accurate definition of the Aurora dates back to 1250, and it is found in a Norwegian book called Kongespeil (“The mirror of the king”). The Northern Lights, or Nordurljos, are described as flames seen from a distance, that disappear as the sun starts to rise.


Something as spectacular and mysterious as the Aurora has inevitably inspired fascinating stories. The legends of the Northern Lights in Norway date back to the Vikings . According to them, the lights were produced by the sunlight glinting on the shields of the Valkyries, the warlike virgins of the Norse mythology. God Odin sent them to war, so that they could pick the men worthy of going to the Walhalla, the afterlife. The aurora was therefore a link between the world of men and that of the gods, the only visible trace of otherwise invisible beings.

Photo by HB Mertz on Unsplash

The Finns, however, had a different explanation. According to them, the lights were caused by the arctic fox swishing her fluffy tail in the snow. But the green colour of the aurora made someone think of ghosts. Some Inuit tribes considered “Qiugyat” (as they call the aurora) to be the spirits of dead people playing a ball game, but to the Inuit of Hudson Bay the lights were the flames of torches guiding souls to Heaven. The Sámi people also consider the Northern Lights as agents of the supernatural. This is why children are taught not to whistle, so as not to disturb the spirits.  And in fact the lights were also depicted on shamans’ drums used to communicate with the other world.

Finally, the Japanese have a curious belief. Even though in Japan it is not possible to see the aurora, they’ve always been fascinated by it. According to them, conceiving a child under the dancing lights increases the possibility to give birth to an extraordinarily gifted child.


The name Aurora Borealis was coined by Galileo, who thought it was just reflected sunlight. The first to describe the Aurora in scientific terms was the Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland at the beginning of the Twentieth century. He understood that the Aurora originated from the magnetic current that flows through the ionosphere. Here’s the scientific explanation: as the streams of solar particles approach the Earth, they affect our magnetic field, the so-called magnetosphere. Even though it deflects most of the solar particles, some manage to reach the upper atmosphere. And they tend to concentrate at the poles, where they collide with gas molecules. That’s why they glow. The colours we see, in fact, depend on the gas.


Even tough we know how they are formed, the Northern Lights are still the most incredible phenomenon we can witness in our world. The English writer Philip Pullman, in his fantasy saga. His Dark Materials described the Aurora as a bridge between parallel universes. The first volume of the saga, Northern Lights is a hymn to the Nordic landscape. And the Aurora is a door that leads to other worlds. The Northers Lights are described as luminous curtains, and that’s what they looked like to me in Finland. Maybe they really are a veil between two different dimensions. In the past, people believed the lights connected the Earth and the world of the spirits. Today we talk about multiversum. In any case, there is something mysterious and unfathomable in the Northern Lights.

Here’s a quote from Northern Lights by P. Pullman, published by Scholastic.

“The moon had set by now, and the sky to the south was profoundly dark, though the billions of stars lay on it like diamonds on velvet. They were outshone, though, by the Aurora, outshone a hundred times. Never had Lyra seen it so brilliant and dramatic; with every twitch and shiver, new miracles of light danced across the sky.”