Northern Lights Folklore


Unveiling the myths and legends of the aurora borealis 

In the expansive skies of the Arctic regions, a breathtaking spectacle unfolds, captivating hearts and minds alike with its mesmerizing display of colors. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, have ignited the imaginations of cultures across the world for centuries, weaving a tapestry of myths and legends that seek to explain the ethereal phenomenon dancing across the heavens. Understanding the folklore behind the northern lights adds to the appreciation you’ll have when you experience them on your Arctic cruise, part of a long history of humans being astonished by the magic of the sky above them.


Norse & Nordic Folklore

In Norse mythology, the Valkyries are the female warriors who serve the god Odin. They escort the chosen fallen from battlefields to join Odin in Valhalla. The Vikings thought that the northern lights were reflections off the Valkyries’ armor as they guided the dead to Valhalla. The aurora borealis appears in several episodes in Norse mythology; at other times, it’s seen to be the breath of soldiers who die in battle, or the “Bitfrost Bridge,” a rainbow-like link between Asgard and Midgard. 

For the Sami, the Indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, the northern lights are feared and revered, and often considered a bad omen. They are believed to represent the souls of the dead. The Sami don’t like to talk about the northern lights, and avoid doing anything—such as whistling or singing—underneath them that might draw the attention of the lights to one’s presence. If the northern lights become aware of you, the Sami believe, they might reach down and carry you up to the sky. For this reason, you’ll most likely find these people indoors when the northern lights are out. 

In Finnish mythology, the northern lights are called revontulet, which translates to "fox fires." Legend has it that an Arctic fox dashes across the snowy landscapes, its tail sweeping up snowflakes into the air. When the flakes catch in the moonlight, it causes the aurora borealis. This origin story makes sense, as the lights are only visible in the winter. Another story has it that, as the fox leaps and runs across the sky quickly, its tail touches the mountains, creating sparks that illuminate the sky in a dazzling display of colors.

In Sweden, it was believed that if a woman died unmarried, she would dance in the sky as the lights, searching for her soulmate. Similarly, in other Nordic tales, the lights were seen as a bridge between the earthly realm and the world of spirits, where lovers separated by fate could reunite for a fleeting moment under the shimmering aurora. A Norwegian myth considered the lights to be the souls of old maids, dancing and waving from the skies above. 

In Iceland and Greenland, the northern lights are associated with childbirth. Icelandic folklore thought the lights eased the pain of giving birth, though mothers were not to look at them or else their child would be born cross-eyed. For Greenlanders, the aurora borealis was the result of the spirits of infants who had died while being born. 

Several ideas about the northern lights are associated with animals. A Danish belief was that the aurora was the result of some swans, trapped in ice, flapping their wings and disrupting the light in the sky. For some Swedish fishermen, the lights were believed to be reflections of schools of herring, so big a catch that they were associated with good fortune.


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North American Folklore

Among the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, the northern lights are often viewed as a manifestation of powerful spirits or gods. These cultures believe that the lights are the spirits of ancestors or celestial beings, engaged in a dance across the night sky. The Inuit thought that they could summon the northern lights to speak with their lost relatives.

According to one Inuit legend, the lights are the spirits of the dead playing a game of soccer with a walrus skull. The flickering and shifting patterns in the sky represent the movements of the players as they chase the skull across the heavens.

Other Indigenous cultures of North America thought that the northern lights were the torches of spirits leading the recently departed over to the next world. They also believed that the whistling sound of the lights was a form of communication, and that it was meant to be answered by speaking in a whisper. The Cree thought that when dogs barked at the lights, it was because they recognized the people they once knew. 

For Algonquin tribes, the northern lights were the reflection of an enormous fire lit by their creator to show them that he was thinking of them. The Great Plains Indigenous people also thought the lights came from a huge fire, but one that warmed the cooking pots of tribes to the north, cooking their enemies. 

The Menominee thought the lights were torches, held by giant fishermen in the night. For several groups, the aurora borealis represented the spirits of animals that had been hunted or, in the case of the Fox tribe of present-day Wisconsin, those of their slain enemies, coming back for revenge.


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Scientific Marvels and Modern Wonder 

While ancient myths and legends offer enchanting explanations for the northern lights, modern science reveals the true nature of this celestial phenomenon. The lights are caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with the Earth's magnetic field, creating a luminous display of colors as they collide with gases in the atmosphere.

Despite our understanding of the scientific processes behind the northern lights, their mystical allure persists, captivating all who witness their beauty. Whether viewed through the lens of ancient myth or modern science, the aurora borealis remains a timeless symbol of wonder and enchantment, reminding us of the magic that dwells within the natural world and the mysteries that lie beyond our understanding.

If seeing the northern lights is on your bucket list, speak to one of our travel specialists about the best time to plan your Arctic cruise.


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