Northern Dawn - Auroras Inspire Folk Mythology

By Egeland, Alv | The World and I, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Northern Dawn - Auroras Inspire Folk Mythology


Egeland, Alv, The World and I


The aurora borealis, or northern lights, is the most puzzling and myth- inspiring of all celestial phenomena. These majestic lights, often called "nature's most beautiful display," reveal processes in the upper atmosphere that humans have feared and admired for thousands of years. The northern lights present a continuing intellectual challenge, and their scientific study has promoted international cooperation. The story is all the more fascinating because it punctuates historical records. Classical Greek and ancient Chinese literature, and even several passages in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezekiel 1, Jeremiah 1:13), contain references to what can only be auroral phenomena. [An aurora was visible as far south as Washington, D.C., as recently as July 2000- -ed.]

The story of the aurora also illustrates science's evolving role in civilization and daily life. The northern lights were a visually spectacular phenomenon that could be observed and studied without advanced technology. A list of those who struggled to understand their nature reads like a Who's Who of science until the early twentieth century. To trace auroral science through history is to observe man's development from a creature of ignorance and superstition to an analytical disciple of science and technology.

The oldest detailed description of auroral displays is found in Norse literature dating to a.d. 1200. In the King's Mirror, a thirteenth- century Norwegian chronicle, a remarkable account is given. Observable technical details and human emotional responses are woven into a unified narrative. The handwritten Old Norse text describes the dancing lights in vivid detail.

It must be noted that the name northern lights (nordurljos) was introduced in the King's Mirror. This account was written more than four hundred years before Galileo (1564--1642) proposed the name aurora borealis (literally northern dawn), the scientific term used since 1620.

In the documents of Viking legend, auroras were Bifrost, the heavenly bridge between earth and Asgard, the seat of the gods. Bifrost, it was believed, would collapse at Ragnarock at the end of the world. The trembling, sparkling colors of auroral arcs were a reminder of this mighty bridge. Today many Norwegians experience the aurora borealis as part of their cultural heritage and as a source of philosophical and artistic inspiration. For myself, it also forms a bridge between science and the humanities.

Folklore and myth

Diverse interpretations of the northern lights have been offered over the centuries. In many respects, such beliefs reflect the culture of the observing group. This article summarizes some cultural responses to the phenomenon.

In the Nordic countries, the aurora was considered to be an active volcano in the north. It was believed to have been placed there by the Creator to provide light and warmth in those cold and murky regions. For the Ostyaks of Siberia, the northern lights were a flame kept burning by the fish god to help those out fishing after dark. For Indians in northern Canada, the lights were a heavenly being, Ithenhiela. When they flickered, this god of happiness was believed to be greeting the people.

By contrast, Swedish tradition suggested that God was angry when the northern lights were active. The Chuvash of Siberia had a deity named Surantan-Tura, roughly translated as "the sky gives births," and this name was also applied to the aurora. The Chuvash believed that when it appeared, Surantan-Tura would bear a son. Women who gave birth beneath the northern lights were thought to have easier labors.

Other heavenly beings were thought to be involved. In Finland it was believed that the archangel Michael lit up the northern lights in his battle with the devil, Beelzebub. Finland is the source of the belief that the aurora is caused by angels fighting each other with burning splinters of pitch pine. Among the Lapps, it was said that the northern lights originated in a battle between the god Thor and the mountain king.

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