The Mythology of the Northern Lights

The Mythology of the Northern Lights


If you have read the news over the past few days – or, if you’re lucky, if you have looked up at the northern horizon – you won’t have missed the breath-taking view of the aurora borealis. Over the past couple of days, moderately strong geomagnetic storms have made the northern lights visible as far south as Cornwall.

The mythology and folklore behind the northern lights is fascinating. In southerly latitudes, these were often seen as dark omens, most likely because of their scarlet hue: in these locations, auroras don’t appear as the bright green ribbons of light you may be used to, but as a red or orange glow in the northern horizon. This has to do with the way the atmosphere filters blue light – it is the same reason why the skies turn red during sunset. Did you know that, in 44 BCE, the northern lights made an appearance over Rome not long before the assassination of Julius Caesar?

In northern latitudes, however, where auroral displays aren’t such a rare phenomenon, these have been seen as signs of prosperity, birth and death, comforting light, animal spirits and soul-journeys to other realms.

The remote Greenlanders believed that the northern lights portrayed a game between departed souls, in which they play ball with a walrus skull until it lands on its tusks.

Many sources claim that, in Viking mythology, auroras were interpreted as the Bifröst, the fiery rainbow between Midgard and Asgard. The lights were also seen as the sparks of heroes battling in the sky, or as reflections from the armour of the Valkyries who were sent by Odin to lead his chosen warriors to Valhalla. However, these popular myths commonly attributed to the Vikings weren't documented until long after the Viking Age ended and were probably embellished by overly imaginative historians.

The ancient inhabitants of Estonia told lighthearted folk tales about playful humpback whales whose scales reflected light into the sky, giving rise to auroras. Another legend from this region says the Lights appeared to follow a celestial horse-drawn carriage taking guests to a heavenly wedding. In Finnish, the Northern Lights are called ‘revontulet’ after an old myth about foxes running across the tundra with such speed that their tails flicked sparks into the sky.


And these are just a few favourites of ours – you can learn more about the history of the northern lights and our understanding of them in Northern Lights by astronomer Tom Kerss. This definitive guide to auroras covers the cultural and scientific context for northern lights; it teaches you how to take stunning photographs of the lights, and it includes a comprehensive forecasting guide.