The Mysterious Northern Lights
From time the people of the North have stopped their daily routines, their thoughts either hounded by fear or drawn to inspiration, as the flaming diversity of the Northern light filled the sky. Its fluttering draperies, every colour of the spectrum, suggested the presence of dancing spirits and fighting hoards.
The idea of dancing was not uncommon amongst the ancient Norwegians. In western Norway a belief, which existed even up to fairly recent times, was that the northern light were “old maids” who were dancing and waving white mittens. In these areas people actually thought that elderly unmarried woman would go to the northern lights after they died. Similar notions about the northern lights can also be found in Finland.
many parts of Scandinavia it was thought that the northern lights were something
to do with virgins. The Sami
(Lapps) are said to have sung the following jingle about girls and unmarried
woman when they saw the northern lights:
Girls, girls run around the fireplace
Dragging their pants behind them.
In Nordic countries the lights were also regarded as being especially dangerous for woman, who were advised to say inside while the lights rampaged the sky. They had to be particularly careful not to go out bare-headed, for if they did the northern lights might come out and tear their hair out!
In Scotland the expression “The Merry Dancers” is well known as a name for the northern lights. According to legend, these “merry dancers” are supernatural beings warring in the heavens, and the battle is for the favour of a beautiful woman.
For the Eskimos of Greenland and Hudson Bay in Canada, the northern lights represented the home of their ancestors. When the northern lights flickered, the Greenlanders thought that dead wished to make contact with their living kith and kin. The Eskimos had great respect for their ancestors and therefore the northern lights were not blasphemed.
Amongst North American Indian tribes it was believed that the northern light were a gathering of medicine men and warriors in the land of the far north. They held feasts and prepared their fallen foes in huge cooking pots. Other Indians thought that the ice furthest to the north, several days journey away, dwelt a tribe of tiny Indians who were so strong that they could catch whales with their bare hands.
Another common theory amongst our forefathers was that the northern lights were a kind of fire. In Denmark and Sweden it was thought that the northern lights were an active volcano in the north, placed there by the creator to provide light and warmth in those cold, murky regions. Their were also those in Sweden who thought that the northern lights were caused by Sami searching for their reindeer with flaming torches.
Amongst the Ostyaks fishing was a daily routine. For this Siberian race, the northern lights were a flame kept burning by the fish god to help those who were fishing after dark.
One of the most romantic concepts regarding the northern light is found in Danish folklore. Here it was thought that they were caused by some swans which had flown too far north and become frozen in the ice. As they flapped away trying to free themselves, reflections from their wings would create the northern lights.
The Northern Lights-a Vengeful Body
The majority of peoples regarded the northern light with fear. The Eskimos of Alaska, for example would take their children in doors when the northern lights appeared. If the children did not get inside quickly, it was believed that the northern lights would come and take their heads to use as balls. For the Faeroe Islanders too, the northern lights represented a threat to their children’s health and well-being. They were not to go outside bareheaded or the northern lights would strike and singe their hair off.
In Iceland pregnant woman were not supposed to go out in the northern lights, for if they did, the child that they were carrying would be born cross-eyed. Over large areas of the country it was a common believe that the northern lights were a vengeful body that would kill those who mocked them. One way of mocking was to wave white clothing at them.
Another well-known tradition in both south and north Norway was the fear of whistling at the northern lights. This fear is undoubtedly associated with beliefs in other northern cultures that the northern lights were the resting place of the dead, and that the dead could be contacted by whistling.