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The Northern Lights, with their captivating display, have long been a source of wonder and intrigue in the night sky. Across cultures and centuries, these shimmering lights have given birth to a rich array of myths and legends deeply rooted in the human experience.
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Viktória Komjáti
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Published:
21 Mar 2024
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Lists, Culture, Inspiration
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The Northern Lights, a stunning natural phenomenon, paint the night sky with an array of dazzling colours, sparking curiosity and awe. This magnificent display has captivated observers for centuries and has sown the seeds of numerous legends and myths across various cultures.

Each story, rich in tradition and imagination, offers a unique glimpse into how these lights have been revered and interpreted through the ages, reflecting the deep human desire to find meaning in the beauty of the natural world. Join us on a journey through time, exploring the enchanting and mystical narratives that have been woven around the Northern Lights, an enduring spectacle that continues to fascinate and inspire.

A serene scene of the Northern Lights above a silhouette of a pine forest, with the gentle arc of green aurora in the starry sky and the moon shining brightly near the horizon.

Odin, Valkyries, and the Pathway to Valhalla

To the Vikings, the Northern Lights were not merely beautiful displays of light. They held profound spiritual significance. The Vikings believed that the auroras were a sign from Odin, the Allfather of the gods and the ruler of Asgard. According to Norse legends, when the Northern Lights illuminated the night skies, it meant that Odin had dispatched the Valkyries, his mighty female warriors, on an important mission.

These ethereal beings, often depicted riding fierce horses through the heavens, were tasked with selecting brave warriors who had fallen in battle. It was a great honor for a Viking warrior to be chosen by a Valkyrie. Those selected were taken to Valhalla, Odin's grand hall, where they would prepare to aid the gods in the ultimate battle during Ragnarök, the end of the world.

A popular interpretation among the Norse was that the aurora's shimmering lights reflected the Valkyries' polished armour and shields. As these divine beings soared across the skies, their armours would catch the light, casting mesmerizing displays across the heavens.

A team of sled dogs races across a snowy landscape under a stunning display of the Northern Lights, with the vibrant green aurora filling the sky above the distant mountains.

Bifrost Bridge and the Spirits of the Fallen

Some Viking tales also associated the Northern Lights with the Bifrost Bridge, a burning rainbow bridge that connected Midgard, the world of humans, to Asgard, the realm of the gods. This ever-shifting and luminous bridge was thought to be a path for fallen warriors, guiding their souls to the promised afterlife in Valhalla.

There were also tales that suggested the lights were the very breath or spirits of these fallen warriors. As they journeyed to the afterlife, their spirits would light up the sky, reminding those below of their bravery and sacrifices.

While the Vikings celebrated the appearance of the Northern Lights, there was also a sense of reverence and awe. The sheer magnitude and beauty of the auroras were reminders of the gods' powers and the vastness of the universe. To the Vikings, these lights underscored the delicate balance of life, death, and the eternal journey of the soul.

A person in traditional Sami attire kneels in the snow, offering a treat to a reindeer amidst a snowy forest setting.

Sami Legends

The Sami, often referred to as the indigenous people of the Arctic regions spanning Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia's Kola Peninsula, have a long-standing and deeply spiritual relationship with the land and sky.One of the most widely held beliefs among the Sami is that the Northern Lights are the spirits of their ancestors dancing in the afterlife.

The wavy, undulating patterns of the lights are often interpreted as these spirits communicating or signalling to the living, and as a result, many Sami would show deep respect and even reverence when the lights were visible. It was common practice not to whistle, sing, or shout when the auroras were active in the sky, for fear of disturbing or angering these spirits.

Shamanism played an essential role in traditional Sami culture. The noaidi, or shaman, would use a special drum to communicate with the spirit world. Some legends state that the rhythmic beating of these drums could summon or influence the Northern Lights.

Another perspective from Sami folklore is that the Northern Lights are guardians. They ensure that the souls of the departed do not wander the Earth and instead guide them to their final resting place.

One of the most poetic and visually captivating myths from the Sami is the tale of the fire foxes. According to this legend, a fire fox would run across the tundras of Lapland, its bushy tail brushing against the mountains and setting the skies alight with sparks. These sparks, dancing and shimmering, would become the Northern Lights we see.

A glowing tent under the swirling green Northern Lights in a snowy landscape, with a tree silhouetted against the twilight sky and the moon rising in the background.

Eskimo Legends

The Sami and Arctic indigenous peoples, including the Inuit and Yupik, each hold deep-rooted and unique traditions about the Northern Lights. Despite their cultural and geographical differences, these groups share a profound reverence for this spectacular natural display.

A common belief among these communities was that the auroras embody the spirits of the animals they hunt, such as seals and deer, symbolizing the continuation of their spirit. For some, the lights represent a celestial bridge to the afterlife, guiding departed souls to peace. Others see them as ancestral lights, with elders teaching respect and reverence during their display to honour forebear spirits.

In certain Inuit cultures, taboos surround the Northern Lights. For example, pregnant women are cautioned against disrespectful actions during an aurora due to beliefs that the lights could adversely affect their unborn child. Among the Yupik, it's thought that the auroras mark the passage of human spirits to the afterlife, with their movement across the sky reflecting the journey of these souls.

Streaks of green Northern Lights cascade over a winter night's sky, silhouetting bare trees in the foreground.

The Scottish Interpretation

Scotland, known for its dramatic landscapes and rich folklore, has its unique tales of the Northern Lights, locally known as "The Mirrie Dancers." or "Merry Dancers". Though less frequent, their appearance is greeted with awe and interpreted through ancient stories.

The most common legend depicts the lights as a celestial battle, with their vibrant colours symbolizing clashing swords and warrior cries in the sky. Intense displays are often seen as the battle's climax. Some Scots view the Mirrie Dancers as omens, indicating significant upcoming changes and prompting villagers to prepare or seek spiritual protection. Others believe the lights are fires lit by ancient gods, used for communication or mystical ceremonies.

Greek and Roman Mythology: How the Name Aurora Borealis Was Born?

In Greek and Roman mythology, Aurora is the personification of dawn, known to the Greeks as Eos and to the Romans as Aurora. Each morning, she would rise from her home at the edge of Oceanus, the ocean that encircles the world, and open the gates of heaven for the Sun to rise, heralding the arrival of a new day. She is depicted as a beautiful woman who rides a chariot pulled by winged horses; her Roman counterpart is often shown scattering flowers to signify the beginning of daylight.

The connection between the aurora borealis and the goddess Aurora is more poetic and metaphorical than observational, as it is unlikely that the auroras were often visible in the temperate latitudes where ancient Greeks and Romans lived. However, there have been instances throughout history where the aurora borealis has appeared at lower latitudes. During strong geomagnetic storms, the aurora can be pushed further towards the equator, making them visible in regions where they are not usually seen.

The name "Aurora Borealis" itself was coined much later than in the Greek and Roman eras. It is attributed to Galileo Galilei in 1619, who, inspired by Roman mythology, used "Aurora" for the goddess of dawn and "Borealis" for the north (from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind). Hence, "Aurora Borealis" essentially means "dawn of the north."

Galileo's use of this term, however, was a bit of a misnomer. At the time, the nature of the auroras was not understood, and it was thought that the sun's light somehow reflected from the atmosphere to create the phenomena. It was only later that the connection between solar activity, the Earth's magnetic field, and the aurora was established.

We continue to use this name because the poetic term created by a Renaissance scientist resonated and became the standard scientific term. It captures the otherworldly beauty and majesty of the auroras, linking them to the mythic imagery of a radiant goddess opening the way for the sun, just as the auroras illuminate the dark polar skies.

A person stands gazing at the vivid Northern Lights in a snowy forest, with the aurora's green and purple hues illuminating the night sky.

Icelandic Tales

In Iceland, aside from the Norse legends, the Northern Lights were intertwined with the most human of experiences—childbirth. The ethereal glow was said to alleviate the pains of labour, providing comfort to women in their most challenging hours.

However, this belief came with a peculiar warning: a pregnant woman should never gaze too intently at the auroras. The fear was that such a powerful display could leave its mark on the unborn, leading the child to be born cross-eyed. This mix of awe and caution illustrates the complexity of human interactions with natural phenomena, where hope and fear often reside side by side.

Today, as scientific understanding illuminates the origins of the Northern Lights, many of us are well-versed in the physics behind their ethereal glow. We know these lights are not the fiery trails of celestial foxes or the souls of ancient warriors but rather the result of solar winds interacting with Earth's magnetic field. Yet, in our modern world, there's a special reverence for the ancient beliefs and tales our ancestors held dear.

These stories, passed down through generations, are treasured for their cultural richness and the imaginative vistas they open. These myths and legends connect us to our past. It's this blend of knowledge and myth, of science and tradition, that enriches our appreciation of the Northern Lights, making them a timeless spectacle that continues to fascinate and inspire across cultures and ages.

Select Your Northern Lights Tour

Are you keen to soak in the splendour of this natural wonder, unravel the rich tapestry of tales tied to it, and understand the science that makes it possible? Our tours are tailored for just that. Join us for a front-row view of the auroral display and let our expert guides enrich your experience with their wealth of knowledge.





Reykjavik Excursions bus and dancing northern lights on the background.
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Northern Lights - Small Group Tour

Catch the stunning Northern Lights in the sky, and if they're shy, rebook for free until they show. Included admission to the Aurora Centre's Northern Lights Exhibition on the tour date. The small group size ensures an intimate experience and personalized attention from your expert guide.

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The Golden Circle & Northern Lights - Combo Deal

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Questions and Answers about Northern Lights ours in Iceland

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