Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Mythology, Legend and Folklore of the Sky - Part One - The Aurora

Definition of Aurora: 'a natural electrical phenomenon characterised by the appearance of streamers of reddish or greenish light in the sky, especially near the northern or southern magnetic pole.  The effect is caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with atoms in the upper atmosphere.  In northern and southern regions it is respectively called aurora borealis or Northern Lights and aurora australis or Southern Lights.'

Ezekiel, a prophet of ancient Israel is believed to have written the following in the 6th century BC, '... a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of fire.'  Aristotle, the Greek philosopher also observed the aurora in 344BC, which he compared with flames from known sources on Earth.  The term 'aurora borealis' was coined by Galileo Galilei in 1619 after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning.  Galileo believed the aurora was cause by sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.  The Romans called the aurora 'chasmate' meaning the mouths of celestial caves.

I have always been fascinated by the aurora and it seems I'm not alone.  This spectacular light displate has awed people the world over since prehistoric times and has inspired the creation of fantastical stories.  The oldest recorded sighting of the aurora comes from China in 2600BC: 'Fu-Pan, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area.'

1570AD A depiction of the Aurora Borealis

The Aurora and the Souls of the Dead

Many aurora folktales centre around the same theme - spirits and souls of the dead.  In some parts of Greenland it was believed  the lights were the dead trying to communicate with their family and friends.  In eastern Greenland, the Eskimos believed that the Aurora's lights were the spirits of children dancing and their dancing is what causes the lights to swirl and stream and ribbon its way across the sky.  The Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska and the Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada, who had a similar belief, also see souls dancing.  And not all souls and spirits had to be human.  According to the Eskimos of the lower Yukon River believed that the dancing spirits were those of animals, especially the spirits of deer, seal, salmon and beluga.  In Labrador, the Inuits have the following story:

An etching/aquatint by Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok, 
depicts the arsarnerit legend, in which Inuit ancestors play football with a walrus skull.

    The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss, over which a narrow and dangerous pathway leads to the heavenly regions.  The shy is a great dome of hard material ached over the earth.  There is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens.  Only the spirit of those who have died a voluntary or violent death, and the raven, have been over this pathway.  The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of new arrivals.  This is the light of the aurora.  They can be seen there feasting and playing football with a walrus skull.
    The whistling crackling noise which sometimes accompanies the aurora is the voices of these spirits trying to communicate with the people of the earth.  They should always be answered in a whispering  voice.  Youths and small boys dance to the aurora.  The heavenly spirits are called selamiut 'sky-dweller,' those who live in the sky.

Unfortunately, not all spirits were considered kind or benign.  To the Latvians, who saw the northern lights as the warrior souls of the dead fighting, a red aurora observed during the winter foretold disaster.  The Wisconsin Fox Indians, who had a very similar belief, interpreted the Aurora Borealis as the coming of war and disease, saw the restless ghosts of their slain foes attempting to rise up for vengeance.   

The Gods

It has been suggested that the reflections of the Valkyries' shields is the way in which the aurora borealis is represented in Norse mythology.  This seems fitting as the Valkyries were the assistants of Odin, the Sky god. 
Those from Denmark and Sweden believed the aurora came from a volcano far in the north, put there by the gods to give humanity light and warmth. 
Another belief based on gods comes from the Australian Aborigines who thought the colourful display was the gods dancing across the skies of the south.

'Ride of the Valkyries' by Henry De Groux

Animals of the Land and Sea

Finland have numerous tales about the origin of the northern lights, which they call revontulet, meaning fox fire.  The most common story tells of the Arctic Fox and his bushy tale.  As the fox ran through the snow, his brush-like tail would touch the mountains, causing sparks to fly up and illuminate the sky above.
An old Scandinavian name for the aurora borealis translates as 'herring flash' and they some believed that the aurora was a reflection vast swarms of herring cast into the sky.

Revontuli by t-omena

Mythical Creatures

The Scottish called the northern lights the  'Merry Dancers', which they believed to be supernatural entities dancing in the heavens.  This belief seems to be common in some other regions. The following poem is from the Manx people of the Isle of Man:

The Merry Dancers

The merry dancers are out to-night,
In the northern heavens they skip and go;
Manx Jane says they're fairies tripping it light,
On their own fantastic fairy toe.

She says, now and then they hold a ball,
When the queen takes the lead as she held the first chance;
And the half of the sky is their splendid hall,
And the moon and bright stars all join in the dance.

Right merry they trip near to sunrise,
When they take themselves off to Mona's fair isle;
Where in mountain and glen they often surprise
The early sheep folks, and oft them bequile

To follow them on to here and to there,
Till they all lose the way and half daft with fright,
Slink down in the Curraghs done up with despair,
Till the full light of day sets them again all to right.

When they gather the flocks that were frighten'd away,
To lead them to pasture wherever 'tis green;
And know by its richness where fairies do stray;
For grass grows the greenest where fairies have been.

Thus, north of the Isle you'll find the best land,
Where everything grows luxuriant and fine;
The 'reason why' is that the fairies' light wand
Waves over it a blessing that's almost Divine.

Photograph by J.C. Casado

The Russians believed that the Aurora was a fire dragon, Ognenniy Zmey, who is said to have seduced women during the absence of their husbands.  A similar belief comes from the Iroquois of Native America whose folklore states that the maiden Awenhai believed she had been seduced by the Fire Dragon, or Aurora Borealis.  It has been suggested by some that the Chinese Torch Dragon is 'a mythical interpretation of the aurora borealis.'  A portrayal of the Torch Dragon from between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD is as follows:

    'Beyond the northwest seas, north of the River Scarlet there is Mount Brillianttail.  There is a god-human here with a human face and a snake's body, and he is scarlet.  He has vertical eyes that are in a straight seam.  When this deity closes his eyes, there is darkness.  When the deity look with his eyes, there is light.  He neither eats, nor sleeps, nor breathes.  The wind and the rain are at his beck and call.  This deity shines his torch over the ninefold darkness.  This deity is Torch Dragon.

Fear of the Aurora

Not all folktales portray the Aurora as nonthreatening.  The Sami people from Lapland believed that one should tread carefully and quietly when the northern lights were observed.  Mocking them may cause the lights to descend and kill.  Eskimos of Alaska also saw the Aurora as something to be feared and carried weapons to protect themselves when the northern lights were visible.  In the Faroe Islands, children would not venture outdoors during the Aurora because they feared the lights would strike them and singe their hair.

Lapps hunting by the Aurora Borealis from 'Under the Rays of the 
Aurora Borealis' 1882-1883 Bomholt, International Polar Research Expedition

That's it for today, dear readers.  In part two I'll be focusing on the sun and the moon in folklore, myth and legend.  Until next time.

Useful Resources


The Data Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore
Aurora: The Northern Lights in Mythology, History and Science by Harald Falck-Ytter
Deadfall by Robert Liparulo
Manxiana; Rhymes and Legends... First Series, Etc by J. E. Pattison
Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi by John S. Major
The Classic of Mountains and Seas by Anne Birrell

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