What We Can Learn From The Ghostly Myths Behind The Northern Lights

By Sara Coughlin

People have been watching the skies and wondering what’s up there since we could look up. We delight in believing that there’s something out there bigger than ourselves. Aside from, say, a total solar eclipse, the celestial event that most easily sparks the human imagination is the aurora borealis, or the northern lights.

As we kick off autumn (and, according to NASA, aurora season), we’re exploring the role that the northern lights have played in people’s lives throughout history.

Given the brilliance of the northern lights, just about every group of ancient people who encountered them found the sight astounding and sought to ascribe it meaning. Where Inuit tribes believed they were dead souls lighting the way to the afterlife, certain groups of early Scandinavians thought they were ethereal dancers, flitting across the sky. Other peoples, including the ancient Chinese (who interpreted the lights as the spirits of unborn children) and the indigenous people of Wisconsin (who believed they were the ghosts of their enemies), connected the lights to the dead and the presence of the other-worldly, too. Can you blame them? Even the Bible seems to mention auroras as part of holy visions.

As A. Brekke and A. Egeland in The Northern Light: From Mythology to Space Research point out, other groups based their northern light myths on elements from their everyday lives. People in Sweden and Norway took the lights as an indication of bountiful fishing, while the Finnish thought they were a reflection of whales swimming in the northern seas. This reminds us of the connection we make between the planets and our personal lives in modern-day astrology; there might be centuries between us, but people’s fascination with celestial phenomena has remained a constant.

For the skywatchers among us, making the journey up north at this time of year should be well worth the trip. But, even if you can’t catch the northern lights in person, you can stream the aurora from the comfort of your home, which is probably much cozier anyway.

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