Northern lights folklore and mythology have shaped our relationship with the aurora for centuries. Read on to experience a few of these stories, about what our ancestors believed the lights were trying to tell us. 

Northern lights folklore and mythology across the world

One of outer space’s closest phenomena, the aurora has enthralled humanity for many generations. Cultures around the auroral oval (at both poles!) have crafted tales that influenced their ways of living, their idea of an afterlife, and the strategies that they utilized for warfare, survival, and worship. These were huge cornerstones in the lives of early people. 

This attempt to understand an incredible force of nature is a thread that runs through many other ancient stories. You can imagine our ancestors grappling to live beside the power of volcanoes, terrible storms, thundering seas, and oddities that even today we struggle to comprehend. What vengeful gods were moving the Earth? What otherworldly exchange was taking place among them?

Auroral science is fairly fresh in the scheme of things, and it was not that long ago that we too puzzled at these lights in the night sky. Fortunately, we still have some of these stories to remember those early people by. And when you see an aurora for yourself, it is easy to see how these stories came about. 

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thomas Tucker)

A thought to take with you on this journey

Oral folktales were humanity’s first way of conveying history, information, and news. Ancient peoples communicated this way, and passed these tales down in order to cement the foundation of their early cultures and beliefs.

Some of these stories were cautionary, some were fun, and others were deep wisdom crafted over many lifetimes. These stories were all meant to guide the living, sometimes even beyond the grave. 

As you read forward, it is important to remember the medium of oral history, and how it worked. Some of these stories are nearly fossils, and some have changed and adapted over time. It may be possible that you know one of these stories in a different way, or even in a contrary way to how it is printed here.

The ultimate difficulty and gift of these tales is that both of those retellings can be correct.

Sometimes it is something as simple as a coastal dwelling people telling the story one way, and a more inland dwelling people telling it another- each within the same area of land! Some stories have changed details over time with many retellings, and some stories evolved differently depending on the groups of people telling them, and how they traveled.

A fascinating evolution of these stories lies in the movement of their people. With time, many more stationary groups of people moved and brought their cultures to faraway lands. In interactions like these, we can sometimes see the similarity or melding of stories, and in lands that share modern borders, we can sometimes see shared beliefs- similar to Russia and China, with their tales of great dragons. 

The first storytellers that crafted these tales are long gone, but their legends have stood the test of time. An attempt to describe an incredible thing to our fellow man is at the core of the human experience, and it continues today.

As you read through these stories, feel free to share your knowledge of them with us. Have you heard them before? How were they different? Have you heard one that we don’t have recorded?

Part of the fun of these tales is in the telling, and the sharing of them- just like our ancestors would have done so long ago. Who knows what stories people will tell hundreds of years beyond us! In many ways, today’s magic is tomorrow’s science.

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(National Gallery of Art. Art Credit: Charles Le Brun. Aurora (Dawn), c. 1640. Public Domain.)

Italy: A name for the phenomenon

Though there are many recorded occurrences of possible auroral observance, the name that we use for auroras is credited to Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. It is recorded that he saw the aurora in 1619 and believed at the time that they were rays of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

He named the occurrence “aurora borealis” a Latin term referencing Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the northern wind. 

To the Greeks, Boreas was the winged god of the north and the winter wind, and was one of the four seasonal Anemoi. You may recognize his name from the term boreal, which is a word that we commonly use to reference northerly places or the north wind. 

(If we were discussing the southern pole’s aurora, we would call it aurora australis, or the southern lights.)

Galilei also included Aurora in this name, which has come to be the term that we use the most to reference this gift of nature. To the ancient Romans, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn.

Like many religious figures, she occurs in multiple polytheistic cultures by different names. Ēṓs in Greek, Uṣas in Rigvedic, and Hausos, the Indo-European origin from which she is thought to have come. (Being a bringer of light, it is not surprising to see her throughout the old religions of Europe, by the names of Aušrinė, Auseklis, and Ēastre.)

In the Roman belief, she was the sister of the Sun and the Moon, and the mother of the winds, or Anemoi. (Which gives the two words ‘aurora’ and ‘Borealis’ yet another interesting connection.)

Though the aurora was given these rich mythological names by Galileo, it does not necessarily mean that the ancient Greeks and Romans related auroras to these deities. Though a celestial occurrence, the stories behind these beings connect them primarily to the dawn and the northern winter wind.

In retellings of this story, individuals often name these cultures as applying their belief of the aurora to these deities, but it is important to note that it was Galileo himself that coined the name in 1619.

Greece and Italy lie below the Kp 9 region on the globe; making it unlikely that they would have regularly seen auroras, but certainly not impossible.

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(Unsplash, Photo Credit: Greg Rakozy)

Early aurora observers around the globe

It is also interesting to note, that while Galileo is popularly credited with naming the aurora, he was not the only person watching the sky. History carries other stories of intrepid astronomers, some of which contest this claim.

Interestingly enough, a fellow sky observer and French philosopher, Pierre Gassendi is also credited in many publications as having named the aurora. He shared many of the same views and studies as Galileo, and may have seen the aurora as early as 1621.

Interestingly enough, he gave the phenomenon the same name. Due to written correspondence, some scholars wonder if they didn’t both see the same solar storm.

Despite this information, the truth is that the aurora existed long before there were people there to name it. According to NASA, one of the oldest existing mentions of auroral observance comes from China, in 2600 B.C.

This story is about Fu-Pao (Fubao) of the Youjiao Clan. It is said that she witnessed intense lighting moving around a star called Su from the constellation of Bei-Dou, lighting the entire area. In Chinese mythology, it is said that Fubao saw a “magical band of light” that caused her to become pregnant. She then gave birth to the Emperor Xuanyuan, a prominent figure in Chinese history and culture.

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Kevin Bluer)

Below the oval: Lights in the heart of western Europe

Though rare, it is possible for strong auroral activity to make its way further down into mainland Europe and the continental United States.

We don’t typically relate northern lights with these areas, but in earlier times before the advent of electric light, dark skies were more readily available, and the mystery of the northern lights was a bit easier to see. 

Stories from these regions have come from as far as the Middle Ages, though a few of them are as recent as the 1800’s. Many say that people in Western Europe considered the northern lights to be a warning, or a bad omen signaling oncoming hardship.

A sighting of the aurora could mean plague, death, or war. This may have been due to the colors people would have seen during these occurrences. 

For the northern lights to reach so far from the pole, the strength of the activity would have been fairly high. Strong activity has the potential to take up more space in the atmosphere, and reach more pockets of nitrogen and oxygen- making it possible to create a more colorful show.

Typically auroral activity is green, but activity that reaches unusual heights can display rare colors like red and yellow. 

This could explain why Europeans have anecdotally considered the light a harbinger of bad tidings or strife. We can begin to see this in the many tales of blood-red steaks in the sky before notable battles and events. 

There are tales that the red lights were visible in the skies above Scotland and England weeks before the French Revolution. Some even say they saw auroras during the time of the Franco-Prussian war, which were believed to be reflections of the bloodshed that had happened there. 

Among these tales are many others like them that coincide with fighting in Finland, Ireland, and even the United States. There are few cultures that we know of that have seen red auroras and did not imagine them as the voice of a vengeful god or a messenger of terrible news.

Auroras of any variety are magnificent, but it is not hard to imagine the fear that a red aurora must have inspired in older times. Even today, a red aurora is shocking to witness. 

On a more positive note, not all Europeans saw doom in the face of the northern lights. The Scots, for instance, called the lights Na Fir-Chlis, ‘merry dancers’, and ‘the Nimble Men’. They believed that the lights depicted fallen angels or great warriors embroiled in an otherworldly battle.

The speed of their movements could also hint at oncoming weather. Quick, jagged movements could mean an unruly forecast, while fluid, slow movement could mean a calm and mild one. Many cultures used the skies to predict the weather, so it’s no wonder that they looked to the auroras as well as the stars and clouds. 

But as proof of the dancer’s brawl, blood was shed upon Scottish earth. In the Hebrides, one can find Heliotrope or Bloodstones.

There are many stories about their origin, shared across many cultures- but some say that the specks of red in the green stones are the splashes of blood from the dancer’s battle. Blood spills from their onslaught and falls to earth as stones. A gift of nature, within another. 

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Nelly Volkovich)

The Aurora Australis: fire in the southern skies

We do not have many tales about the Aurora Australis, as the majority of the land close to that pole has been uninhabited for much of history. (If those penguins could talk!)

But fortunately, on a good night, there are a few neighbors nearby. Most visibility of the Southern Lights occurs in Australia and New Zealand. 

Indigenous Australians have many stories and beliefs that involve the dancing lights, even including a report of hearing noise during an occurrence.

This report took place in 1851 near the town of Hobart, where Indigenous peoples said that the aurora made a sound like “people snapping their fingers”. Today, some people do report hearing sounds during an auroral occurrence, but it is an aspect of the lights that is still being studied. 

Many of these stories are interestingly similar to stories found in Native American cultures. The lights occupy an important place in storytelling, and the understanding of omens and ill tidings.

Often, the aurora was a message from a deity or a cosmic warning to stay in line. The Dieri believed that an aurora was a sign that someone was being punished for breaking the law. 

This echoes in the story of hunters near Uluru killing a scared emu. This was an infraction of Pitjantjatjara law, so when they saw the aurora they knew that it meant punishment had come for them.  

The Gunai people tell of a ancestor called Mungan Ngour, who put forth rules for men and their initiation into society. If people spoke of the sacred details of these proceedings, Mungan Ngour would send down fire from the heavens. This fire, was the aurora. 

The color of the aurora could also be a key factor in the way that these stories evolved. For many Indigenous people, a red aurora could signal blood, or trouble.

Similar to stories from Europe, these crimson flashes could mean that a great battle was being fought in the sky, or that spirits were ascending to the heavens. 

Many Indigenous people, like The Dieri and Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia, believed that the Southern Lights were great heavenly fires.

The Gunai people of eastern Victoria believe them to be bushfires in the realm of spirits, and harbingers of difficult times. While nearby, the Gunditjmara people of western Victoria call them ‘Puae buae’, which means ashes. 

Further south, they say that the lights are the “feast fires” of the Oola Pikka, who are otherworldly beings that communicate to their Elders by creating the lights. 

Even further south still, are the Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand who call the aurora Tahunui-a-rangi, which means “Great glowing of the sky”. They say the Aurora Australis and believed them to be light reflected from the torches and campfires of their ancestors who had sailed south, and settled there.

The lights were proof that they had made it, and would return to them one day. Stories like this are told amongst the Algonquian people in North America, and are a comforting way to hold space for those in one’s life that have ventured far from home. Imagining the reflection from their home fires is a closeness that many never felt in life.

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Zhang Kaiyv)

Ancient tales: glowing skies in China and Japan

Some of the oldest recorded work mentioning the Northern Lights comes to us from China. A place of copious art and text, China is a great source of preserved mythology and early science.

Many say that early depictions of colorful sky dragons and curved celestial serpents in historic Chinese media are meant to convey early sightings of the aurora. 

This theory is reflected in the Shanhaijing (Shan Hai Jing), a recorded collection of mythical creatures. There are multiple serpents named in this book, including the Zhulong, mentioned in the “Classic of the Great Wilderness: North”.

Chinese scholar Ming Hua Zhang believed that this entry may be referencing the aurora, due to the description of the creature. 

Described as red in color with a humanoid face and a serpentine body a thousand miles long, the Zhulong was said to be the deity of Zhong Mountain. With a name that means “Torch Dragon” in English, Zhulong was responsible for creating the day and night cycle, and also seasonal winds.

Descriptions similar to this come up in other ancient works and bestiaries, especially as there was not one central term to describe the phenomenon.

Instead, specific terms were used to describe the shapes that auroras made. These resulted in names like: “”Sky Dog (“天狗”)”, “Sword/Knife Star (“刀星”)”, “Chiyou banner (“蚩尤旗”)”, “Sky’s Open Eyes (“天开眼”)”, and “Stars like Rain (“星陨如雨”)”.”

It is interesting to note, that these stories of dragons are not specific only to China, but also their neighboring country, Russia. One can imagine how stories like this might develop and travel with the movement of people over time, growing and evolving throughout a region.

But dragons aren’t the only bearers of light in China! There are also stories about Fu-Pao (Fubao), the mother of the Yellow Emperor. Fu-Pao played an important role in Chinese culture, and it is said that looking upon the aurora (or possibly a bolt of lightning) is what caused her to conceive the Emperor himself. 

Some say that it is a belief in China and Japan that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will have good fortune or be very beautiful, but there is not a great deal of proof that this is indeed a story that originates from these areas. Though, it would have many parallels with Fu-Pao’s story, if it were! 

For visitors to China today, it is still possible to view the aurora in the northern city of Mohe. One can even visit the nearby town of Beijicun, the “North Pole Village”.

This area hosts a popular Polar Lights festival where thousands of people travel to test their luck at catching a glimpse- and perhaps even today, can be called a true home of dragons. 

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Aleksey Sokolenko)

The vast skies of polar Russia: Here be Dragons

Across the way from nearby China, lies another land of dragons. Russia is home to a fan favorite as far as Northern Lights tales go, the story of the fire dragon that seduced a whole village. 

This story seems to be told differently depending on the area you’ve heard it in, but the structure of it is much the same.

In the wintertime of the year, the menfolk would leave to hunt or participate in long-term battles. During this absence, the great sky dragon would descend and seduce all of the women who had been left behind. 

Some versions of this story reference a watchman, left by the other men who had been charged with preventing this sort of trouble- but upon their return, he had to report that it was certainly not him who had fathered all of these children, but the great dragon himself! Which was cause for much celebration. Sounds like a myth within a myth, if you ask me! 

Like many cultures, the wonder of the aurora is often linked with childbirth and the mysteries of existence. In Siberia, it is said that some people believed that children born under the lights would be blessed with a long and fruitful life.

The Chuvash people were also said to link the aurora to birth- but rather that it was proof that their god was busy helping women in childbirth. 

There are many Indigenous stories as well that the lights may be past ancestors making merry or riding horses across the skies- sometimes accidentally spilling blood, and thus blessing people below with the aurora. 

Stories like this are widespread across the globe, and it is interesting to see how ancient peoples used to believe that the aurora might be the byproduct of activity in a spirit realm- when we know today, that it is a byproduct of virulent weather in space. In some ways, these ethereal beliefs maintain some of their truth, even now.

northern lights folklore, Northern Lights folklore and mythology: A collection of wonderous tales