[Northern lights (with Table of Contents)]
[previous: Do auroras make noise?] [dictionary] [next: Research with rockets and satellites]

Beliefs in ancient times

Before people knew what they know today they tried, in their own way, to explain why there were auroras. People knew that there were auroras but they did not know why. At that time people were very superstitious so their explanations sometimes became very imaginative.

Three old Nordic explanations are mentioned in the book "Kongespeilet" from the thirteenth century. At that time people thought the Earth was flat and surrounded by oceans. One explanation was that the oceans were surrounded by fire and that auroras were the light from those fires, reflected in the sky.

Fire reflected in the sky

Image: Ingrid Sandahl

One other possibility was that the sun threw its beams high in the sky although the sun itself was located beneath the edge of the earth plate.

The Sun under the earthplate

Image: Ingrid Sandahl

A third possibility was that glaciers could absorb so much power that they began to shine.

Glowing glacier

Image: Ingrid Sandahl

One of the ancient Swedish names for aurora is sillblixt (herring flash). The name comes from people who thought that the aurora was a reflection of large herring shoals in the ocean. This is preserved in documents from Närke and different parts of Norway.

Herrings in the ocean

Image: Ingrid Sandahl

From Närke comes yet another explanation, the aurora was believed to arise from the Laplanders' torches when they were looking for their reindeer in the mountains.

In Småland some people believed that the swans had a competition about flying furthest to the north. Those who got furthest froze in the sky. The aurora arises when the swans try to come loose by flapping their wings.

Swans frozen to the sky

Image: Ingrid Sandahl

The Finnish name for aurora is revontulet, fox fires. According to the legend there were fire foxes in Lapland and the auroras were sparks given off by their fur as they ran in the mountains.

The natives, for example Indians and Laplanders, who live in the aurora zones today think that the aurora is something to be respected. This opinion is still active in our century. A lot of elderly people living in the north of Sweden can remember as children being told to act nice and silent when there were auroras in the sky. To misbehave at that time was very serious.

In both Scandinavia and North America some people believe that you can call the aurora by whistling, but to do so can be dangerous.

There are a lot of stories describing how dangerous the aurora could be. There is a story about a young man from Norway, who despite his big brother's warnings, was killed by the aurora because he was teasing it.

Some people would not let their children outside to play while there were auroras, since they could get killed. Others thought it was all right as long as the children had hats on, so that the aurora would not burn their hair off.

A lot of people thought that auroras, especially the red ones, foretold bad times, such as plague, war or great fires. The reddish auroras often made people believe that a city close by was on fire and they rushed there only to find that it was not the case. It is easy to see how people who were not used to auroras could mistake them for fires, especially since most of the houses were made of wood and easily caught fire.

For the Laplanders, as for other people in northern Europe, Asia and America, the aurora was a place for the dead. Above all it were people who had died a violent or too early death who came to live in the aurora. It could be people who were murdered, killed in war, took their own life, died in child birth or unborn children.

In some areas the spirits of the dead seemed to have quite a good time in the aurora. The Inuits in Greenland and northern Canada thought that the spirits were playing soccer with a walrus skull. Their name for the aurora is aqsalijaat, the trail of those who play soccer. From Baffin Island it is told that the walrus skull found it all so amusing that it clattered its jaws. Those who looked at their ancestors' games had to look out so they did not get their heads knocked off by the skull.

Spirits playing soccer

Image: Ingrid Sandahl

The Laplanders thought that auroras and the weather were connected. When the aurora was flaming high in the sky the weather would be warm. By the magic influence of the aurora they thought it was possible to also influence the weather. This could be done in many different ways. In Kvikkjokk they called out a chant which started "gokseth (aurora) lipi, lipi". Lipi is short for lihphuit that means flutter. From Vilhelmina it is told that you could make the aurora flutter by waving a white sheet.

All people did not think that a fluttering aurora meant warm weather, some thought that it was getting cold and others that there was a storm coming. Most people believed that a fluttering aurora meant a change in the weather though.

[Northern lights (with Table of Contents)]
[previous: Do auroras make noise?] [dictionary] [next: Research with rockets and satellites]

HTML: Jenny Jutström
Updated: webmaster@irf.se, 2003-11-12