To any observer, the Aurora Borealis or “the northern lights” is a marvel to behold.
When the iridescent pinks and greens light up and flicker frenetic dance moves across an Arctic sky, it paints the landscape into a handful of rarely-seen colours out on the land. Here, in a Nunavut winter, everything is white but for a few spatterings of beige or grey. Everywhere you turn – just a pale palette. The Aurora Borealis brings a black sky to life and at times even lights up the snow below.
Yet to many Indigenous peoples, the northern lights are much, much more than just a beauty to watch wide-eyed and opened mouthed.
To some, they are the ghosts of loved ones, spirit guides or souls passing messages.
In fact, there are many cultures both across Canada and around the world with this same or similar belief – these lights are the souls of deceased ancestors coming out to play, to haunt or to communicate with their loved ones.
Since the Aurora Borealis occurs when the temperature is cold and the sky is clear simultaneously, they are mainly a northern phenomenon.
However, when the circumstances are just right, they may appear in regions a bit more south. The lights can manifest as a milky white splash or at other times they come in reds, greens, blues and purples.
How they manifest and where they manifest will have an impact on the variations of the traditional beliefs that have grown around them.
Here are some of the more ghostly legends and folklore surrounding Northern Lights in Canada and abroad:
NUNAVUT TERRITORY, CANADA
Some Nunavut Inuit from communities north and north-west of the Hudson Bay believe that spirits live in the sky and light torches to guide new arrivals as they approach death, or to lure lost souls to steal away. They would dread the Aurora Borealis when it lit up the sky.
In the 1916 book The Labrador Ottawa by E.W. Hawkes, the northern lights are those torches:
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 sky is a great dome of hard material arched over the Earth. There is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits 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.
Other Nunavut Inuit accounts describe the spirits living in the the northern lights to be somewhat more playful.
One traditional Inuit game is a type of soccer that is typically played on ice. Instead of a ball, a skull is kicked. In most communities throughout the territory of Nunavut, winter begins at the time of the sea ice freeze. That usually happens in or around September. The ice melt signifies the start of summer and that typically takes place around June. During those approximately nine months when the sea is frozen solid, it can become a large soccer field that seems endless.
The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of new arrivals.
The days get shorter and the nights get longer in those winter months. This means more often than not the sky is a dark canvas available to display the Aurora Borealis. When Inuit would go outside to kick a skull, there would often be the northern lights dancing above them.
According to some Inuit legends, each strand of light represents one soul of the dead coming out to play soccer. The Inuktut names for the northern lights translate to “the trail of those playing soccer” or “soccer trails.”
In some other parts, the aurora is something of the highest heaven, where people who died violent deaths may finally enjoy a peaceful afterlife.
NUNAVIK REGION, QUEBEC, CANADA
In Nunavik, where many Inuit live in a northern region of Quebec, the traditional belief about soccer has been flipped. They believe that walrus souls come out at night and kick the skull of dead humans.
VARIOUS CREE COMMUNITIES, CANADA
The Cree believe that the Aurora Borealis is the final stage of the life cycle and the place where spirits of the dead remain, apart from but visible to their loved ones. They hold that these spirits come out to communicate with the living when the lights are apparent in the sky.
LABRADOR, NEWFOUNDLAND, CANADA
Labrador Inuit traditionally didn’t believe the lights were spirits themselves, but were instead put there by spirits. They call the Aurora Borealis “Selamiut” which translates to “sky dwellers.” Any spirits who had died violent deaths could access the path between heaven and the afterlife. These spirits held lanterns to guide other spirits on their way.
Some of these legends are paralleled in those of the Saami from Scandinavia. They also recognized the streaks as spirits but in a somewhat spookier way. They believe that if you disrespect the lights, the spirits would bring you illness, misfortune or death. This fear was what prompted Saami people to traditionally stay inside when the aurora shone in the sky and observed them solemnly, encouraging children to behave, be quiet and treat the lights with respect.
As well, according to J.R. Dorothy’s Legends of the Northern Lights, some Indigenous Eastern Greenlanders believed the lights were the souls of children who had died at birth. In Greenland, the name for the northern lights illustrates the folklore very well. “Alugsukat” translates to “secret birth.”
A mystical fox is believed to have caused the northern lights by throwing sparks into the sky with his tail as he whipped up the snow.
Some other traditional beliefs about northern lights from elsewhere in the world were not so much focused on the spirits of deceased humans but rather on non-human or supernatural beings.
One example is the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin, which believes the Aurora Borealis is made up of torches held by giants needing light while fishing. Other Indigenous groups situated in what is now the United States believe the lights to be a bad omen – the ghosts of their slain enemies returning to Earth in order to plot their revenge.
Another international example comes from Finland, where a mystical fox is believed to have caused the northern lights by throwing sparks into the sky with his tail as he whipped up the snow. This is found in an ancient Finnish beast fable called Revontulet which translates literally to “fox fires.”
Even some early dragon lore from China and Russia is believed to be inspired by the Aurora Borealis. For instance, a fire dragon named Ognenniy Zmey would fly out of the sky at night to seduce Russian women when their husbands were away.
These days we know the scientific perspective of an Aurora Borealis display. It is created when electrically charged particles from the sun’s solar winds shoot into the Earth’s atmosphere. Solar winds can fly at speeds of up to a million miles per hour. They reach the earth about 40 hours after leaving the sun.
While zooming their way through the earth’s upper atmosphere, these solar wind particles can meet oxygen and nitrogen atoms. The colour of each wisp of light is dependent on the element and the altitude of the atom the solar particles strike. If it hits oxygen, it will create red or green lights. That is, red lights above 150 miles in altitude or green lights up to 150 miles in altitude. If it hits nitrogen, it will create blue or purple lights – at an altitude of either 60 miles or below and above 60 miles respectively.
No matter what you see or believe when you look up at the northern lights, we can all agree on one thing. They may be at times beautiful, astounding or spooky but they are always simply out of this world.