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The ghostly aurora surges in waves across the sky, dropping curtains of blue, red, and green. It appears without warning, grabbing our attention from the still dark sky as if trying to warn of us impending danger. The light show can retreat as quickly as it emerged, leaving viewers dazzled and wanting more.
In our modern world, science has revealed most of the secrets of the northern and southern lights. We now understand that aurorae form when solar particles collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere. Larger solar storms cause a greater influx of particles, which can cause aurorae to reach lower latitudes and appear to more observers. March and September generally afford the best opportunities to observe the northern or southern lights. The colors of the aurora are determined by which gases are excited by the solar plasma.
All of this scientific knowledge slowly started accumulating more than two and a half centuries ago. Prior to that, people made up their own stories about what the lights were and what they meant to humans. The folklore begins with the name of the northern and southern lights. Aurora is the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn. For Europeans, the lights, usually starting as a subtle brightening on the northern horizon, appeared to be an out-of-place and untimely arrival of morning. Other stories about the lights ran the gamut from evil omen to helpful spirits to weather forecasts.
- The Ottawas on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron thought an aurora was a sign of good will from their creator, Nanahboozho.
- The Chuvash of Siberia believed it was their heaven god helping women in childbirth.
- East Greenland Inuits viewed the lights as children who died at birth.
- The Vikings thought aurorae were reflections from shields of the Valkyries, maidens who take dead warriors to Valhalla (heaven).
- Iroquois believed they were seeing the entry point to the land of the souls.
- The Inuit of the lower Yukon River, the Salteaus of Eastern Canada, and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of southeastern Alaska all saw dancing souls in the flickering sky.
- Fox Indian tribes of Wisconsin feared the lights as ghosts of their slain enemies, trying to rise up again. For this reason, aurorae were regarded as an omen of war and pestilence.
- Contrary to the great numbers of legends revolving around the deceased, the Lakota Sioux interpreted the lights as spirits of generations yet to be born.
- Many Inuits’ myths involve the dead playing ball with a walrus head.
- Unlike other Inuit groups, Point Barrow Inuits consider the northern lights evil and carried knives for protection.
- The Koyukuk Indians in northwest Alaska banged on metal pans to attract aurora.
- In Lapland, people were warned not to mock or whistle at aurorae or they may come down to harm them.
- A number of stories involve the actions of unknown communities farther to the North. The Mandan of North Dakota told of fires that people of northern nations used to simmer dead enemies in enormous pots.
- In Washington state, Makah Indians also saw fires of those in the far north, only they spoke of a tribe of dwarfs boiling blubber.
- Menominee Indians of Minnesota and Wisconsin thought the aurorae were torches of friendly northern giants used in spearfishing at night.
- The Mauri of New Zealand interpreted their glimpses of the aurora australis as reflected light from torches or campfires.
- Scandinavian fishing people saw the lights as a sign of rich catches, believing them to be caused by sunlight reflecting off large schools of herring in the North Sea.
- Finnish and Estonian myths were also aquatic in nature, involving a whale or ocean monster splashing the water with its tail.
- Another story from Finland claims that foxes made of fire lived in Lapland and flung sparks into the air with their tails.
- Farther south on the globe, in China, the monster responsible for auroral displays was a fire-breathing dragon.
- Even in the far south of the United States, aurorae were spotted often enough to grow legends. The Creek Indians of Georgia and Alabama, along with the Cheyenne of Wyoming, said the northern lights were a sign of changing weather. The Penobscot Indians of Maine were more specific in their meteorology, foretelling windy weather.
- In Scotland, aurorae were called “merry dancers”. If the “dancers” moved quickly, unsettled weather would be expected, but if the dancers moved slowly and gracefully, the weather forecast was favorable.
While we no longer blame aurorae for a turn in the weather, they are a part of “space weather”. A geomagnetic storm can come your way at any time, triggering another round of magnificent auroral displays. Watch the next event and decide for yourself what the northern lights mean to you.
Read more at Suite101: Legends Behind the Northern Lights: What Past Societies Saw in the Sky http://astronomyspace.suite101.com/article.cfm/legends_behind_the_northern_lights#ixzz0ngFemsn3