Date: March 8, 2010
Title: The Folklore Surrounding the Aurora
Link: Craig’s website: www.myfavoriteauthor.net
Description: With this podcast I will present some of the legends and lore which our ancestors devised to explain the aurora. Stories from Europe, Scandinavia, America and The Far North are compared. Not only are the interpretations they came up with wondrous and revealing, but some are downright funny. Join me on this journey across time and the human imagination.
Bio: Craig Robertson is a physician in the Sacramento, CA area, and science fiction author. In the 1970’s he studied astronomy and geophysics at UC Berkeley. In addition to his busy Internal Medicine practice, he has written several science fiction novels available on Podiobooks.com as podcasts, and as ebooks on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s sites. His lifelong love of astronomy keeps him young at heart and continually challenges him to maintain an open mind and a sharp wit. He can be contacted at his website, www.myfavoriteauthor.net.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Erin and Tom Lamb and dedicated to their son Matt, a budding scientist whose thirst for knowledge, like the universe, knows no bounds.
Legends and Folklore Surrounding the Aurora
Hello, I am Craig Robertson, author of two novels, Anon Time and The Innerglow Effect, which can be downloaded free of charge from Podiobooks.com and Smashwords.com. This is my second of what I hope will be several contributions to 365 Days of Astronomy. My fascination with the sky’s lead me to be an Astronomy major at UC Berkeley, and though I ultimately became a physician, my love of this natural spectacle has never diminished. I recently listened to Pamela and Frazer’s AstromonyCast Episode 163 about the auroras. It is wonderful summary of the phenomenon and like so many of their outstanding podcasts, it set me to thinking. Nowadays we comprehend the nature of these flashing and dancing colorful lights in the polar skies. As beautiful and thrilling as they may be to behold, we know them to be a manifestation of physical interactions occurring high in the Earth’s atmosphere. But what, I wondered, did humans think auroras were before the rather mundane scientific explanation became available? As studious observers of the heavens, the auroras must have stood out in their minds as compelling and unique. The Sun rises and sets, constellations rotate away with the seasons, the Moon waxes and wanes, planets wander the Zodiac, but they all do so both slowly and predictably. The auroras were bright, ever moving, and observable in some areas but not others. Surely this must have baffled and befuddled them more than most celestial events. So inspired, I set out to learn what origins our privative ancestors imagined for the northern and southern lights.
Not surprisingly, there are a wide range of legends concerning the aurora. Explanations vary from the wondrous and supernatural to the remarkably dull and everyday. I found it interesting to compare the folklores by ethnic and geographic groupings, so variations among similar peoples stand out. Accounts of the aurora stretch back through history. The Old Testament mentions the lights, and authors such as Aristotle, Galileo, Goethe, and Descartes write of them. A truly astounding account is made of the aurora in the 1230 Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjo. The ancient author offers three possible reasons for the lights, all remarkably logical and scientific, given the limits of human understanding in the Dark Ages. He speculates the flickering lights in the night skies may result from fires which surround the world’s oceans. Recalling that the ocean’s horizon encircled everything early man could observe, having fire generically beyond those limits was not too far fetched. He also more practically theorizes that they may simply be sunlight reaching around to the night side of the planet. Imaginatively he suggest that they may come from glaciers which have stored the sun’s light sufficiently to glow at night. In more southern Europe, where the aurora manifest rarely and most often in the red colors, they were generally regarded with fear, assumed to be the harbingers of wars, plagues, and other unpleasantries. The Romans called them ‘chasmata’, considering them to be the mouths of celestial caves. Some souses speculate that the origins of the fire breathing dragon legends of China and Europe arose from early observation of the aurora.
As often happens with legends, even a single tale can diverge off along many different paths. Scottish folklore refers the the aurora as “Merry” or ‘Nimble’ men. However, what the men are trying to tell us ranges from simple weather prediction to the red blood of clans warring to the struggles over beautiful women in heaven. Irreverently, Russian folklore refers to the Borealis lights as ‘ognenniy zmey’, a fire dragon who comes in the night to seduce the wifes when their husbands were gone. You can almost hear the desperate pleas from the one man left in the village who did not go off to the war explain to the armed horde returning after a year’s time why all the women were pregnant, “It was the dragon, really, trust me tovarich, we all saw him, the ugly monster.”
The North American Indians, like most Europeans, would see the aurora borealis infrequently, but were none the less quite impressed with it. There was a common belief that the lights were campfire reflections in the distant north, where the gods may be trying to provide light and heat. Specific legends show a rich and varied host of explanations. The Mandar of N. Dakota concurred that they were reflections of northern tribes fires, but additionally added that the fires were to heat pots in which to simmer their dead enemies. The Fox of Wisconsin felt the lights were omens of war and pestilence, being the spirits of those enemies they’d killed rising up, restless for revenge. In the same geographic area however, the Menominee pleasantly thought the lights were made by the torches of friendly giants spearfishing at night. Wondrously, the Lakota Sioux saw the light approaching and roiling in the sky to be the souls of generation yet unborn, coming toward their destination. A warm and loving account comes from the Algonquin who felt the lights were from huge fires maintained by the creator god Nanahbozho, sent to show he remembered them.
Early inhabitants of the far north would of course see the aurora routinely, and developed a rich trove of folklore surrounding the northern lights. Bounty could be read from the aurora. Winters with more displays were said to foretell superior harvests the following season. An Old Scandinavian word for the lights translates as ‘herring flash’, signifying reflections of large schools of fish reflecting into the night sky. All together differently, an old Icelandic legend say the lights ease labor pains, while at the same time caused the child to be cross eyed if the mother looked at them. Go figure. Equally complex and detailed, but similarly odd, some Scandinavian tales say the lights originate from the resting place of the spirits of unmarried women, busying themselves there cooking, dancing, and waving their hands while wearing white gloves. I don’t know about you, but if I were a dead virgin, that sounds like a marginal paradise.
More practical, or at least palpable accounts can be found in Danish lore. The aurora was said to be the reflections off the beating wings of large flocks of swans trapped by ice. Naturalisticly, Finnish legend holds that the ‘revontulet’ or fox fires come from sparks off a foxes tail as he drags it though the night. An elaborate and colorful story is sighted in Bulfinch’s 1855 edition of his Mythology. The aurora are believed to come from the Valkyrie, which translates as ‘choosers of the slain’. Their corp out of Asgard is made up of war like virgins on horseback sent by Odin to collect the souls of brave warriors and guide them to Valhalla. There, they will party for eternity, awaiting the final battle between Odin and hostile giants in a final cataclysmic contest. This, parenthetically, sounds a lot better to me than the waving white glove place mentioned earlier, a heck of a lot more fun. Anyway, the northern lights are the reflections off the Valkyrie’s armor as they buzz about doing their endless job.
Most closely associated with the aurora borealis are the tribe of the far north, and their lore reflects this familiarity. Some Eskimo of Greenland said the lights were the spirits of children who died in childbirth and could be seen dancing round and round. Other tales from neighboring tribes thought the lights were also from the realm of the dead, but anyone deceased, and signified that the passed spirits were trying to contact their living relatives. Distant tribes developed quite different interpretations. Alaskan Inuits and Point Barrow Eskimo were frightened by the aurora. The former group would hide their children, for fear of harm, and throw dog excrement and urine (presumably yellow snow) up at the light to make it go away. The latter tribe would carry knives to threaten and ward off the light’s evil. Alternately, Some Salteaus, Kwakiutl and Tlingit benignly saw the aurora as dancing spirits, either human or other animals species, particularly deer, seal, salmon, or beluga.
Popular among several Alaskan Eskimo groups was the legend of the dead humans playing football with the head of a walrus in the highest level of heaven. This penthouse level was reserved for three main groups: men who died hunting, anyone murdered, and women who died during childbirth. In a humorous twist, the Nunivak Island Yuit said it was the walruses playing ball with a human head, though details were lacking on the logistics and specifics of the games. Showing equal imagination, the Makah of Washington envisioned the lights were the fires of a dwarf tribe used to boil down blubber. The said dwarves were only half as tall as a canoe paddle, but were so strong they could catch whales with their bare hands.
Most elaborately, the Eskimo told that there was an abyss at the edge of the world. A narrow path or bridge spanned the abyss leading the dead to a land of plenty where pain and disease no longer existed. There were spirits who guarded the path whose duties also included guiding souls to this paradise. They used hand held torches to do this, and it was these torch light which produced the aurora. When the dead spirits wished to communicate with the earthly plane they would do so by whistling thought the aurora, which is said to make such a sound. The living could answer back to the dead by respectfully whispering at the light displays. This idea that the aurora produce a whistling sound comes up from time to time in legends, but, alas, modern science has failed to document any noise generated by the aurora. Also, common sense, knowing the real origins of the aurora, would argue against any sound coming from the molecular collisions in the upper atmosphere. But it does make a good story, and what use would a legend be if it was reality based?
I could find few accounts of the folklore concerning the aurora Australis, or southern light, but their existence did not go unnoticed by any stretch of the imagination. Kurnai natives in Australia were very certain that the lights meant only one thing. Mungan Ngour, their creator god, was angry. The Mauri tell a less frightening, but quite a sad tale of a lost tribe. These ancestors sailed away to the south long ago, and became trapped in the ice. The torches and fires they light occasionally to signal for rescue produce the aurora.
In these hectic and scientific times of ours, I find it very reassuring and hopeful to reflect back on the creative stories of the past. It is, I guess, nice to know the aurora are a result of the solar wind interacting with our magnetosphere, causing high energy collisions in the upper atmosphere, but wouldn’t it be nice to drink forever alongside Odin, or have a kick at that walrus head your opponent is guarding over there? Oh well, the only reassurance I take is that 1000 years from now, our descendants will look back on our truths as quaint legends with a lilting nostalgia equal to mine.
Thanks for listening, and I hope I have been able in my small way to add to the joy that is your life. Questions or feedback can be directed to 365 Days of Astronomy, or directly to me at my website, www.myfavoriteauthor.net. Air hugs and ekisses………craig
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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