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The Scandinavian myths and legends behind the Northern Lights

Before the science behind the Northern Lights was understood, they inspired countless myths and legends in Scandinavia (and across the world).

For millennia, the beguiling, kaleidoscopic dance across the sky that is the aurora borealis remained a mystery. And it is little wonder that the majestic glow influenced countless folklore and stories through the ages – can you imagine gazing up at the vivid greens, reds and purples flickering across the night sky, and not understanding the how, when and why?

While today we may know the science behind the lights, back then, stories painted them as everything from bridges to the afterlife to celestial ancestors.

Gods and warriors

In old Norse mythology, the Northern Lights were said to be “Bifrost”, a burning rainbow bridge between Midgard (Earth) and Åsgard (the realm of the gods). Other stories hinted that the light was being reflected from the shields of the Valkyrie, the female angels of death who led fallen warriors to Valhalla. Meanwhile, the Vikings celebrated the lights, thinking they were earthly manifestations of their gods.

Sami superstitions

For the Sami, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people, the lights didn’t tell stories of heroism and bravery; instead, they were to be feared and respected in equal measure. They believed that their ancestors lived in the Northern Lights and were a force of nature, like a god, in line with the sun, moon and other natural phenomena.

Hence, it is important to be respectful of the aurora in order to show respect to their forefathers, and many superstitions surround what was often seen as a bad omen. It was dangerous to tease the dead souls by waving, whistling or singing, as this would alert the lights to your presence. If you caught their attention, the lights could reach down and carry you up into the sky (a more sinister interpretation was that they could reach down and slice off your head). To this day, many Sami stay indoors when the lights appear, just to be on the safe side.

Hamnøy on a polar night
Hamnøy on a polar night © Piotr Krzeslak

The risks of childbirth

In Iceland, the locals supposed the Northern Lights helped to ease the pain of childbirth, but pregnant women were not to look directly at their baby or they risked their child being born cross-eyed. In Greenland the lights were also linked to giving birth, but rather sadly people held the bittersweet belief that the lights were the spirits of children who had died in childbirth dancing across the sky.

Fascinating firefoxes

In Finland, the name for the Northern Lights is “revontulet”, literally translated as “firefox. The name comes from the rather beautiful myth that Arctic foxes produced the aurora. These firefoxes would run through the sky so fast that when their large, furry tails brushed against the mountains, they created sparks that lit up the sky.

A similar version of this story tells that as the firefoxes ran, their tails swept snowflakes up into the sky, which caught the moonlight and created the Northern Lights. This version would have also helped explain why the lights were only visible in winter, as there is no snowfall in the summer months.

Northern lights in Norway
Northern lights in Norway © Stian Klo

Lucky fishermen

Meanwhile, Swedish fisherman prayed for an appearance, imagining them to be reflections of giant schools of herring swimming nearby, heralding a good harvest in the coming year. Elsewhere in the country, the spectacle was often seen as a portent of good news, as many Swedes believed the lights to be a gift from benevolent gods providing warmth and light in the form of a volcano in the north.

The science behind the lights

While they might seem an act of magic, it is in fact science. Yet it wasn’t until 1913 that humanity came close to discovering the true origins of this phenomenon. On 31 January, King Haakon VII of Norway went to the University of Oslo to hear a lecture by physicist Kristian Birkeland, who claimed he had unlocked the secrets of this natural marvel.

Rather than light reflecting off polar icebergs (a commonly accepted explanation at the time), or one of the whimsical myths and legends that had been passed down through generations the world over, his theory was the first to come close to the truth: electrically charged particles from the sun make gases glow in the upper atmosphere.

With the aid of a specially constructed device, Birkeland replicated the Northern Lights in miniature, consequently dazzling the king. Although a Nobel Prize was predicted, it wasn’t until the 1960s that satellite data proved his hypothesis to be correct, and the professor whose face emblazons the Norwegian 200-kroner banknote is little mentioned outside of his native country to this day.

Chasing the myths and legends

Whichever fantastical tale captures your imagination, one thing is certain, the Northern Lights were assigned great power and significance by the peoples of ancient Scandinavian societies. Cross the Arctic Circle and search for the inspiration behind these myths and legends in winter on Hurtigruten’s Original Coastal Voyage in 2022/23. Book by 31 March 2021 to receive up to $500 onboard credit per person and rest assured with their Northern Lights Promise.

The Northern Lights Promise

Hurtigruten is unusual in that it offers a Northern Lights Promise – if the lights do not appear on your cruise, you will be offered another six- or seven-day ‘Classic Voyage’ free of charge. The other secret weapon? The expedition team spend 24 hours a day watching the skies on your behalf, so there is no chance of missing a flicker of iridescence.