Photo: Joanna Borgiel
Fjord Tours Articles / 29 Jun 2020

Norway’s Myths and Folklore around the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a fascinating natural phenomenon that has created excitement and mysticism since the dawn of time. Although the science is pretty well understood in modern-day, the lights are still surrounded in myth, folklore, and superstition.

Millions of people have experienced this natural wonder and many struggle to convey the magnitude of beauty when trying to describe what they have witnessed. Standing on a snow-covered dock, with the black icy water chillingly still, reflecting the most enchanting light show dancing across the pitch dark arctic sky is one of the most spellbinding experiences of this writers’ life.

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Photo: Northern Lights, Tromsø - Norway, Farout

The origin of the Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights

“Aurora" is derived from the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, who traveled from east to west announcing the coming of the sun on her multi-colored chariot. In Ancient Greece, poets would often use this metaphorically to describe the goddess racing through the sky spreading light and color. Galileo coined the phrase Aurora Borealis in 1861 by adding a second word derived from the Greek god of the northern wind, Boreas.

Displays of the Northern Lights are caused by geomagnetic storms and occur in a band known as the "auroral zone". These zones are centered around the magnetic North and South Poles. The storms cause the auroral zones to expand, bringing them to lower latitudes. Solar winds force charged protons and electrons to collide resulting in luminous phenomena, known as streamers. These streamers can be produced at any time of day but are most visible in the dark of night. 

Northern Lights Tour By Coach
Photo: Farout

Nordic and Sami myths

One of the earliest written texts mentioning the Northern Lights can be found in The Royal Mirror, which is considered a Norwegian textbook in social science from the 13th century. The Northern Lights are described as a natural phenomenon. The unknown author also gives it a name - Northern Urljos.

The Northern Lights were not an unusual sight for people living in the far North and were a popular theme in folklore and superstition. In old Norse mythology, the northern lights were said to be Bifrost, the bridge between Åsgard and Midgard. 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.

Finnish folklore tells that the Northern Lights come from sparks created by the tail of the fox as it runs over the snow. The Finnish name for the Northern Lights, "Revontulet", translates literally to  "fire-train".

In Sami Culture, it is 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. It is important to be respectful of the Northern Lights in order to show respect to their forefathers. In Sami, the northern light is called "guovssahas", which means the audible light. Many believe that they can hear crackling from the northern lights.

Faith and superstition in northern cultures saw the lights associated with both blessings and good fortunes as well as fear and warnings.  Expectant mothers were promised, trouble-free labor, if they avoided looking at the lights during pregnancy, while tales of child snatchers and troubled virgins alluded to a more sinister association with the dancing light in the night sky.

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Photo: Joanna Borgiel

Plan your 2021 trip now to witness the Northern Lights for yourself here in Norway. Our top tip for places to visit is the Northern Municipality of Tromsø. Although nothing is guaranteed, this Arctic city has a very high occurrence of the lights, and visiting at the right time gives you the best chance of seeing the lights and taking the best photos.

Northern Lights Walk
Photo: Farout