The aurora borealis has intrigued people from ancient times, and still does today. The Eskimos and Indians of North America have many stories to explain these northern lights.
One story is reported by the explorer Ernest W. Hawkes in his book, The Labrador Eskimo:
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.
They can be seen there feasting and playing football with a
The whistling crackling noise which sometimes accompanies the
aurora is the voices of these spirits trying to communicate
with the people of the Earth. They should always be answered
in a whispering voice. Youths dance to the aurora. The
heavenly spirits are called selamiut, "sky-dwellers," those who
live in the sky.
The Point Barrow Eskimos were the only Eskimo group who considered the aurora an evil thing. In the past they carried knives to keep it away from them.
Omen of War
The Fox Indians, who lived in Wisconsin, regarded the light as an omen of war and pestilence. To them the lights were the ghosts of their slain enemies who, restless for revenge, tried to rise up again.
The Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska interpreted the northern lights as the dancing of human spirits. The Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River believed that the aurora was the dance of animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga.
Game of Ball
Most Eskimo groups have a myth of the northern lights as the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. The Eskimos of Nunivak Island had the opposite idea, of walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
Spirits of Children
The east Greenland Eskimos thought that the northern lights were the spirits of children who died at birth. The dancing of the children round and round caused the continually moving streamers and draperies of the aurora.
Fires in the North
The Makah Indians of Washington State thought the lights were fires in the Far North, over which a tribe of dwarfs, half the length of a canoe paddle and so strong they caught whales with their hands, boiled blubber.
The Mandan of North Dakota explained the northern lights as fires over which the great medicine men and warriors of northern nations simmered their dead enemies in enormous pots. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin regarded the lights as torches used by great, friendly giants in the north, to spear fish at night.
An Algonquin myth tells of when Nanahbozho, creator of the Earth, had finished his task of the creation, he traveled to the north, where he remained. He built large fires, of which the northern lights are the reflections, to remind his people that he still thinks of them.
Folklore is from Legends of the Northern Lights, by Dorothy Jean Ray, The ALASKA SPORTSMAN, April 1958, reprinted in AURORA BOREALIS The Amazing Northern Lights, by S.I. Akasofu, Alaska Geographic, Volume 6, Number 2, 1979
All of the Aurora images on this page are copyrighted (2003 Jan Curtis) and are
intended for non-commercial, educational uses. Larger versions of these photos
and many others can be viewed from Jan Curtis homepage, Home
of the Northern Lights.
Introducing the Aurora
- Earth's Great Light Show -
Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Compiled by: Glenn Welker
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