What the Northern Lights Mean to Different Cultures

Mystical foxes, the torches of gentle giants, spirits kicking around a walrus skull—humans have interpreted the northern lights in many ways over time.

Multicolored northern lights above a forest

The aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights, have inspired myriad folktales.


On clear nights in the northernmost climes, the sky can erupt into a riot of neon-colored, undulating ribbons. Known as the aurora borealis, or the northern lights, the swirling, psychedelic extravaganza has been witnessed by humankind since at least 957 B.C.E. (and as we approach solar maximum, the chances of seeing the spectacle are even better).

Today, scientists largely have the northern lights figured out: They’re caused when electrically charged particles from the sun meet the Earth’s atmosphere. But hundreds (and thousands of years ago) people didn’t have the same tools to explain the phenomenon.

Instead, communities created folk stories to try to demystify the solar show. To some, it was a harbinger of doom and needed to be respected. To others, the aurora was auspicious and predicted good fortune.

Here’s how various cultures have explained the northern lights over time.


The Finnish word for the aurora borealis is revontulet, which translates to “fire foxes” and is based on an old belief of how the lights originate. In folklore, the mythical fox would strike the surface of the snow with its tail or rub against the mountainside, creating sparks that would be seen in the sky.

The Sami, an Indigenous population that spans Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden, used to believe that when the lights appeared, they must be respected.

“Traditional Sami beliefs consider auroras to be living beings that talk and understand speech,” Marjo Laukkanen, author of The Arctic Calls – Finland, the European Union and the Arctic Region (Europe Information/Ministry of Foreign Affairs Finland, 2013), told AFAR. “This is why people are supposed to be quiet when auroras occur.”

It was believed that disrespecting the lights would bring misfortune. For that reason, people weren’t allowed to play or laugh when the aurora was out. It was also important not to point at the lights, as it would give the spirits something to grab onto to drag you off into the night sky.

“Naturally, the stories and beliefs change over time,” Laukkanen said. “Scientific understanding of the phenomena has grown a lot, and Sami people don’t see northern lights so much as a mystical than a natural phenomenon.”


Arsarnerit, better known as the northern lights or aurora borealis, is the highway of the dead in Greenland,” Maria Kreutzmann, founder of Glaciem House, a company that offers talks and workshops on Greenlandic culture, told AFAR. “The departed dance and run across the skies on it, on their way to the afterlife.” Along the way, she added, they kick a walrus skull around (arsarnerit translates to “ball games”).

Kreutzmann also noted that some say children conceived under the northern lights are exceptionally gifted.


According to Hidden Iceland guide Ásgeir Long, the lights have held many meanings for Icelanders throughout the ages: Some believed that the northern lights used to reduce the pain of childbirth. However, it was important never to look at them directly, or their child would be born cross-eyed. Her colleague, Unnur Silfá, recalled a few other symbolic meanings ascribed to the lights: It confirmed that there was a battle happening somewhere,” she said. Another belief was that the weather could be predicted depending on how the aurora danced across the sky. “If it was particularly fluid, then it meant a storm was coming,” Silfá said.

North America

Indigenous tribes across what is now Canada and the northern U.S. (including Alaska) have myriad folktales surrounding the celestial dance.

To some communities, the lights were ominous. The Iñupiat people of northern Alaska considered them to be evil, and so they carried weapons to protect themselves. Similarly, the Fox Indians of Wisconsin saw them as the ghosts of their enemies looking to rise up and fight again.

However, other Indigenous groups saw the lights as a positive, such as the Athabascan people of interior Alaska, who thought they were the spirits of animals they’d harvested, like moose, salmon, and beluga whales. The Menominee Indians of the Midwest believed they were the torches of friendly giants who needed the light to go spearfishing at night. And to the Algonquin people of what is now Quebec and Ontario, Canada, the aurora was caused by the reflection of a large fire made by Nanabozho—who they believe created the Earth and moved to the far north—to tell them he’s thinking of them.


Norse mythology associated the lights with the Bifröst, a burning rainbow bridge that connects Earth to Asgard, the realm of the gods. The lights, the Vikings believed, were the reflection of armor and shields of fallen warriors on their way to their final resting place.


In coastal Sweden, the traditional word used for the northern lights was sillblixt (though its since fallen out of fashion). The term translates to “herring flash” and it was believed that the celestial light dance was caused by the reflection off the scales of massive schools of fish swimming in the nearby water. Their presence foreshadowed a substantial catch.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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