Hanging mysteriously in the sky, dancing with exotic colors and spectacular sweeps of light, it is hardly surprising that the Northern Lights have enchanted and mesmerized humankind for millennia. The aurora borealis have inspired endless myths and folklore in days gone by, and they still provide rich pickings for modern storytellers. So, let’s take a closer look at how the Northern Lights have influenced popular culture over the centuries.

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Northern Lights Myths

The aurora has been around for a lot longer than our scientific understanding of the phenomena, and where there is no rational explanation for something, myths and stories will inevitably step in to fill the gap. With the aurora viewable from many different places in the Northern Hemisphere, many different explanations have existed.

The Greeks believed that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Selene, the gods of the sun and the moon, respectively, and that the lights resulted from her chariot racing across the sky to alert her siblings of the coming dawn. In China, the lights were the result of fire-breathing dragons, fighting high up in the atmosphere while the Estonians believed they were a magnificent carriage carrying celestial guests to a heavenly wedding.

In other cultures, the Northern Lights strongly associate with childbirth, with some Icelandic tribes believing that they relieve the pain of childbirth while the Japanese believed that a child conceived beneath the aurora would have good fortune. In Native American tribes, they represent everything from the fire of creation to the spirits of the dead while in Finland, they are allegedly caused by the firefox running across the ice so fast that he causes sparks to fly up into the sky.

Phillip Pullman
The Northern Lights inspired Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials.”

Northern Lights Novels

British author Philip Pullman took up the idea of the Northern Lights having an association with the spirits of the dead in his trilogy of novels, “His Dark Materials.” For Pullman, the Northern Lights formed by a mysterious substance called “dust,” and they form a bridge between multiple realities. The first novel in the series originally called “The Northern Lights” (1995), released in America as “The Golden Compass.” “The Subtle Knife” (1997) and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000) followed. The first book became a major Hollywood movie, starring Nicole Kidman in 2007 and is currently a TV series by the BBC in Britain.

There have also been several other novels with the title Northern Lights by writers such as Tim O’Brien, Howard Norman, Jennifer Donnelly and the New York Times best-selling author, Nora Roberts.

Northern Lights Songs

Naturally, there are endless examples of native songs that reference to the aurora, but there are fewer songs from modern times. Many in the U.K. will be familiar with the 1978 single by Renaissance called “Northern Lights,” which spent 11 weeks in the charts, peaking at No. 10. However, while the track may conjure up images of the spectacular swirling aurora in the sky, it is thought that the “northern lights” in the lyrics indeed refer to the lights of Northern England, as seen from a plane departing for America.

Other Northern Lights References

The aurora has inspired a wide range of products, from the Canadian Northern Lights whiskey to a Northern Lights projector to recreate the aurora at home. You’ll find everything from a girls’ dress-up game called Northern Lights to a Northern Sky slots game full of stunning graphics. The U.K. named a train that travels to Aberdeen in the far north The Northern Lights while a Canadian crowdfunding gave the name to their proposed space mission to Mars.

These days, we may know the science behind the Northern Lights, as the Earth’s magnetic field deflects the solar wind, but that doesn’t make them any less magical or wonderful. They have provided inspiration for storytellers and songwriters since the dawn of time, and they will continue to do so for as long as they go on dancing across our skies. And you have to hope that they will be here for a long time to come because, without them, we wouldn’t be here!

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