Long before scientists started trying to figure out the northern lights, people around the world had watched their spectacular displays, and come up with their own explanations. Look at these from northern hemisphere people, and note the great range from positive to negative.
Algonquin people believed that the god who created earth and people afterward moved to the far north. Keeping a promise made to the first people, he sometimes kindled giant bonfires in the sky to remind his creations that he still looked after them.1
Inuit people of Alaska and Canada thought the lights came from joyful dancing by the dead in the highest level of the afterlife.
The warlike Scandinavians of the Middle Ages described a heavenly place where heroes slain in battle spent eternity in a banqueting hall called Valhalla. Daily they went out to battle, but when they returned their wounds miraculously healed. The northern lights were the reflection of Valhalla's ceiling, made entirely of battle shields, or of the heroe' shields flashing in their eternal wars, or of the shields of the Valkyries, battle maidens who escorted the heroes to Valhalla then served their feasts.2
Estonians credited a wedding feast that was being held in the heavens.
Shetland Islanders called the aurora borealis the Merry Dancers.
Some Eskimos thought the spirits were playing a soccer-like game.3
Signs of Danger
Ancient Romans termed the display "blood rain."
Fox Indians in the Wisconsin area thought the northern lights were the ghosts of enemies they had killed in battle.4
Point Barrow Eskimos tried not to go outdoors during northern lights displays, and if they had to do so, took weapons to defend themselves from the lights.5
In Northern England, James Radcliffe, Earl of Derwentwater, was a leader in the 1715 rebellion that sought to restore King James to the throne. He was beheaded in the Tower of London after the rebellion was quashed. An especially reddish display of northern lights the same day led to the aurora's being called "Lord Derwentwater's Lights" in his home region.
More recently, the northern lights were taken as omens of war when they were visible from London during Germany's 1939 blitzkrieg, and on December 7, 1941, when they were seen as far south as Cleveland, Ohio, on the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
. . . and a Bit of Both.
Canadian poet Robert Service (1874-1958) captured both sides in his poem "The Ballad of the Northern Lights." A gold rusher to the Yukon in 1898 sees the northern lights as good when there is hope, and evil after his party has bad luck.
When fortune seems to be smiling:
And the skies of night were alive with light, with a throbbing, thrilling flame;
Amber and rose and violet, opal and gold it came.
It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge;
Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge.
Pennants of silver waved and streamed, lazy banners unfurled;
Sudden splendors of sabres gleamed, lightning javelins were hurled . . . .
When things were bad:
And the Northern Lights in the crystal nights came forth with a mystic gleam.
They danced and they danced the devil-dance over the naked snow;
And soft they rolled like a tide upshoaled with a ceaseless ebb and flow.
They rippled green with a wondrous sheen, they fluttered out like a fan;
They spread with a blaze of rose-pink rays never yet seen of man.
They writhed like a brood of angry snakes, hissing and sulphur pale;
Then swift they changed to a dragon vast, lashing a cloven tail . . . .