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.
Two little White Weasels had come along to the river. They were mother and son. When they saw Blue Heron, they stopped to look.
‘What a beautiful big bird-person!’ said the son.
‘He is called Blue Heron. He carries his head high!’
‘Yes, Mother, he is tall as a tree. Were I so tall, I could carry you across this swift river.’
Blue Heron was pleased to hear himself so praised. He liked to hear other say that he was big.
He bent down low and spoke to the two. ‘I will help you go across. Come down to where you see that old tree lying in the stream. I will lie down in the water at the end and put my bill deep into the bank on the other side. You two run across the tree. Then use my body as a bridge and you will get to the other side.’
They all went to the old tree lying in the water. Blue Heron lay down in the water at the end and stuck his bill deep into the bank on the other side. Mother and son White Weasel ran lightly and quickly across the log, over Blue Heron, and were safe and dry on the other side. They thanked Blue Heron and said they would tell all the persons in the woods how fine Blue Heron was. Then they went on their way.
Old Wolf had been standing on the riverbank watching how the weasels had gotten across.
‘What a fine way it would be for me to cross the river. I am old and my bones ache.’
When Blue Heron came back to the marsh, Wolf said to him, ‘Now I know why you Blue Herons are in the marsh – so you can be a bridge for persons to cross the rive. I want to go across, but I am old and my bones hurt. Lie down in the water for me so I can cross.’
Blue Heron was angry. He didn’t like being called a bridge. Old Wolf saw he had spoken foolish words and decided to use honeyed words.
‘You are big and strong, Blue Heron, and that is why you body is such a fine bridge. You could carry me across like a feather.’
Blue Heron smiled at Wolf and said, ‘Old Wolf, get on my back and I’ll carry you across.
Wolf grinned from ear to ear thinking how easily he had tricked Blue Heron.
He jumped on the bird’s back and Heron went into the rushing river. When he got to the middle, he stopped.
‘Friend Wolf,’ said Blue Heron, ‘you made a mistake. I am not strong enough to carry you across. For that you need two herons. I can carry you only halfway. Now you must get another heron to carry you the rest of the way.’
He gave his body a strong twist and Wolf fell into the water.
‘You wait here, Wolf, for another heron to come and carry you to the other side.’ Then he flew into the marsh.
The water ran swiftly. No heron came, so where did Wolf go ? To the bottom of the river…
Since that day, no wolf has ever trusted a heron.
Legends and Folklore of the Northern Lights
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.
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 –