The Myths and Legends of the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights have long fascinated both the eyes and the mind of mankind. In our history, many stories have been told of their origin from all over the world. Indeed, their name, coined by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, was “The Sunrise on the Northern wind” or, in Latin, “Aurora Borealis”.
It is not known whether Galieo travelled to see the Auroras for himself, or if he was lucky enough to observe them from his home in Italy. Lucky, being an understatement, as Auroras visible as far south as Italy would have been rare indeed. Spectacular! But very rare. One thing that is sure, is that the lights, being then as inexplicable as they were. Caused a great deal of hysteria as per their meaning. For example, when viewed across the British Isles in the late 18th century, they were attributed to the coming of the French Revolution. Some who viewed the lights even swore they heard “huge armies battling in the skies above.”
But what of the Northern Lights’ regular audience? What stories were told by the people who lived far north and saw the lights most often? What did they tell their children when they inevitably asked “Mummy, why is the sky dancing?”
Across the Arctic countries and territories, there have been several civilizations that rarely crossed paths with one another. And so, there have been told many stories explaining the Northern Lights, each of which is unique. I like to imagine the scene at which these stories were told. Many of which are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. I like to think that the stories of bloodshed were told by Fathers to their Sons as a coming of age story. And that the wondrous, gentile tales were passed down by Mothers sending their children off into a deep and peaceful sleep.
In this blog post, I’d like to tell one popular story from the perspective of the storyteller. I will use all the genuine information the story is based on, in my telling. However, as some of these tales are so ancient and were never written down, all that remains is the outline. The general consensus, if you will. And I hope you’ll forgive me for using some poetic licence as I try to bring these ancient fables to life.
And Finally, before we begin. I want to express that I don’t believe any of these stories represent the minds or understandings of these ancient people. I fear that when we hear of stories told long ago, we make the mistake of forgetting to whom these stories were told. The real audience was never scientific journals or articles labelled “How we ancient people think!” No. I believe that the stories were told from old to young. Quite possibly as a way of avoiding the truth. The truth being that the truth is far too inappropriate for young ears. Or even worse, the truth of having to admit that we don’t know.
And of course, I believe that all of these stories were told in the exact same way that we tell stories today. Told as all stories should be told when having to answer a young child’s inquisitive questions about the world.
The Fire Tailed Queen:
Her prey sits soothingly at the bottom of her belly as she lay resting, basking in the warmth of the Sun. She is a swift huntress. Armed with fast feet, sharp piercing teeth and a clever whit. She always outsmarts her prey.
It is the sixth moon since the time of the longest night, and Njálla is happy. There is light all day and all night. She can see her prey with ease and there’s nowhere they can hide. The rolling hills of the forest, her playground, her domain, her dinner table. She is Queen of her land. And the Sun that shines down on her beautiful red coat fills her with warmth and purpose.
Oh that Sun. That warm, bright, beautiful Sun. Njálla’s life is invigorated by that fireball. Energised. Charged.
She was only a baby when she first noticed her fur turn red. Her thick bushy tail, like fire. Her mother would say to her. “Njálla, you will set the world a blaze with your tail.” She wasn’t wrong.
Njálla loved her red fur, and she knew it was because of the Sun that it became so red. All her brothers and sisters had brown fur when the Sun was high in the sky. But Njálla’s fur turned red. She had no idea why when she was a child and neither did she care. She was beautiful. Her brothers and sisters loved her fur too. They however, did care why. They would often ask their mother. “Why is Njálla’s fur so red, Mummy?” “Why is she different?”
Their mother always told the same story. “Her father was a ghost.” She’d say. “Her Father came to me in a dream, on a dark cold night.”
She would say. “He said to me. Our child will be beautiful and red but she must never travel north.”
“But why?” Njálla’s siblings would ask. “Why can’t Njálla travel north?”
“He never said.” She would reply.
Njálla never knew what to make of her mother’s story. She had never met her Father, neither had her brothers or sisters. So she supposed it could be true. But for now she was a happy, beautiful fox with fiery red fur and an appetite for adventure.
As she grew older Njálla’s adventures naturally took her further and further away from her home and her family. She never forgot her mother’s words. Her father’s warning. Yet, despite this. She loved that Sun. It’s warmth. It’s light. She followed the Sun across the lands until she found a place where the Sun never set. It shined light all night long. It’s light shone on her prey while they slept. Easy Pickings. Easy for Njálla. Easy for the Fire Tailed Queen.
Three moons passed with the Sun in the sky. Three whole moon cycles since Njálla found this land. Her land. Then one day, Njálla noticed the Sun falling closer to the trees than it had done before. It seemed so long ago that the Sun was this close to the trees. It can’t leave me. She thought to herself.
She watched the Sun fall closer and closer to the trees until one day it dipped behind them. It rose again for another day but Njálla feared that soon, it would no longer come back up.
And so, as the nights grew darker and the Sun fell behind the trees, hiding there for longer and longer each day. Njálla’s fear grew to sadness. Her sadness grew to distress. Until distress turned to panic when Njálla noticed her fur turning pale. She saw that the trees too were fading. Fading from green to yellow and from yellow to red. And as the trees became more red, so too did her tail fade. Fading evermore to white. Njálla did not understand. Were the trees stealing her colour? Were the trees spilling the colour of her beautiful red coat across the forest faster than she could run? Draining her of her energy, her drive, her beauty. Until all that was left of her once beautiful red fur was dense and white.
Njálla laid crying amongst the trees which had grown cold now. The snow that fell hid her from the world as she became camouflaged against the freezing land. Hide me away forever! She thought. Shocked, heartbroken and cold; she fell asleep. She felt like she could sleep forever. She was determined never to come out of her slumber until the Sun rose again. Despite its betrayal, she would forgive all if the Sun would just rise! And shine! And drain it’s warmth back into her, It’s life giving warmth. It’s wonderful warmth that charged Njálla’s soul and coloured her fur.
Laying in her slumber, drowning in her sorrow. Njálla was suddenly distracted by a sound in the distance.
She strained to listen but could not hear clearly through the snow and the wind.
She sat up turning her head towards the sound.
Is something calling my name? She thought.
That is something calling me. But what? Who?
“Who’s there?” She called back timidly into the wind.
“WHO’S THERE!” She called even louder now.
The world suddenly went silent. The snow stopped falling and the clouds cleared. The wind calmed to nothing and the moon shone clearly across the land.
Away in the distance Njálla could see a shape bounding gracefully, almost gently, across the snow. It was coming closer and closer. As it neared, Njálla could see its shape. It was a fox. It was bigger than her. She could tell this fox was much older than she was. But what amazed her most of all was its fur. Its fur was as white as hers. She called out “Who are you?”
The white fox took one final bound and stopped right in front of Njálla.
“Who are you?” She said again, hiding no impatience from her voice.
“My name is Rieban.” Said the stranger. “And I am your Father, Njálla.”
Shocked, Njálla looked all over this strange fox from his paws to the tip of his snout. And as a realisation washed over her, Njálla heard her mother’s voice inside her head. “Your father was a ghost…”
“You’re probably well aware by now why I told your Mother to never let you travel north?” Rieban asked, rhetorically.
Njálla just stared at her father perplexed.
“How did you find me?” She asked tentatively.
“I travelled to the lands of your mother several moons ago.” He said “Your mother told me of your adventurous nature. And how you had so much energy in the warm seasons. She told me all about you and your beautiful red fur.”
“WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT MY FUR!” Njálla yelled out before she could control herself. “You told my mother that I would be beautiful and red! How did you know?”
“I know, because I am your father and I too have red fur. And I too know what that wonderful Sun truly feels like.” He said smiling… knowingly. “And I found you because I knew where you’d be. I know who you are.”
“Who I am?” Njálla asked
Rieban smiled and said, with little ability to hide the pride in his voice “Your name is Njálla Revontulet. You are the Fire Tailed Queen.”
“I’m the, what?” Njálla choked.
“The Fire Tailed Queen.” Rieban said again. “Queen of the Revontulet. Queen of the Fire Fox.”
Rieban began walking, Njálla followed.
“You are the latest descendant in a long line of Revontulet.” He said. “My father, Ruksesrieban, your grandfather and his father before that are all revontulet.”
He smiled at Njálla and said “What makes you so special, Njálla, is that you are the first vixen in our ancestry. The gift of the red fur has always been passed down to the foxes in the bloodline.” Njálla looked at her father with inquisitive eyes.
“So how does that make me a queen?” She asked?
“If you follow me.” He said. “I’ll show you.”
Rieban began slowly to trot. Njálla, quick footed, was able to keep up.
“I never wanted you to be alone when you travelled north for the first time.” Rieban called back loudly over the air rushing by as they sped through the snow.
“Having your flames stolen by the forest for the first time is hard. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help you”
Rieban took his trot up to a run.
“Help me how?” Njálla called ahead, Yelling to be heard.
“By showing you how we take our fire back!”
“HOW!” Njálla cried, almost bounding to keep up with her father.
“LIKE THIS!” He shouted as he bounded forwards faster than anything Njálla had ever seen.
He landed at the base of a tree with such force that all the snow covering its branches fell and then just as quickly again he bound to another tree causing the same to happen again.
Njálla slowed down to a stop in amazement as she saw that every tree her father shook blasted beams of wonderful green light from their very tips high into the night sky. And from his tail trailed a curtain of more green light illuminating his pathway between the trees.
Njálla watched as her father carved this wave of light pillars across the horizon astounded by what she was witnessing.
She began running again. As fast as she could. Keeping her eyes turned upwards to follow her father’s green trail. After a short time the lights above dimmed. Njálla looked down and saw her father waiting for her. He was smiling encouragingly at her. When she finally caught up she said in utter jubilation. “That was incredible!”
Her father tilted his head. “That is merely what I can do.” He said, modestly.
“What do you mean?” Njálla asked
“Njálla.” He said softly to her. “You are the Fire Tailed Queen. If I can make the trees glow? Then you my love. You will set the world a blaze!”
Njálla’s eyes filled with tears as she remembered her mother saying these exact words to her when she was a child.
“Now.” Rieban looked into his daughter’s eyes and said “Run.”
Njálla, took all the energy in her body and ran!
“FASTER!” She heard her father call. Njálla pulled her mind to her memories of her red fur and her days of hunting in the forest. And ran harder.
“FASTER!” Her father called again, as loud as he could.
She clenched her jaws and tight dreamed hard of the Sun and basking in its warm rays of light. Focusing her mind as her eyes glowed red. She ran as hard as she has ever ran before. Faster than she has chased any prey. Faster than her colour was stolen by the forest.
“NOWWW!” Her father screamed!
With all her might, Njálla leaped as far as she could. Her tail caught the ground as she did so and sparks flew into the sky. She soared across the treetops like a bird and from her tail erupted a fiery glow of red light that beamed up high into the sky. It was as though the world was a blaze.
The Fire Tailed Queen review:
The Fire Tailed Queen story comes from the old Finnish Sámi culture. The exact original telling of the story is long forgotten but the basic myth that the Aurora Borealis are caused by a fox’s tail trailing along the forest floor causing sparks that fly up into the sky are still recited to this day. And although this story changes somewhat from telling to telling. There is merit to the popularity of this tale by its ability to endure. Even in the Finnish language, Revontulet (the Fox Fires) is still the word given to the Northern Lights.
It seems self evident that this story is the result of the question “Why do we call the Northern Lights, Revontulet? I can imagine a shorter version is preferable to most parents who are asked this question. Hence why full stories are more difficult to come by. Quite often thought of as only a Sámi tale due to the name of the character, Njálla and Rieban. (Sámi for Vixen and Fox alike) The tale is in fact Finnish. With the Sámi stating rather different causes for the Northern Lights.