Inuit Culture and the Northern Lights
By Ashton Jenks
What is Inuit culture? It is a complex, and often stereotyped culture, located in the northern hemisphere. Also, there are two kinds of Inuits. The first type of Inuit have mythology that is more similar to the Vikings but still live in the arctic circle, such as places like Finland, Norway, Iceland,and Greenland. These are the people that are more often referred to as Eskimo.The second type, which is formerly known as “Inuit people” based on the language they speak, even though there are differences between tribes: some are located in Siberia, others in Russia’s Arctic Circle, Alaska, and the top half of Canada. The Alaskan Indigenous groups were the last to be touched by colonists, while the Canadians pushed their indigenous population into reservations. Inuits in Russia haven’t been bothered much. Although these people span over what seems to be half the globe, if looked at from above they actually aren’t too far apart. Those in Alaska and Canada are believed to be of Asian descent and to have crossed over the no longer existing Bering Strait. They all share the same values of family, open mindedness, and cultural elements like pescaterian diets, heavy clothing styles, Igloos in the winter and leather huts in the summer, a shared language, and the religious belief of Animism and the Spirit World.
Essentially, the Inuits believe that every animal has a soul and that all souls belong to one large energy force. Whenever the men go out hunting, they must make proper amends to the creatures they kill, otherwise the overlord of a species (careful to not call this a god) will alert all of the other animals of the species that this hunter is not deserving of their life. If they are proper in their treatment of their kill, the animals will know it is okay to be killed by them. Some examples of these animal overlords are Sedna, the girl who controls all animals under the sea, Narook, the lead soul of polar bears, and the Caribou Mother. The evil spirits of the arctic realm are called Mahaha and can cause all kinds of trouble as they cannot naturally inhabit humans, which makes them upset, although they may possess them. The Angakoks of every tribe were the only ones who were said to be able to control these spirits. Things like amulets, are used for this. Amulets can also signal being one with an animal kind and using the power from say, arctic foxes to aid a person in their endeavors. A common theme in their stories is that animal have souls, may have a human passing form, and sometimes decide to marry a human. In one story, a man marries a fox women, but she leaves after he insults her musky fox smell, reinforcing the idea that divorce and gender roles were not as clearly defined as other cultures.
The Science Behind the Northern Lights!
Now, let’s define what exactly the Northern Lights are in terms of Science. Their scientific name is the Aurora Borealis. Aurora means “the dawn” in Greek and Borealis comes from the Greek god of the north wind, Boreais. This beautiful phenomenon, despite the myths and legends produced by their observers, is actually a collision of highly charged ions in the atmosphere that are typically repelled by the earth's magnetism, but since they are so close to the poles, the action is skewed. A yellow light is caused by low altitude oxygen and a red light is caused by oxygen reacting at a higher altitude. The most famous color, however, is the blue/green/purple hue, which is caused by a collision of Nitrogen Ions. Now, let's see what our friends up north thought about them.
Tying it all Together: Myths about the Northern Lights!
The Cree Inuit’s, who live near the Quebec area, believed that the lights were the souls of departed loved ones trying to communicate with them.
In the most northern tribes, they believed the lights were dead spirits mostly of children who were playing with the skull of a walrus like a ball. On the tiny island of Nivuk, near Alaska, they believed the opposite. That it was a herd of dead walruses playing with a human skull!
Another Alaskan myth is that the lights were the torches of those who were trying to find the path to a better home for souls. In some places, they were believed to be the souls of the animals they had killed, such as salmon, deer, and walruses. In the most northern village of Alaska, Point Barrow, the Inuits believe that the lights are a symbol of evil and carry knives around during that time for protection.
In the Northern United States, the Mandan people, not quite Inuit, believed that they were the fires of dwarves cooking walrus fat or even the fat of their human enemies.
In Iceland, it was believed that the lights would relieve pain in Childbirth, as long as the mother didn’t look at them. If she did look, the child would be born cross eyed.
In Greenland they believed that the lights represented the souls of stillborn children.
The Finnish have two myths. One is the story of a fox trailing fire across the sky, as reflected in their word for the lights, “revontulet,” which literally translates to “Firefox.” The other belief is that the phenomenon is caused by the spume that comes from the blowhole on a whale's back.
The Swedish believe the myth to be a good omen towards fishermen, and those who believed in Norse Mythology thought that the lights were a reflection of the shields of Valkyrie, female warriors who escorted those valiant in battle to Valhalla. Another Norse idea was that the lights were the “Bifrost Bridge,” which was considered the rainbow pathway to gain access to Asgard, the realm of the Goads (gods) and guarded by Bifrost.
Other Myths about the Lights
In Southern Europe, the lights were uncommon and viewed as a bad omen. It is said that red northern lights appear over England just before the French Revolution started and before a Gallic uprising.
In China, the lights were viewed as being a battle between the gods and dragons. In Japan, they were viewed as good omen to childbirth, meaning that the child would be intelligent and beautiful.
In short, the Aurora Borealis is as popular a topic in mythology all around the world as the flood and its many versions. Being informed as to what other cultures believe or have believed is essential to better understanding the world and its origins. The Inuit people may not have influenced us much yet, but they impact the lives of Americans in Alaska, our counterparts in Canada, and those working in Arctic research stations to send you all those cute photos of Polar bears! (Narook in disguise). I hope you have enjoyed this educational lesson on Inuit beliefs and all of the fun ideas about the northern lights. I’m going to leave you with a wholesome fun fact: you can tell the difference between a male and female Parka because female’s will have a larger hood in order to properly cover their baby when they carry it on their backs! Isn’t that cute?