Inuit legend has it that the Northern Lights (known as arsaniit) were torches held by their ancestors to light the way for the souls of the dead. Others believed that the lights were the spirits of their ancestors playing kickball (arsaniit means "the kickball game").
An expansion of the legend says that if you whistle when you see the Northern Lights, the spirits will come down, grab you, and disappear. This is the story that Inuit children (and those from other groups living in the Arctic as well) were told by their parents to discourage them from playing outside too late. Elders used to warn that the arsaniit sometimes take away naughty children, never to be seen again. A more gruesome version of the story involves beheadings!
"It is said that, in the past, the Northern Lights were a thing much feared. When they were large and frequent and could not be left behind by those who travelled at night in dogsleds, the travellers would cut their dogs' ears, for a bleeding ear was protection against attacks by the Northern Lights. If they didn't do that, the Inuit who travelled at night in dogsleds would be decapitated by the Northern Lights." - excerpt from Mitiarjuk's Inuit Encyclopedia
Even now as adults, a lot of people who grew up in the North won't whistle at the lights, just in case.
A more pleasant legend says that the dancing lights are spirits playing in the dark and that whistling will make them dance even more. I much prefer that version!
On Friday night I saw the brightest Northern Lights that I'd seen so far. Between about 9 and 10:30 pm, the green flames danced across the sky. They started along the horizon at the north end of town, and then moved overhead. They were so eerie, and were among the most amazing, beautiful, and humbling things I've seen.
I didn't have my tripod with me, but I managed to get a few blurry pictures.
The lights are also called "auroro borealis", named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. From a scientific point of view, they are caused by "a collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere" (thanks wikipedia).
But as I watch the lights, I would rather forget the science, forget the scary legends, and just appreciate the beauty of nature and the show that God puts on for our enjoyment. And be grateful that I live in such a beautiful place.