December 10, 2019

The northern lights are caused by particles — electrons and protons — blasting out from the sun in all directions and colliding with the Earth's atmosphere.

But that's just one piece of the story.

Even scientists admit there are still unanswered questions about the aurora borealis.

• What are the northern lights?

Across the North, where the phenomena is most widely seen, there are legends and beliefs about the northern lights that may defy reason, but go back generations.

Here are just a few of those stories.

'A visitor'

Dene Elder Jonas Antoine says he had an experience with the northern lights that left him "awed."

It happened several years ago on the Horn Plateau, a prominent landform in the Northwest Territories' South Slave region, known for its abundance of fish and great hunting and trapping.

Antoine, who lives in Fort Simpson, was in his cabin one evening when he saw a bright light.

He had a small Coleman lamp burning and knew the moon and the northern lights were out — but there was no way they could cast the sort of light he was seeing.

Here is Jonas Antoine's story, in his own words.*

So I stepped outside and I couldn't believe my eyes.

It was like I was shrouded in this bluish, almost like a rainbow-type thing, all around me and right onto the lake surface. There was like a sizzling, like a sifting sand kind of whooshing noise all around me.

And then I recalled that many, many years ago — when I was young and our elders told stories about such things as the northern lights, the sun, the moon — my grandfather told me that if you listen closely, you can hear the northern lights.

At that time, my grandfather and I stood outside and listened. And sure enough we heard this ... swishing sound, almost like a crackling-type thing, as far as the northern lights were moving, dancing up and down, and they seemed to be so close at that time.

And here I was experiencing something that I don't think anybody has ever experienced before.

I was amazed. I was almost like in a spiritual world when this happened to me.

I was not scared at all. I felt that I had a visitor.

The visitor is something, is a great power that's beyond us.

This kind of awed me. And to this day, that's one of the things that I carry with me, is that experience.

Hear Jonas Antoine's story about the northern lights in this animation.

'They'll come down and chop your head off'

Wayne Broomfield has been listening for that crackling for years.

"I have a fascination with the northern lights," he said.

Broomfield is a photographer from Makkovik, N.L., and has shot the northern lights from Nunavut to Nunavik, Que., Labrador to Antarctica. He's heard the folklore and stories, and remembers the fear of the lights when he was growing up.

Here is Wayne Broomfield's story, and the legends he's heard, in his own words.*

Growing up, as kids, there's a game that we used to play where we would all go out to whistle to the northern lights. And whistling makes them dance. But if they're down too low, you know, our parents used to always tell us, "They'll come down and chop your head off."

So we would play a game, where we would all go out, 10, 15 of us, and just start whistling. And whoever stayed out the longest would be the bravest and win the challenge.

We truly believed it, because you know when you whistle, they really do come down.

This is something your parents and your grandparents told you, so of course you believed them.

Other parts of the North, they believed that you could inhale the northern lights and they would kill you.

Some people say it's the spirits of children who were stillborn.

Or you go back to the days of the Vikings, when they thought it was the manifestation of their gods.

If they came down too low in other areas, they were like omens: they were spirits from past elders who were trying to reach you, or they were bad spirits, so they would take you.

I've always tried to listen to that crackle that they say that you hear — the myth of the crackling northern lights. You hear legends about it, what it is, but I have never ever witnessed it.

They say it's the spirits that are trying to communicate with you.

Different legends about how Inuit are playing a game of kicking a walrus skull around, and that crackling is when they're running across the real-cold, frozen snow. That's what the crackling sound is.

They're just so special and so unique. Just the way that they move across the sky, just cover and light up the sky.

It's just an absolutely amazing phenomena.

Watch an animation of the games Wayne Broomfield and his friends played under the northern lights.

'Bad luck'

Sharon Shorty still heeds her grandmother's advice when it comes to the northern lights.

Shorty, a Yukon storyteller and comedian, who is of Tlingit, Northern Tutchone and Norwegian ancestry, remembers her childhood walking around Teslin, Yukon, in the winter under the northern lights, with her grandmother, Carrie Jackson.

Here is Sharon Shorty's story in her own words.*

I could see all the ribbons in the air. Grandma would tell me, "Shhh. Don't look, don't look. Bad luck, no good."

And it was the northern lights. I was like, "Why can't I look?" They're so beautiful, right?

I'm not supposed to ask questions like why are things like that. But she did say that it's bad luck because they're spirits.

So when we're looking up at them, we're actually looking at spirits. There's people who have passed on in a bad way or a hard way. So that could mean a suicide, or it could be a murder, or something in a bad way.

That's what Tlingit people believe in. I think other nations believe that as well.

Sometimes when you look up, sometimes it almost looks like a circle. And to me, it looks like people are holding hands and it looks like they're dancing in a circle, and we say that's our ancestors.

And so those ancestors, because they died in a bad, hard way, their spirits get lonely. They want company.

They want to take somebody from the Earth to come with them. So they could come down and take you if you look at them or you draw attention.

That's why we say never whistle at them.

You're not supposed to draw attention because they will find you.

So that's what grandma told me and I'm not going to argue with grandma. She's the boss.

Sharon Shorty's grandmother told her the northern lights were spirits of people who died in a bad way, and they might come down and take her away.

'That was his power'

Morris Neyelle's grandfather told him the northern lights gave him a gift — "like medicine power."

Neyelle, from Deline, N.W.T., remembers well the story of his grandfather Joe Kenny's kerchief, which he wore around his neck every day.

Kenny died in the 1970s, but the magical tale about what happened to that kerchief decades ago lives on.

Here is Morris Neyelle's story about his grandfather, in his own words.*

My grandfather, he has a gift, like medicine power, with the northern lights. That was his power.

He had a yellow-red kerchief that he used to have tied around his neck all the time and he always wore it, even though it was dirty.

One day my grandma told him, "Joe, your kerchief is all dirty, you should just change it. Throw that one away, I just bought two brand-new kerchiefs."

He said, "Why do you call my kerchief dirty? It's not dirty — just watch me."

What he did, he took off his kerchief ... back then you had a wood stove, so he opened the stove and this silk kerchief, he took it off and threw it into the fire. And it kind of like sparkled really bright, and he took it out again and it was just like brand new.

And he said, "That's my power. You don't tell my kerchief it's dirty."

He said that that's his gift. He knew how to handle himself.

When he was around, he had a little log house that was his family's, and he said that the northern lights kind of circled around his house, which protects him from intruders coming in.

Sometimes back then, we used to have really bright northern lights just cover the whole sky.

He would warn us not to make too much noise because the sound of the bells on a dog team would attract the northern lights to come closer. And then you could actually hear it hissing and that sort of thing.

It was scary back then. We really didn't know how to deal with it, but the elders, like my grandfather, knew how to handle it.

I'm pretty sure there's a lot of other stories.

Morris Neyelle recounts stories from his grandfather, who said the northern lights are more powerful than you might imagine.

* The stories have been edited for length and clarity.