The Northern Lights

A recent search for pages on legends linked to the Northern Lights brought up a few short descriptions of myths from around the world. However, few pages mentioned the Scottish version and I couldn't find one covering the full story. Which begins with a nod to a slightly mysterious figure from Scottish and Irish myth:

The Cailleach

The Cailleach or Veiled One, aka Beira, was said to be the mother of the Merry Dancers or Aurora Borealis. She appears in the early medieval as the lead figure in Scottish mythology; but seemingly on her way out when recorded.

The legends are recorded through the cipher of Christianity, but the prevalence of place names and her associations with sovereignty appear to pre-date the Christian period. I.e. by the time there are written records they talk of the once influential Cailleach handing over to God/ Christianity by becoming a nun.

Curiously, this personification of winter and sovereignty of the land appears alongside, but discrete from, the deities of Celtic myth. An interesting accommodation - and the repeated identification of ‘feminine’ forms within the landscape by the Cailleach’s name, perhaps, hints at enduring myth folded into the influences of the Celtic horizon.

Whatever their exact origins the myths concerning the Cailleach are very much to do with the deification of the natural world in terms of seasons, landscapes and natural phenomena. Consequently, trying to explain this worldview involved using the central characters of myth to explain natural events. In this particular case the Aurora Borealis aka the Northern Lights - who, as the Merry Dancers, were considered the sons of the Cailleach.

The Merry Dancers

"Among the children and descendants of Beira are the Nimble Men, or Merry Dancers (Aurora Borealis), the Blue Men of the Minch, and the Green Ladies.

The Nimble Men are divided into two clans. The heroes of one clan are clad in garments white as hoar-frost, and the heroes of the other clan in garments of pale yellow. Brighter and more varied colours are worn by the ladies of the clans. Some are gowned in green, some in red, and some in silvery white, and a few wear royal purple.

On winter nights when there is peace on land and sea the Nimble Men and Merry Maidens come forth to dance in the northern sky. They are all of giant stature but comely of form, and their dances are very graceful. The men bow to the maids; and the maids curtsy to the men, and when the dance is at its height some of the men leap high and whirl round about, so merry do they become. Fairy pipers play enchanting music while the merry couples dance across the northern sky.

There was once a prince of the White Clan of Nimble Men, and his name was Light Foot. He loved the Princess Comely, who was the fairest of all the Merry Maidens, and he had a rival named Green Eyes, the chief of the Yellow Clan. Princess Comely liked best to dance with Light Foot, because among the Nimble Men he was without an equal as a dancer.

One dark night when the mountains were white with new-fallen snow and the valleys glistened with hoar-frost, all the northern sky was lit up in splendour by the Nimble Men and Merry Maidens, who came out to dance in honour of Queen Beira. It was the first great gathering of the winter season, and all the dancers were clad in new and dazzling garments. They began to dance soon after darkness set in, and it was nigh to midnight ere they sank down to rest.

Princess Comely had danced all the time with Light Foot, and when she sat down he knelt before her, whispering softly: "Fairest of the fair, O be my bride!"

Said Princess Comely: "Your bride I shall be."

The words were heard by Green Eyes, who was crouching near at hand. His heart was filled with anger, and, leaping up, he called upon the members of his clan to draw their swords and fight Light Foot and his followers. Then all was confusion. The warriors of both clans sprang at one another, brandishing their gleaming weapons. Up leapt Light Foot to fight against Green Eyes. Rising to full stature he darted across the sky to smite him down. Up leapt the Princess Comely and all the maidens, and ran away shrieking. Then a battle royal began to rage between the rival clans. The sound of swords striking swords reached the earth, and seemed like the rustling of frosty twigs when the wind rises suddenly and scampers through the forest.

For hours the fearsome fight was waged with fury, and men and women came forth to watch it with wonder and in silence. They saw the warriors leaping white with anger. Hard and swift were the blows, and many were slain. At length below the feet of the Nimble Men there appeared a cloud which was red with the blood that flowed from many wounds received in the battle royal. From the sky the blood drops fell like dew on the green stones of the mountain, which were thus for ever stained with red spots. That is why the red-speckled green stones are called "blood stones".

When the night was almost spent, Princess Comely returned to the battle-ground, and found that the conflict had come to an end. As she drew near, a few wounded warriors rose up and staggered away. She began to search among the fallen warriors for Light Foot, and at length she found him lying cold and dead. A cry of sorrow broke from her lips, and was wafted towards the earth on the first breath of dawn. Those who heard it knew then that the prophecy of the Seer was being fulfilled, and they sang the song he had made:

When yon lady seeks her lover
In the cold and pearly morn,
She will find that he has fallen
By the hand that she did scorn.
She will clasp her arms about him
And in her anguish die--
Oh, never again will trip the twain across the Northern Sky!"

Source: Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie

REMARKABLE AURORA Images and video

Norway - images

Caithness, Scotland - video

Finland - video

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