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Legend of the Aurora Borealis

December 21, 2016


The Inupiaq Eskimos call the aurora borealis “kiguruyat” (spirits who gnaw with their teeth). These hissing spirits of the sky, according to Eskimo interpretation, play a football game. The participants wear colorful costumes of many hues. The hissing spirits have the power to entice and hypnotize those who watch their games to the point where they purposely draw their viewers upward into their midst.

            Legends, as well as many folktales, were composed primarily as media for teaching moral philosophy. This oral literature was also used to teach discipline, and for recreational purposes and to teach people how to cope with problems endangering their health and survival. This particular legend is an example. It tells a story that could be applied to any disobedient children.


Late one evening, a boy invited his younger brother to watch the kiguruyat play football. He led his brother farther away from their igloo and they both sat down in the shadow of a willow. “You must not whistle or talk loudly, Tusuk. If you do, they’ll come down to us very quickly and they might life us upward,” he warned his brother.

            “OK, now tell me the story,” Tusuk answered impatiently.

            This is the story he told:

            One wintry night, many years ago, while two boys were playing outdoors late at night, they heard hissing sounds above their heads. Suddenly they saw a flash of many colors, which blinded their eyes. Kiguruyat approached them unexpectedly. The older brother felt responsible for the safety of his brother so he gave him hurried directions, “Cover your face with your hood quickly! Now, lie flat on the snow like this.”

            He showed him how by pressing his hooded face against the soft snow, and the boys huddled side by side until the kiguruyat’s assault had vanished. They sat up very slowly and crawled to a nearby willow, which had been covered partially by a snowdrift. They noticed then that the kiguruyat had moved further away in the sky. The younger brother asked, “What kind of ball are they kicking around up there? And why doesn’t it fall to the ground?”

            “They are using a child’s head, the head of a once disobedient boy who had wandered off, possibly to watch the kiguruyat play football. The reason the ball doesn’t fall down to us is because the spirits have powerful magic streets they walk on. The last wanderer was so attracted by the beautiful colors that he forgot to go home.”

            “And what happened to him?” asked his brother.

            “The leaders of the team may have directed one of his men to grab the onlooker. The spirit came down noiselessly, bit the boy’s hood, and lifted him bodily by his teeth and brought him up to his group.”

            “Poor boy, did he cry?” The younger brother asked.

            “No! He did not have time to cry because the leader of the team chewed his head off with his sharp fangs. And you know as well as I do, a boy’s neck is as frail as this twig,” he said at the same moment he broke a twig in two.

            “Do you think the kiguruyat are using his head for a football?”

            “Yes,” answered Qweexoxok.

            “We should go home now, Qweexoxok, before they snatch us away, too,” suggested his younger brother with fear.

            “Let’s wait until the kiguruyat run farther away. Here, hold my hand tightly.” His brother extended his right hand and gave his final directions, “Hang on to my hand while we run for safety.”

            Both watched for a chance to escape.

            “Now! Run! Cover your mouth and breathe into your parka under your chin.”

            Just as they reached the skin-covered umiak, which was turned upside down on tripods, the kiguruyat came flying overhead. Fortunately the boys hid under the overturned boat.

            They squatted down, huddled together. After the hissing sounds had subsided somewhat, the boys ran as fast as they could to their igloo entrance to escape from another attack of the kiguruyat.

            “Qweexoxok, if you were not with me the kiguruyat would have taken me away. I will protect my baby brother from now on. I am glad I have a big brother to take care of me.”


            The moral of the story is: If you can’t get a small boy to obey, his older brother or parent may scare the disobedience out of him.

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