December 11, 2012

Inuit Myths and Legends

The Inuit are an “imaginative, hardy and resourceful people” wrote famed Igloo Dweller James Houston. The Inuit (meaning simply “the people”) make their home in the Arctic, encompassing the vast, rugged land from the Bering Sea through Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland. Theirs is a semi-nomadic life that traces back to as early as 1000 AD when their ancestors (the Thule) moved eastwards from Alaska to the Arctic.

Across thousands of miles and over hundreds of years, the Inuit have maintained and preserved their unique cultural identity through language, lifestyle, artwork, and their mysterious, surprising and beautiful myths and legends. Here, we present just a handful that touch on recurring themes, including origin stories, parables, communion with animals, and the Inuit belief, fear, and reverence of the spiritual world.

The Mosquito

One of the shortest Inuit tales involves a boy, a mosquito, and a sweet insight: “Onto a boy’s arm came a mosquito. “Don’t hit! Don’t hit!” it hummed, “Grandchildren have I to sing to.” “Imagine,” the boy said, “So small and yet a grandfather.” (From “Inuit Myth and Legend”)


At the centre of a creation myth is Sedna, the goddess of the sea. There are variations to the story of Sedna, but one fact remains constant: the loss of her fingers, which become sea creatures.


“Sedna’s Wonder” print by Ningeokuluk Teevee

One variation has Sedna as a beautiful woman who refuses the marriage proposals of all the hunters in her village. When a strange hunter appears offering to exchange fish for her marriage, Sedna’s father agrees, slips his daughter a sleeping potion and hands her over to the strange hunter. When Sedna awakes, she finds the hunter transformed into a great raven. Her father, seeing his mistake, races to her rescue, but in anger, the raven creates a storm, and in desperation, the father throws Sedna into the raging sea. Sedna clings to the kayak, but her fingers freeze and fall off, and they become the creatures of the sea. She herself drops to the ocean floor, grows a fishtail, and becomes the goddess of the sea.

In another more severe variation, Sedna’s father takes an axe to her clinging fingers and chops them off. The fingers become a different species of seal, and Sedna, after a blow to the head, falls into the sea where she lives ever after, commanding the sea creatures. With such power, Sedna became an important deity, worshipped by hunters who depended on her goodwill for their livelihood.

Other variations cast the strange hunter as a dog who impregnates Sedna; Sedna as a giant who attacks her parents in a delirious hunger, and Sedna as a mistreated orphan. All versions end with Sedna clinging desperately to a kayak only to have her fingers (in some versions, her hands and forearms) chopped off and transformed into seals, walruses and whales.



The Qalupalik, a children’s book, by Elisha Kilabuk

The child-snatching monster is a well-worn parental tool that transcends culture and time. It’s purpose: to frighten children into obedience. Most Canadians are familiar with the bogeyman. Germans have the butzemann, Icelanders the female troll Grýla, the Dutch have the cannibalistic Oude Rode Ogen (“Old Red Eyes”), and Spanish children must contend with el hombre del saco. The Inuit have Qalupalik, a human-sea-monster hybrid with green skin, long hair and witchy fingernails.

The Qalupalik preys on wandering children by snatching them into her amautik (a baby sling) and taking them into the sea as her own. The Qalupalik is said to hum ominously, so when a child is alone, away from the safety of the community, a hum is the last noise he hears of the human world. In this NFB animation by Ame Papatsie, the young boy Anguti is taken by Qalupalik, forcing his father to go on a rescue mission into the sea.

The Owl and the Raven

Using seal fur puppets and stop-motion animation, “The Owl and the Raven” recounts the origin story of how the raven got its jet-black feathers.

The Owl Who Married a Goose

An owl and a goose find themselves in a surprising, bitter-sweet love affair in this award-winning animation by Caroline Leaf. Of the story’s moral, Leaf writes, “Clearly, to the Inuit, the foolish owl has broken an important rule of the North: don’t try to be something other than what you are. Survival depends upon following closely the rules of nature.” The film uses sand and recordings of Inuit women mimicking the sounds of animals.