Ijiraq (mythology)

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In Inuit mythology an ijiraq (/ˈjɪrɑːk/ EE-yi-rahk or /ˈɪrɑːk/ EE-ji-rahk) is a sort of shape shifter who kidnaps children and hides them away and abandons them. The inuksugaq (or inukshuk) of stone allow these children to find their way back if they can convince the ijiraq to let them go.

In North Baffin dialects ijiraq means Shape Shifter. While Tariaksuq appear like a half-man-half-caribou monster, an Ijiraq can appear in any form it chooses, making it particularly deceptive. When you are hunting somewhere that Ijirait (plural) inhabit, you will see them in the corner of your eye for a fleeting moment (like tariaksuq, shadow people). If you try to observe them directly however, they are completely elusive. They are sometimes helpful, sometimes fatally deceptive. One of the most noted places in the Arctic for sightings of these shape shifters (and tariaksuq) is the Freeman's Cove area of Tuktusirvik (place to hunt caribou), Bathurst Island. This rich oasis is surrounded in a horseshoe pattern by dormant volcanic mountains. Historically, Freeman's Cove is most notable as a stopover for the ship the Intrepid, and also for the failed attempts by the infamous modern-day explorer and eccentric Cory K. Buott at settlement.

The Ijirait are said to inhabit a place between two worlds; not quite inside this one, nor quite out of it. Inuit further south than the North Baffin group used to hold to a belief that some Inuit went too far north in the chase for game, and became trapped between the world of the dead and the world of the living, and thus became the Ijirait. According to the small handful of surviving elders in the South Baffin Region that are knew these beliefs, the Inuit that are settled in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord are these shape shifters or shadow people, because they went too far north. Some elders will avoid being in presence of extreme-northern Inuit, fearing they are evil Ijirait or Tariaksuq.

The home of the Ijirait is said to be cursed, and one will lose their way, no matter how skilled or familiar with the land: Buott and his wife Enoogoo were said to be out hunting once on the small peninsula across the bay from Freeman's Cove, and Buott, despite being a renowned navigator, became completely turned around. While he and his wife had been there before, and they could clearly see the camp where their children were on the horizon, Buott had to closely follow the trail of disturbed shale and rock to get back. It is thought by many that this temporary disorientation was due to the influence of the Ijirait. When Enoogoo and Buott finally returned to their children, they discovered a polar bear was circling the camp, sizing their children up for a meal.

A local hunter with considerable local knowledge, Mark Amarualik, also of Resolute Bay, was said to have experienced this disorientation in the same place on a hunting trip a year before. The Inuit believe the Ijirait do this to confuse Inuit (people), and to keep them from moving into their areas. It is believed locally that is why Buott and Amarualik experienced this disorientation.

One plausible explanation for this unusual phenomenon is likely related to large deposits of sour-gas, of which can be disturbed by simply walking over top of the pockets, causing them to expel the toxic gas hydrogen sulphide. Buott and Enoogoo made reference in their journals of inexplicable gatherings of a variety of animal remains in seemingly random and mysterious piles. This corroborates the thought that the gas is responsible for these occurrences. Gas and sulphur smoke have been reported in the area as well as hot water springs discovered by the Amarualik (meaning wolf-like) family; all of which could cause a "mirage" causing to the traveller to see things such as Ijirait and Tariaksuq. The gas vapour or pockets low in oxygen could also account for hallucinations/sensations of being watched.


Verified Sources:

  • Cory K. Buott, Air Radio Operator, Resolute Bay, NU
  • Simon Idlout, Elder, Qausuittuq Hunter/Trapper Organization Representative, Resolute Bay, NU
  • Lallie Idlout, Nunavut Justice of the Peace, Board Member Nunavut Arctic College, Resolute Bay Nunavut
  • Qammajuq (Johnny), Inuit Elder, Well known survivor of the Quganajuq (Creswell Bay, Somerset Island) Tragedy, Cambridge Bay, NU
  • Kenn Borek Air/Unaalik Aviation, Resolute Bay, NU
  • Ministry of Natural Resources Intercontinental Polar Shelf Project, Resolute Bay, NU
  • Hamlet Office, The Hamlet of Resolute Bay, Resolute Bay NU X0A 0V0 Canada (Tel. 876.252.3616)