Inuit mythology has many similarities to the religions of other peoples of the North Polar region. Inuit traditional religious practices may be very briefly summarised as a form of shamanism based on animist principles.
In some respects, Inuit mythology stretches the common conception of what the term "mythology" means. Unlike Greek mythology, for example, at least a few people have believed in it, without interruption, from the distant past up to and including the present time. While the dominant religious system of the Inuit today is Christianity, many Inuit do still hold to at least some element of their traditional religious beliefs. Some see the Inuit as having adapted traditional beliefs to a greater or lesser degree to Christianity. Others would argue that the reverse is true, the Inuit having adapted Christianity to their worldview.
Inuit traditional cosmology is not religion in the usual theological sense, and is similar to what most people think of as mythology only in that it is a narrative about the world and the place of people in it. In the words of Inuit writer Rachel Attituq Qitsualik:
|“||The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now.||”|
Indeed, the traditional stories, rituals and taboos of the Inuit are so tied into the fearful and precautionary culture required by their harsh environment that it raises the question as to whether they qualify as beliefs at all, much less religion. Knud Rasmussen asked his guide and friend Aua, an angakkuq (shaman), about Inuit religious beliefs among the Iglulingmiut (people of Igloolik) and was told: "We don't believe. We fear." Living in a varied and irregular world, the Inuit traditionally did not worship anything, but they feared much. Some authors[who?] debate the conclusions we might deduce from Aua's words, because the angakkuq was under the influence of missionaries, and later he even converted to Christianity — converted people often see the ideas in polarisation and contrasts, the authors say. Their study also analyses beliefs of several Inuit groups, concluding (among others) that fear was not diffuse.
|“||First were unipkaaqs : myths, legends, and folktales which took place "back then" in the indefinite past (taimmani).||”|
The Inuit believed that all things have a form of spirit or soul (in Inuktitut: anirniq meaning breath; plural anirniit), just like humans. These spirits are held to persist after death — a common belief present in practically all human societies. However, the belief in the pervasiveness of spirits — the root of Inuit myth structure — has consequences. According to a customary Inuit saying "The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls." By believing that all things have souls like those of humans, killing an animal is little different from killing a person. Once the anirniq of the dead animal or human is liberated, it is free to take revenge. The spirit of the dead can only be placated by obedience to custom, avoiding taboos, and performing the right rituals.
The harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived constantly in fear of unseen forces. A run of bad luck could end an entire community and begging potentially angry and vengeful but unseen powers for the necessities of day-to-day survival is a common consequence of a precarious existence. For the Inuit, to offend an anirniq was to risk extinction. The principal role of the angakkuq in Inuit society was to advise and remind people of the rituals and taboos they needed to obey to placate the spirits, since he was held to be able to see and contact them.
The anirniit are seen to be a part of the sila — the sky or air around them — and are merely borrowed from it. Although each person's anirniq is individual, shaped by the life and body it inhabits, at the same time it is part of a larger whole. This enabled Inuit to borrow the powers or characteristics of an anirniq by taking its name. Furthermore, the spirits of a single class of thing — be it sea mammals, polar bears, or plants — are in some sense held to be the same and can be invoked through a keeper or master who is connected with that class of thing. In some cases, it is the anirniq of a human or animal who becomes a figure of respect or influence over animals things through some action, recounted in a traditional tale. In other cases, it is a tuurngaq, as described below.
Since the arrival of Christianity among the Inuit, anirniq has become the accepted word for a soul in the Christian sense. This is the root word for other Christian terms: anirnisiaq means angel and God is rendered as anirnialuk, the great spirit.
|“||Humans were a complex of three main parts: two souls (iñuusiq and iḷitqusiq: perhaps "life force" and "personal spirit") and a name soul (atiq). After death, the iñuusiq departed for the east, but the other soul components could be reborn.||”|
Some spirits are by nature unconnected to physical bodies. These figures are called tuurngait (also tornait, tornat, tornrait, singular tuurngaq, torngak, tornrak, tarngek). Some are helping spirits that can be called upon in times of need. Some are evil and monstrous, responsible for bad hunts and broken tools. They can also possess humans, as recounted in the story of Atanarjuat. An angakkuq with good intentions can use them to heal sickness, and find animals to hunt and feed the community. He or she can fight or exorcise bad tuurngait, or they can be held at bay by rituals; However, an angakkuq with harmful intentions can also use "tuurngait" for their own personal gain, or to attack other people and their tuurngait.
Though once Tuurngaq simply meant "killing spirit", it has, with Christianisation, taken on the meaning of demon in the Christian belief system.
The angakkuq was the shaman of a community of Inuit. The angakkuq has largely disappeared in Christianised Inuit society, but functioned as a mediator with (or defender against) the spirits, a healer, and a counselor. They were held to be born with their gifts and not trained, although they employed ritual ceremonies involving drumming, chanting, and dancing.
Below is an incomplete list of Inuit myth figures thought to hold power over some specific part of the Inuit world:
- Agloolik: evil god of the sea who can hurt boats by biting them; spirit which lives under the ice and helps wanderers in hunting and fishing.
- Akna: mother goddess of fertility.
- Amaguq/Amarok: Wolf god who takes those foolish to hunt alone at night.
- Anguta: gatherer of the dead; he carries them into the underworld, where they must sleep with him for a year.
- Igaluk: the moon god and brother to the sun who chases her across the sky.
- Nanook: (Nanuk in the modern spelling) the master of polar bears
- Pinga: the goddess of the hunt, fertility and medicine
- Qailertetang: weather spirit, guardian of animals, and matron of fishers and hunters. Qailertetang is the companion of Sedna.
- Sedna: the mistress of sea animals. Sedna (Sanna in modern Inuktitut spelling) is known under many names, including Nerrivik, Arnapkapfaaluk, Arnakuagsak, and Nuliajuk.
- Sila: personification of the air
- Tekkeitsertok: the master of caribou
Creatures and Spirits
Qalupalik is a myth/legend told by Inuit parents and elders to prevent children from wandering to the shore. Qalupalik are human-like creatures with long hair, green skin and long finger nails that live in the sea. They wear amautiit, in which they carry away babies and children who disobey their parents or wander off alone. They take the children underwater, where they adopt them as their own. Qalupaliks have a distinctive humming sound, and the elders have said you can hear the Qalupaliks humming when they are near. Up to today the Qalupalik story is still being told in schools and books, and by parents who don’t want their children to wander off to the dangerous shore. The myth was adapted as a 2010 stop motion animation short, Qalupalik, by Ame Papatsie.
Saumen kars or 'Tornits' are the Inuit version of the hairy man or yeti myth. Tizheruk are snake-like monsters. Tupilaq are avenging monsters which were invoked using Shamanic magic. "Qallupilluit" are "troll-like" creature that come after misbehaving children.
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- Kleivan & Sonne 1985:32
- Lowenstein 1992, p. xxxv
- Lowenstein 1992, p. xxxiii
- This is the Inuktitut name. For the same role in other Inuit dialects, see angakkuq.
- Papatsie, Ame. "Nunavut Animation Lab: Qalupalik" (Animated short). NFB.ca. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- "Qallupilluit - from the Inuit tribes, a "troll-like" creature". Franz Boas (1888) The Central Eskimo. (p.212-213). Retrieved 18 February 2012.
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- Laugrand, Frédéric; Jarich Oosten; François Trudel (2000). Representing Tuurngait. Memory and History in Nunavut, Volume 1. Nunavut Arctic College.
- Tornrak, the 1990 opera by John Metcalf features several spirits in the Arctic scenes.
- The Terror, Dan Simmons, Horror novel, 2007.
- Video game Penumbra: Black Plague by Frictional Games. The Infected are the main enemies serving the hive mind Tuurngait.
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