Monday, April 07, 2008

Inuit Mythology

One of the things I've always found fascinating is the traditional Inuit belief system. Its something I've wanted to blog about for quite some time now. What held me back was the paucity of information on Inuit mythology. Inuit shamanism was pretty much steam-rolled by the juggernaut of southern society in the early 20th century. Much of what is known has been passed down by elders but it is difficult for southerners like myself to access this information when you speak only basic Inuktitut. I should point that tradition Inuit religion, if it can be called that, is not really a religion in the usual, Western sense. Much of it involves a series of rituals and taboos which help to guide social behaviours and bring luck (either good or bad) in hunting and survival. Shamans were often aided by a number of guiding or helping spirits so it is easy to see the appeal that Christianity could have on the various Inuit groups with its idea of a helping spirit (or Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition). As an aside, the movie The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is an excellent look at the effects of Christianity on one 1920's Inuit community.

There are a few mythological beings I am familiar with through my chats with students and other people from town. These beings can differ slightly from region to region and community to community but I will do my best here. I came across a very helpful little book in my class which was very helpful in bringing together many of the little strands of information I have picked up over the past few years. Some of these beings were already familiar to me but a few were new. At any rate, I will give you a run-down of some of the more well-known or at least most talked about creatures/beings/spirits. Any mistakes are, of course, my own.

Tuniit - This was a group of people many Inuit held to be the direct ancestors of today's Inuit (at least in the Eastern Arctic). Despite their great strength, they were shy, peaceful folk. Encountering them was a rare experience.

Mahaha - This is one of my favorites. Basically these creepy-looking guys sported long sinewy arms and piercing white eyes. They were demon creatures that would sneak up on a person and use their long fingernails to tickle torture someone to death. Victims would be tickled until they suffocated and could be found afterwards with twisted grins across their face. If you are lucky, you might hear it giggling as it sneaks up on you. A Mahaha, though is easily fooled and many stories tell how they were done in after being pushed into a water hole as it tried to take a drink

Ijirait - These were a type of shape-shifter sporting red eyes. Most often they would take the shape of a raven, bear, wolf or another human being. Most of the time they are portrayed as malicious beings but they are also known as message-bearers and associated with mirages and memory loss soon after an encounter with one.

Qallupilluk - A Qallupilluk is like an Inuit boogey-man. They are covered in bumpy, scaley skin and lurk around beaches and breaking ice. They are known to snatch away children who are in the habit of misbehaving. (Naturally, as the perfect child that I was, this is all new to me.)

Inukpasugjuit - Not much is know about these other than they are very rare. They sometimes like to catch humans to use as playthings. There are more female inukpasugjuit than male ones, who are known to grab up people and carry them away in their amautiit. (These are traditional hooded garments still worn by Inuit mothers. They sport an oversized hood in which to carry a baby.)

Kukilingiattiaq - This was a giant three-fingered claw that could emerge to snatch up a child who was stealing. The idea wasn't really to scare the child but just to hold him/her until witnesses came along. In this way, the story of the Kikilingiattiaq was used to keep children respectful and honest around another person's belongings.

Tarriaksuit - These were shadow people who live in a world just beyond human senses. They are almost never seen but sometimes, you might hear their laughter or footsteps. Some stories tell of Inuit who have "crossed over" into the shadow world of the Tarriaksuit, but few have ever really turned to tell of their experiences.

Well, there goes my basic over-view of what I've picked up the past few years. If any readers out there can add to this, feel free to drop me a line. It's a topic I find doesn't get much attention. I think some elders may be wary of discussing it out of fear of derision of traditional beliefs but personally, I find this a very fascinating topic.


Matt, Kara and Hunter said...

I have seen that book! There is also a poster as well with full colour of the drawings. I loved reading about them as well.

c'est moi said...

where did you get that book? what's the title? down here, i've often delicately pursued the subject and come up short.

Way Way Up said...

The book is called Taiksumani: Inuit Myths and Legends. It was published in 2004 by the Nunavt Bilingual Education Society. The book isn't used as part of the curriculum that I know of....more like a reference book as I understand it.

c'est moi said...

I found it online in .pdf at

Thanks for sharing. It is downloading 6.03 MB in the background as I write this reply.

Way Way Up said...

Any time.

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