Inuit mythology

Inuit mythology

Inuit mythology has many similarities to the religions of other polar regions. Inuit traditional religious practices could 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, while others would argue that it is rather the reverse that it true: The Inuit have 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 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. [Kleivan & Sonne 1985:32]

"First were "unipkaaq"s : myths, legends, and folktales which took place "back then" in the indefinite past ("taimmani")." [Lowenstein 1992, p. xxxv]


The Inuit believed that all things had a form of spirit or soul (in Inuktitut: anirniq - "breath"; plural anirniit), just like humans. These spirits were 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 - including animals - 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 even in modern society. 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" were seen to be a part of the "sila" - the sky or air around them - and were merely borrowed from it. Although each person's "anirniq" was individual, shaped by the life and body it inhabited, at the same time it was 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 - were in some sense held to be the same, and could be invoked through a sort of keeper or master who was connected in some fashion with that class of thing. In some cases, it is the "anirniq" of a human or animal who became 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 a number of 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." [Lowenstein 1992, p. xxxiii]


Some spirits were by nature unconnected to physical bodies. These figures were called tuurngait (singular tuurngaq) and were regarded as evil and monstruous, responsible for bad hunts and broken tools. They could also possess humans, as recounted in the story of Atanarjuat. The angakkuq could fight or exorcise them, or they could be held at bay by rituals; but they could also be caught and enslaved by an angakkuq, who could then turn them against free "tuurngait".

"Tuurngaq" has, with Christianisation, taken on the additional meaning of "demon" in the Christian belief system.


The angakkuq (Inuktitut syllabics ᐊᖓᑦᑯᖅ [ [ Inuktitut Living Dictionary] ] or ᐊᖓᒃᑯᖅ [ [ Inuktitut Living Dictionary] ] , also angakuq; plural angakuit) of a community of Inuit was not the leader, but rather a sort of healer and psychotherapist, who tended wounds and offered advice, as well as invoking the spirits to assist people in their lives, or as often as not fighting them off. His or her role was to see, interpret and exhort the subtle and unseen. Angakkuq were not trained - they were held to be born with the ability and to show it as they matured. Rhythmic drums, chants and dances were often used in the performance of the duties of the angakkuq. Illumination (Inuktitut: qaumaniq) was often used by the angakkuq to describe a spiritual aura, the removal of which could, in their opinion, result in death.

The function of the angakkuq has largely disappeared in Christianised Inuit society.


Below is an incomplete list of Inuit myth figures thought to hold power over some specific part of the Inuit world:
*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
*Nanook - ("Nanuk" in the modern spelling) the master of polar bears
*Tekkeitsertok - the master of caribou





*"The Terror (novel)", Dan Simmons, Horror novel, 2007.

Further reading

* Asatchaq, and Tom Lowenstein. " [ The Things That Were Said of Them Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikiġaq People] ". Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 0520065697
* Blake, Dale. "Inuit Life Writings and Oral Traditions Inuit Myths". St. John's, Nfld: Educational Resource Development Co-operative, 2001. ISBN 0968880606
* Christopher, Neil, Louise Flaherty, and Larry MacDougall. "Stories of the Amautalik Fantastic Beings from Inuit Myths and Legends". Iqaluit, Nunavut: Inhabit Media, 2007. ISBN 9780978218638
* Fienup-Riordan, Ann. "Boundaries and Passages Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik Eskimo Oral Tradition". The Civilization of the American Indian series, v. 212. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. ISBN 0806126043
* Hall, Edwin S. "The Eskimo Storyteller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska". Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.
* Himmelheber, Hans, and Ann Fienup-Riordan. "Where the Echo Began And Other Oral Traditions from Southwestern Alaska". Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2000. ISBN 1889963038
* [ Houston, James A] . " [ James Houston's Treasury of Inuit Legends] ". Orlando, Fla: Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 0152059245
* MacDonald, John. "The Arctic Sky Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend". Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum/Nunavut Research Institute, 1998. ISBN 0888544278
* Millman, Lawrence, and Timothy White. "A Kayak Full of Ghosts Eskimo Tales". Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987. ISBN 0884962679
* Norman, Howard A., Leo Dillon, and Diane Dillon. " [ The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese, and Other Tales of the Far North] ". New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997. ISBN 0152309799
* Spalding, Alex. "Eight Inuit Myths = Inuit Unipkaaqtuat Pingasuniarvinilit". Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1979.
* Wolfson, Evelyn. "Inuit Mythology". Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Pub, 2001. ISBN 0766015599

External links

* [ - Mythology and Folklore of Greenland] (Danish and English, original texts by Knud Rasmussen)
* [ Interviewing Inuit Elders / Perspectives on Traditional Law] , an online glossary of terms related to Inuit culture

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