Inuit Mythology covers the indigenous myths and legends of Arctic North America. These myths eschew the creation narratives of most traditions in favour of grisly cautionary tales. They are often as harsh as the environment which made them. Their deities blend the concepts of spirits, humans, animals and monsters.
The Inuit worldview is animistic. Invisible spirits called tornait (singular, tornit) imbue every aspect of the world. Most are harmful and held in fear and reverence by humans. As natural death is so common in the Arctic, respecting taboos and superstitions is essential. Tornait can take the visible form of stones, bears or humans.
Inuit deities resemble powerful tornait, to be feared and appeased rather than worshipped. These include:
- Sedna, ruler of Adlivun
- Anguta, her father and guide of dead souls. In some Greenland traditions, he is a creator god.
- Nanook – spirit of polar bears
- Malina – spirit of the sun
- Igaluk – spirit of the moon
Adlivun is the world beneath the sea. Spirits of the dead travel to this frozen wasteland when they die and remain for a year, then travel to the elusive Land of the Moon, where deer roam and no snow falls. Shamans called annagguit may travel to Adlivun in their dreams to appease the goddess Sedna when a taboo is broken.
Sedna is the mistress of animals. She was once a human woman, tricked into marriage by an evil spirit or, in some traditions, a fulmar.
Her father, Anguta, slew the spirit and took Sedna back on his canoe. On the way home, however, a terrible storm brewed that threatened to kill them both. To appease the ocean, Sedna’s father pushed her off the boat. When she grabbed a hold of the canoe, Anguta cut off her fingers and sent Sedna to the bottom of the sea.
Her fingers became the creatures of the ocean – the seals, walrus, whales and fish. She descended to Adlivun, where she transformed into a walrus-like creature that rules the underwater realm to this day.
In the Land of the Moon, ancestral spirits play a game with a walrus’s head. Their movements form the Aurora Borealis.
Malina, the spirit of the sun, was once a beautiful woman. Her brother Igaluk lusted after her and made her flee across the sky. To this day, Igaluk chases his sister, neglecting even to eat. As time passes, he withers until he disappears for three days eat once more. Occasionally, on a solar eclipse, he catches up. Igaluk lives on an igloo on the moon with the souls of dead animals. The legend differs amongst tribes: in some versions, the sister is the moon, the brother the sun.
Legends of Sauman Kar -an ancient race of giants– are likely misremembered accounts of the Dorset Culture who lived in the Arctic before the Inuit came. Other mythical creatures include polar bears who walk upright and live in igloos, akhlut – wolf-orca hybrids and qallupaluit – hideous creatures who lurk in the ocean and drown disobedient children.
Sources: Franz Boas – The Central Eskimo (1888), Canadian Encyclopedia, Inuit Myths, Philip Wilkinson – Myths and Legends (2009)