The Greenland Norse

The Greenland Norse were the Norwegian settlers who lived in Greenland from the 980s to c.1450. They scratched out a living on the island’s southern end, traded with Inuit and sold walrus ivory to Europe. By the 15th century, their society had collapsed – what became of it may never be known.

Greenland is the world’s second-largest ice sheet and largest island. It is an Arctic climate with only a few trees growing along its southern coast. Temperatures never surpass 10ºC, even in summer. 70% of Greenland is pack ice and its main inhabitants are seals, caribou, walrus and polar bears.

The name ‘Greenland’ comes from Erik the Red, a Viking explorer who wanted to attract settlers. To con them into thinking Greenland was anything but an Arctic waste, he gave it the ‘favourable name’ of Greenland. His native Iceland was, and is, far greener than Greenland has ever been.

Why did the last Vikings abandon their 500 year-old colony ...

The Norse built two colonies – the Western and Eastern Settlements. The Greenland colonies peaked at 2,000 people around the year 1250. They brought cows from Iceland to farm and grew barley in scarce ice-free soil along the coast. The journey from Iceland was perilous – of Eric the Red’s 24 ships, only 14 survived.

The Greenland colony was never self-sufficient. It relied on regular shipments of iron and other goods from Norway. The Norse killed walrus for their ivory. As the good was in high demand in Europe, the colonies could sustain themselves through trade with the Norwegian boats that visited every year. The royal crown of Austria, allegedly of unicorn horn, is actually narwhal.

Erik the Red’s father, Thorvald, left Norway for Iceland when he murdered his neighbour. Similar circumstances forced Eric to flee west, where he found Greenland. Erik’s son Leif sailed further west and landed in Newfoundland, Canada. He, not Colombus, was the first European to set foot in the Americas. The Norse clashed with the indigenous tribes, who drove them back to the sea. 

Inuit (Thule) whom Norse called Skraelings, settled Greenland in the 13th century from the north. They were better adapted for Arctic life – Inuit hunted instead of farmed, wore sealskins and burned blubber instead of wood. Norse and Inuit accounts record violence between the two peoples. The Norse also traded with their neighbours but never adapted to their way of life.

In the 1360s, the smaller ‘western settlement’ stopped sending tribute to Norway. When Ivar Bardsson investigated, he found abandoned houses and animals running free but no human bodies. Its people’s fate remains a mystery.

By 1400, the eastern settlement too, was in decline. The reasons are many:

  • The Medieval Warm Period ended in 1200, and the Little Ice Age (c.1350 – 1800) lowered world temperatures. Farming in Greenland was no longer sustainable. The Norse suffered while the Inuit prevailed. 
  • The Black Death wiped out 60% of Norway’s population. It did not spare Bergen – the port where merchants sailed for Greenland, and German pirates sacked it in 1393. Trade thus ended with Greenland.
  • As the Portuguese opened trade with Africa and India in the 1500s, demand for walrus ivory – and therefore the Greenland economy – plummeted.

The collapse of the Greenland Norse was not immediate. Younger people left, while the older remained and starved. When Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived in 1721, he met only Inuit hunters. Of the Norse, there were only ruins.

Sources: Fall of Civilizations Podcast, Pulitzer Centre, World History Encyclopedia

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Inuit Mythology

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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.

.: INUIT MYTHOLOGY:.

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)

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Inuit

An elderly Inuit man, Aarulaq, wearing a duffle parka and ...

Inuit are the indigenous people of the North American Arctic. They live in Greenland and the polar regions of Alaska and Canada. Their ancestors migrated from Asia around 1000, making them the last indigenous people to settle the Americas. 

Inuit means ‘the people’ in Inuktitut. A singular Inuit is an Inuk. 

The word ‘Eskimo’ refers to the related peoples of the Arctic Circle who speak Eskimo-Aleut languages, including Inuit, the Aleuts of Alaska and the Yupik of Kamchatka. Eskimo means ‘snow shoes’ in Algonquin but scholars once thought it came from the Cree ‘askipiw’, meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’. That etymology is now disproven, though Eskimo is still considered derogatory in Canada. Inuit is preferred. 

Eskimos of Alaska construct an igloo, 1924 | Inuit, Igloo ...
Inuit in 1920

The ancestors of the Inuit crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia a thousand years ago. Known as the ‘Thule Culture’, their ancestors displaced the Dorset people who came before them and spread across the American Arctic. The Thule had greater numbers and husky-driven sledges which the Dorset lacked. The last Dorset group perished in 1903. Owing to their later migration, Inuit are more closely related to the indigenous Siberians than other Amerindian and First Nations groups. 

Inuit have adapted to the most extreme conditions of any human society. In the Arctic, temperatures can reach -50° and there are periods of 24-hour darkness in winter. There is no wood or domesticable animals. Agriculture is impossible. The traditional Inuit diet was 75% fat and in winter, 100% meat and fish.

Inuit drove sledges, wore fur coats and built skin tents in summer and igloos in winter. They fished, and hunted seals, walrus, caribou and whales, and made harpoons from narwhal horns and walrus ivory. Their adaption to polar environments meant Inuit settlers thrived in Greenland while Norse colonies perished. Kayaks are an Inuit invention. 

European whalers made contact with Inuit in the 1700s. By the 19th century, the measles, smallpox, tuberculosis and alcohol they introduced had killed 90% of the Inuit population.

Throwback Thursday: Nunavut up and running | Canadian ...

By the early 20th century, Inuit were hunting with guns and using metal tools. Many made a living selling fox pelts to white traders. Some attended missionary schools but were largely independent of mainstream Canadian society.

The Canadian government asserted control over the Inuit from 1939. Government assimilation policies forced Inuit children into residential boarding schools and assigned them state-sanctioned names. Abuse was rampant. They resettled nomadic Inuit into permanent settlements to lay claim to parts of the Arctic, ended their traditional way of life and forced them into the modern economy. The decimation of whale populations, melting ice caps and oil drilling has since made the traditional Inuit lifestyle untenable.

In the 1970s, university-educated Inuit lobbied for land claims and self-representation. The territory of Nunavut, which is majority Inuit, became self-governing in 1993. 

Map of Canada highlighitng the Nunavut and Nunavik regions

Today, Canadian Inuit live in four autonomous regions, each located north of the treeline.

  • Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories)
  • Nunavut (own territory)
  • Nunavik (Quebec)
  • Nunatsiavut (Newfoundland and Labrador)

Greenland, though under Danish sovereignty, is 80% Inuit. As in Canada, the Danish government resettled Inuit into towns and forced changes in diet and occupation. Resettlement, overfishing and climate change destroyed their traditional way of life in a mere generation. Greenland gained home rule in 1979.

Blanket Toss in Utqiagvik, Alaska

Modern Inuit are impoverished minorities in their respective countries. Many live in isolated communities with little access to roads and hospitals. Canadian Inuit live 15 -20 years less than the average citizen. In both Greenland and Canada, suicide is six times the national average. 

It is not all, however, so bleak. Inuit culture is seeing a revival across Alaska, Greenland and Canada. Traditional visual art and throat singing is taught across the Inuit homeland, and in Nunavut, most children now learn Inuktitut as a first language.

Sources: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, Inuit Tapariit Kanatami, Minority Rights Group

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The Polar Bear Invasion of 2019

Polar Bears Have Invaded a Russian Outpost, and They’re ...

In February 2019, 52 polar bears descended on a Russian settlement in the Arctic Circle. They ransacked rubbish dumps and overran the town in search of food, walking through schoolyards and open corridors. The village of Belushya Guba declared a national emergency.

Russia declares emergency - mass Polar Bear invasion in ...

Novaya Zemlya, meaning ‘New Land’ is an island chain around the size of Cuba in the Russian Arctic. Its 3,000 inhabitants include those in the military, oil and gas industry and their families. 1,987 of them live in Belushya Guba, its largest settlement. Since the 1950s, the Soviet and Russian governments have used the island for airfields, oil extraction and nuclear testing.

Polar bears live on the island’s coasts. During the summer they converge on the southern end to hunt seals but usually avoid the inland settlements. As global temperatures increase and ice sheets melt, the bears stray closer and closer to human settlements. Specialist patrols keep the polar bears at bay and scare them off when they get too close. Polar bears are endangered and under Russian law and it is illegal to kill them or shoot them with live rounds. Whilst polar bears are the only bears to eat only meat, and the only species known to purposely hunt humans, they rarely attack humans unless acting out of fear or desperation. 

These Days, It’s Not About the Polar Bears - The New York ...

Fifty-two bears converged on the outskirts on Belushya Guba in December 2018. Patrols tried to ward them off with vehicles, warning shots and dogs but, undeterred, the bears marched on. By February the ursine ‘invaders’ entered the town. They gathered at local rubbish dumps and scavenged for food as the town’s inhabitants locked their doors and hid inside. On the 16th of February, the provincial government declared an emergency as the bears roamed free through the streets and schoolyards. While the inhabitants cowered in terror, the polar bears amazingly left them be with no reported casualties. Governemnt watchdogs denied a town request to shoot the bears.

'Invasion': Polar Bears Terrorize Arctic Town | Climate ...

Polar bears need sea ice to hunt seals. 2019 was the hottest year on record and, as the Arctic Ice sheet continues to melt, the bears search for alternative food sources. Polar bears are massive animals however and, unlike their smaller cousins, cannot sustain themselves on human scraps. A high protein diet is essential to their survival.

A team of specialists eventually fended off the bears and the town set up more rigorous patrols and bear-proof fences around schools and kindergartens. Though not matching the ‘invasion’ of February, polar bears continued to wonder into villages throughout Novaya Zemyla.

Sources: BBC, BGR, Polar Bear Science, RT

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