They were once called the Eskimos. No more. For the word is taken to mean ‘eaters of raw meat’ and is considered pejorative. Today the ‘Eskimos’ of Alaska, Canada and Greenland prefer to be called ‘Inuit’.
The Inuit today follow Christianity. But it is a Christianity that is adapted to their own cultural worldview that has continued without interruption, unlike Greek or Egyptian mythologies, from the distant past up to and including the present time. What is significant about this worldview is that there is no God, no great divine mother and divine father figures. There are no powerful and mischievous nature gods who control the wind or the sun or the sea. There is no concept of Heaven or Hell, no retribution, redemption or hereafter.
For centuries, 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. 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.” 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 principal role of the shaman 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. 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.
Some spirits were by nature unconnected to physical bodies. These figures were called tuurngait (singular tuurngaq) and were regarded as evil and monstrous, responsible for bad hunts and broken tools. They could also possess humans. Shamans could fight or exorcise them, or they could be held at bay by rituals; but they could also be caught and enslaved by shamans, who could then turn them against free tuurngait. Tuurngaq has, with Christianisation, taken on the additional meaning of demon in the Christian belief system.
In this Inuit world, one name recurs time and again. That of Sedna. She lives in and rules over Adlivun, the Inuit underworld. Sedna is also known as Arnakuagsak or Arnarquagssaq (Greenland) and Nerrivik or Nuliajuk (Alaska).
She was a beautiful young woman whose father, a widower, was constantly trying to marry her off, but she would have none of it. She kept rejecting her numerous suitors. One fateful day a sea bird promised to take her away to his “comfortable, luxurious” home. The impulsive young girl eloped with the bird but the “comfortable, luxurious” home turned out to be a filthy, smelly nest. And, to make matters worse, her new husband treated her like a slave. Sedna begged her father to come and take her back home, and he agreed. But as they were heading across the waters, a flock of sea birds surrounded the boat. The incessant flapping of their wings caused a tremendous storm to arise and their small vessel was being tossed from side to side. Fearing for his own safety, Sedna’s father threw her into the ocean to appease the angry birds. When Sedna tried to climb back into the boat, he cut off her fingers. As she struggled to use her mutilated hands to try again, he cut off her hands and threw her and her appendages into the water. As she sank to the bottom of the ocean, her dismembered limbs grew into fish, seals, whales, and all of the other sea mammals.
Not all legends consider her an innocent victim. Some say she deserved her fate as punishment for greed. She is said to have been so huge and hungry that she ate everything in her parents’ home, and even gnawed off one of her father’s arms as he slept.
But all tales agree that she descended into the depths of the ocean and became the Goddess of Sea Creatures. As such she became a vital deity, eagerly worshipped by hunters who depended on her goodwill to supply food.
To ensure that she continues to feed the people, shamans must descend through many horrifying places to reach Sedna and soothe her. The route is dangerous and terrifying. The shamans have to pass through countless dead souls, an abyss where an icy wheel turns slowly and perpetually, then past a cauldron full of boiling seals, and finally past the horrible dog that guards the knife-thin passageway into her home. When shamans visit her, they massage Sedna’s aching limbs and comb her hair. Only when she is properly comforted will Sedna permit the shaman to return to the people and inform them that she will send the animals to be hunted so that they will not face starvation.
Sedna is the Mistress of Life and Death to the Inuit people because it is she who provides for them. If she is not respected she begins to feel her hands sear with pain and, in her misery, sends sickness, storms, and starvation to punish the humans. Only when someone is willing to brave the voyage to her home and assuage her pain will she let the animals return to be hunted. But when people treat her with respect and concern, they receive her blessings.
Sedna now lives on in the sky. In 2003 astronomers discovered a heretofore unknown planet in the farthest reaches of our solar system. In a deviation from the custom of naming celestial bodies after characters from Greek and Roman mythology, the name chosen for this newcomer was Sedna, after the Inuit goddess of the Sea.