Inuit mythology is almost criminally neglected. Personally I find it fascinating and there is so much underappreciated information to be passed along that I will no doubt wind up having two pages devoted to it as I do with Vietnamese mythology. As always my source books are listed at the bottom of the page. Inuit is the term used now, largely replacing “eskimo” which was a pejorative term coined by the Algonquin Indians long ago. The geographical area of the Inuit myths ranges from Siberia across the Bering Strait through Alaska, Canada and Greenland.
Names used for the following deities vary across that vast area. Some Inuit settlements like Ayaatayat (near present- day Cape Denbigh) date back 10,000 years. The Inuit were often at war with various Native American tribes and, as a testament to the fighting ability of the ancient Inuits they drove the Vikings themselves out of part of Greenland. Throw in the fact that their myths contain accounts of them annihilating an entire race and it’s a testament to the violent nature that lurks within all humanity.
YES THEY ARE GODS AND GODDESSES – If you read a lot of books about Inuit myths you get used to the way the authors of those books waste a lot of time and ink laboriously insisting that many of the entities from Inuit mythology should not be referred to as deities. Those authors (all non-Inuit academics) insist that the figures aren’t regarded as what they personally define as gods. They define the entities as powerful and potentially destructive forces that the Inuit tried to propitiate with offerings, prayers and by adhering to an elaborate system of taboos, in the hope that those forces would bring them good things in this life and the one beyond.
Well, to an ardent skeptic like me that seems EXACTLY like all other forms of worship, so there is no reason to avoid calling these entities gods and goddesses. Furthermore, these “experts” who fret and fume over the designation “deities” seem way too immersed in their own field of study, since they are oblivious to many of the parallels Inuit myths have with other belief systems. The “atua” worshipped in the Samoan Islands are likewise considered free of moral concerns and are placated and prayed to as a practical matter. The figures are never considered good or evil, same as in the Inuit beliefs, but are regarded with respect and fear, like a reasonable person would fear a blizzard, or hurricane or any other natural force.
Those “experts” also bemoan the fact that the Inuit figures should not be considered deities because they have plenty of human shortcomings, but again, so do the deities in countless other belief systems. Look at how promiscuous or petty and jealous gods in many pantheons are portrayed. Some are even presented as being “killed” and going to an afterlife where even deities dwell, like Osiris, Baldur, Izanami, Mayahuel and many others. If anyone wants to debate the point contact me at my e-mail address. I’ll be happy to use the “experts'” own reasoning to show that they wouldn’t consider the figures in Graeco-Roman, or Norse, or Egyptian, or Hindu myths (or others) as deities either with such narrow definitions of divinity.
AMAJORSUK – coming soon
IPIUP – An entry on this bird-carving goddess is coming soon
QALUPALIK – This hooded deity of the drowned will have a full entry soon
ISARRATAITSOQ – The mother of the sea goddess Sedna and part of her daughter’s subaquatic court, though in what precise role is still being debated. Isarrataitsoq is armless, her limbs having been devoured by Sedna, who also consumed one of the arms of her father, Anguta. Isarrataitsoq and Sedna both share the giant sea scorpion god Kanajuk as a husband.
AMAGUQ – I’ll have a full entry on this lupine trickster god soon
SEDNA – The sea goddess and the most celebrated deity in the Inuit pantheon. Even mythology books that cover no other figures from Inuit myths will usually have an entry on her. She was the daughter of Anguta and Isarrataitsoq and, like countless female figures in Inuit myths, she refused all prospective husbands. Sedna instead had sexual relations with dogs and the “freakish” offspring of these unions were said to be white people and Native American tribes that the Inuit were often at war with. (Proving once again that bigotry is universal) A ghoulish twist to the story is how Sedna took to using her parents as food (a recurring theme in Inuit myths because of the scarcity of food in the frozen north at times and how instances of cannibalism during such famines were much-discussed). Sedna devoured both of her mother Isarrataitsoq’s arms and had finished eating one of her father’s arms before he was able to subdue her and take her out to sea in his canoe, intent on banishing her to the sea. Continuing to struggle, Sedna clutched the sides of the canoe as her father tried to submerge her, prompting him to take his long knife and cut off her fingers. Since, to the Inuit, loss or mutilation of the hands was often seen as a horrific transformation into something new, the myth states that Sedna now embraced her fate, transforming her now-fingerless hands into flippers and transforming her severed digits into the various species of sea animals. When the one-armed Anguta returned to shore, where his still-armless wife awaited, Sedna, now fully realized as the sea goddess, caused a massive wave to wash over her parents, dragging them down to her new home to serve in her subaquatic court. This subsea realm is called Adlivun, and it is also the place where the souls of the coastal Inuit and the game animals they thrive on go after death to be eventually reincarnated (similar to how the souls of the Inuit from the interior and the souls of their game animals go to the supercelestial afterlife called Udlormiut when they die and are reincarnated, though the moon god does not seem to play a role in the rebirth of souls from Adlivun). Sedna’s home in the deep is said to be constructed of a whalebone frame with walls made of all the clothing of people who have drowned at sea and furnishings fashioned from their bones and sunken ships. The sea goddess’ father Anguta oversees the punishment of dead souls for taboos they violated in life, eventually purging them from the taint of their wrongdoing. After that the souls are free to dwell with the other deceased spirits until they are ready to be reincarnated. Sedna retained her preference for bestality, taking the giant sea-scorpion god Kanajuk as a husband, a spouse she shares with her armless mother. The god Kataum guards the entranceway to Sedna’s undersea dwelling and also keeps an eye on taboos being violated by the coastal Inuit. The god Sila uses Sedna to enforce the taboos (as he uses the goddess Pukimna to enforce the taboos for the Inuit of the interior), and, to counteract Sedna’s recalcitrant nature, does this by causing the breaking of taboos to manifest as knots and filth in Sedna’s hair. When the sea goddess’ hair becomes so poluted that she can no longer stand it she orders the godling-child Unga to act as a shepherd and round up all the game animals of the sea. This causes a scarcity of game for the coastal Inuit, a problem resolved only by a shaman traveling to Adlivun in their astral body to comb the knots and filth from Sedna’s hair, thus appeasing her. (She cannot comb her hair herself because she has flippers, not hands)
TATQIM – The moon god, also called Tarqeq. The moon is his partially burned out torch that he carries to light his way as he perpetually and lecherously chases his sister, the sun goddess Seqinek, whose fully lit torch is, of course, the sun. In addition Tatqim plays a very significant role in the Inuit cycle of reincarnation. When the human and animal souls in the supercelestial afterlife called Udlormiut are ready to be reincarnated, the goddess Tapasuma instructs the moon god to transport them to Earth, further instructing him what type of life form each soul should be reborn as. Tatqim takes these souls to Earth in his divine dogsled pulled by four huge dogs (or just one REALLY huge dog in some versions) and does this on the moonless nights each month. This task he performs at Tapasuma’s command accounts for the moon’s absence from the sky on such nights. Tatqim’s control of the tides was crucial for the coastal Inuit because without ebb tides they could not gather the seaweed from where the tides had retreated, seaweed being an essential food item in the far north, where other forms of vegetable life are often very scarce. The tale of the moon god’s creation of vaginas and anuses goes as follows: long ago animals did not have either orifice, so the disemboweling goddess used to take her ulo knife and carve babies and waste matter out of people’s insides as needed. Seeing how inefficient that was, Tatqim took his hunting knife and cut vaginas into all female life forms and anuses into all living things. Women still bleed for a time each month from the wound left by Tatqim’s hunting knife. This association with the vagina is how the moon god first attained his reincarnation duties, since the vagina is the portal through which animal life enters the world. The disemboweling goddess was reassigned to her current role guarding the approach to the supercelestial afterlife. Barren women would pray to the moon god for children. When you add Tatqim’s role as the god of hunting he certainly seems to occupy a more significant place in Inuit myths than many other lunar deities from around the world do in their pantheons.
SILA – The god of the weather and of the animating life-force, frequently manifested as the winds, which were looked on as the “breathing of the world.” For this reason he was also the deity governing the breathing of humanity and animals as well, since breath flows like wind in and out of us all. The life force was said to come from Sila and flow back into Sila after death, and then, through the lesser deities, was eventually sent back into the world via reincarnation. Because singing, humming and tale-spinning are also done with the breath Sila was also seen as the god of songs, tales, music and other creative inspiration. In addition it was through him that shamans ultimately derived their powers. Intuitive warnings, especially on the part of children, were said to be the whisperings of Sila. The nagging of one’s conscience was also attributed to Sila. This god was said to be always with us but always far away. Sila sculpted the first humans from wet sand and breathed life into them. Bad weather like wind, blizzards, etc was caused by Sila punishing humanity for violating taboos and the god would inflict disease on anyone guilty of mistreating game animals. If someone suffering from disease was appealing to Sila to heal them they would need to abandon all their earthly possessions and go off in solitude. Once possessed of nothing but their “breath soul” Sila would consider healing them. Breath souls and the animating life force came from Sila, free souls from the goddesses Nunam, Pukimna and Sedna. Sila creates snow by carving walrus tusks, and the shavings fall to the Earth as snow. The few times Sila was depicted he was clean-shaven but with long, flowing hair. He wore his coat open, exposing his bare chest, signifying his imperviousness to the elements he commanded.
NUNAM – The Earth goddess of the Inuit pantheon, in some traditions considered the wife of the god Sila. Nunam is often depicted wearing a coat that reaches to her knees and from which hang living miniatures of all land animals (except for caribou in some versions). Those miniatures are considered the free souls (as opposed to breath souls, which are the province of Sila) of those animals, since land animal free souls flow from Nunam. Fur boots and bracelets completed her ensemble. In some traditions Nunam was also said to be the source of free souls for trees and rocks, which, since they are not animate, did not have a corresponding breath soul. When the world was young, children grew directly from the ground like flowers growing from Nunam’s body. Since Inuit women did not yet have vaginas they obtained babies by going out and picking the ripe ones from the ground. Later, after the moon god Tatqim created women’s vaginas, when the women next went out to “pick babies” the babies instead clung to the women’s ankles and climbed up their legs and into their new vaginas (showroom clean) where they took root and from then on babies emerged from that orifice. (So forget all that superstitious nonsense about sperm fertilizing eggs) Musk-oxen were said to have hatched from large eggs buried deep within Nunam’s body. At the dawn of time Sila came down from the heavens and had intercourse with Nunam, producing a male called Kallak. Nunam then joined with Kallak, producing a daughter, whom Kallak took as a wife and the two spawned the Inuit people. In some myths Nunam’s brothers are refered to as having been slain by her husband Sila.
PUKIMNA – The goddess of caribou. Also called Pinga, she lived in a remote dwelling and her home was surrounded by immense herds of caribou, which she controlled. When her taboos were violated she would withhold the caribou from hunters the way Sedna would withhold sea game when the Inuit violated her taboos. Oddly, in some traditions Pukimna, not Sedna, is credited with creating walruses as well as caribou. Pukimna is the goddess who oversees the reincarnation of caribou and walrus spirits but, as with human spirits it is the moon god who actually transports the souls back to the earthly plane at her command. Pukimna created the caribou from her breeches and the walruses from her boots. Initially she created the caribou with tusks like the walrus but this made them too dangerous to the Inuit hunters who depended on them for food and clothing. The goddess transformed their tusks into antlers but they still moved too quickly to be successfully hunted, so she changed the pattern of the hair of the belly, throat and flanks so they could not cleave the air so swiftly when they ran. (Pukimna was a pioneer of aerodynamics apparently) She also supposedly kicked the caribou in the foreheads while fashioning the antlers, causing the indentation on their foreheads. Pukimna was able to create the free- souls of caribou and walruses on her own but needed the collaboration of Sila to create the animals’ breath- souls. She would send the spirits of dead caribou or walruses to punish the violation of any taboos related to those animals. Some traditions place Pukimna’s caribou- surrounded home deep in the continental interior, but others placed it in the super- celestial realm of Udlormiut where Tapasuma, Tatqim and other deities live.
KATAUM – The sentinel who stood guard inside the doorway of Sedna’s dwelling. Part of his job was to perpetually observe the world above and inform Sedna of any breaches of taboo. Mostly, however, he is known for being the final obstacle a shaman’s astral form would have to face before getting the opportunity to appease Sedna so that she would release the sea game that she was withholding from the Inuit because of the violation of taboos. Other obstacles were rolling rocks that would crush even the shaman’s astral body, a thin, icy bridge that had to be crossed, a group of angry, attacking seals and a stone wall that had to be leveled. Next would come Kanajuk, the giant sea scorpion (sometimes said to be on the roof, but other accounts say that Sedna’s home had no roof to make it easier for Kataum to observe the surface dwellers) and a small ice chunk in the doorway that would whisk them away if they stepped on it.
TORNARSSUK – The polar bear god. He is sometimes depicted in human form and sometimes in polar bear form. Tornarsuk is largely associated with what might be called the initiation tradition of Inuit shaman. The initiate would enter into a cave, since Tornarsuk was also the patron deity of caverns, then, encountering the polar bear god on the astral plane, the initiate’s ordeal would begin. They would be devoured and excreted in the Inuit version of the seemingly world-wide Mystery philosophy which can be summarized: “Enlightenment (or in this case shamanic intuition) comes only through suffering” (think Christ on the cross, Odin impaled on the tree, Dionysus torn to pieces, Attis’ castration, Osiris being dismembered and recreated, etc). Female shaman would sometimes have it a bit easier. Tornarssuk would sometimes appear to them in a dream in half-human, half-bear form and have intercourse with them, thereby endowing them with shamanic intuition. Tornarssuk also taught the Inuit how to hunt seals. As part of his role as god of the caves Tornarssuk was said to swim underground through soil and rock, causing the formation of caves as well as instigating rockslides. By some accounts this god’s mere touch is deadly to dogs.
KINAK – The mountain- sized god of the north winds. Like his brother wind gods he was a son of Sila. The blowing of the north wind was said to be caused by his breathing. His reclining body formed an entire mountain range. A popular myth about Kinak involves an Inuit woman named Taku. This woman was married to a man who beat her frequently and so she fled him. She would have perished of exposure but she had ventured onto the mountain that was really the reclining Kinak. Taku told him her plight and he took pity on her, allowing her to live with him for years, providing her with animals for food and clothing. Eventually the day came when Kinak wanted to roll over onto his other side and Taku had to go home. The god gently blew her home with a supply of furs that made her and her husband very rich. The two were happy and even had a son, but eventually the husband returned to his old ways of beathing Taku, who prayed to Kinak. Kinak blew Taku’s husband far away, never to be seen again. Taku’s son became a great hunter but inherited his fathers’ temper and took to slaying several competing hunters and the day came when Kinak blew him away, too.
TAPASUMA – “The indweller in the land above”. The goddess who ruled over the supercelestial afterlife, as opposed to the subaquatic afterlife ruled over by Sedna. Interestingly, Inuit myth features two versions of the afterlife existing concurrently. It is not the usual distinction between one being a place for virtuous souls and the other a place for evil souls since rewards and punishments were doled out in both afterlifes. The difference was one of location and/or time period. In general the ascension of Sedna from sea goddess to also being ruler of the afterlife came later and largely in the areas closer to the coasts. In the interior of the country the supercelestial realm of Udlormiut (the land of perpetual daylight) was the main afterlife. The Earth was looked on as an enormous ice- house (igloo) and stars were seen as small holes in the ceiling of this massive structure allowing light in from Udlormiut, which was on the other side of the ceiling. Souls in Udlormiut had plenty of food, warmth and water as well as all the liesure time they never had during their hard earthly lives. The chief sport of the dead souls in the supercelestial afterlife was playing Inuit soccer (soccer with no fixed boundaries) and in fact the Aurora Borealis was described as souls of the dead whose game of soccer had taken them far away from their starting point. The soccer balls they used were said to be the heads of disobedient children who were inclined to wander off and would be pulled up by the spirits of the dead. When a soul at long last grew bored with the afterlife it could be reincarnated, with Tapasuma deciding if it would be as human or animal. The moon god Tarqeq was the one who would take the souls to be reincarnated down to Earth for Tapasuma every month. In some traditions Tapasuma was identified with Pukimna.
UNGA – The subaquatic “shepherd” for the sea goddess Sedna. Unga would round up all of the sea animals for Sedna when she wanted to withhold them from fishermen over violations of taboos or other acts which displeased her. Unga was also called Ungaq and was depicted as a young child sometimes female but most often male, who frequently cries and, before their ascension to divine status may have been a human child stolen away by Amajorsuk, the entity associated with carrying off Inuit children in her amaut.
SEQINEK – The Inuit sun goddess. The sun was her blazing torch, which she carried aloft as she ran across the sky. At night she would retire to the dwelling she shared with her brother, the moon god Tatqim, though the two were never in the dwelling at the same time. That dwelling was in Udlormiut, the realm of the supercelestial afterlife. In some versions, however, Tatqim lives in a house in the west and Seqinek in a house in the east. At one time the moon goddess had a secret lover sneaking in to have sex with her nightly. When she at last realized it was her brother Tatqim she fled from his advances and he pursued her. Seqinek bore the sun as her torch in her flight but her brother’s torch was partially blown out as he pursued her and that is why the moon is less bright and hot than the sun. Tatqim continues his pursuit of his sister on a daily basis.
NARSSUK – The god of the west wind and another son of Sila. Narssuk was depicted as an enormous infant whose winds were generated by the flapping of his caribou- skin diaper. In some versions the goddess Pukimna made the diaper for him. Narssuk supposedly would loosen his diaper on purpose per orders from either Sila or Sedna (depending on the region) to create harsh windstorms to punish people for violating taboos. Shamans (male or female) would travel in their astral bodies to refasten the diaper and end the winds. In some traditions they would first have to get Sedna’s permission for this and she would give them a seaweed whip to lash Narssuk with before refastening his diaper.
POMPEJA – The god of the east wind and another son of Sila. Since the winds coming off the sea were often warmer compared to the north and west winds Pompeja’s winds were said to be caused by the god’s flatulence. (I swear!)
SOURCE BOOKS FOR THE ABOVE COMPOSITES: see below
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SOURCE BOOKS: Powers That We Do Not Know: The Gods And Spirits Of The Inuit … Inuit Mythology … The Inuit Imagination … Medicine Men of Hooper Bay … Kivioq’s Magic Journey … The Eskimo Storyteller … The Sea Woman … Eskimo Folk Tales … Amerindian Rebirth … Eskimo Folk-Lore … A Kayak Full of Ghosts … The Eskimo of Siberia … Handbook of Native American Mythology … World Mythology … Inuit Myths, Legends and Songs … Tales of Ticasuk … Northern Tales … North American Indian Mythology