Alaska & the North
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This volume, Qugaaĝix̂ covers a range of cultures and themes based around the peoples who inhabit the far north.
Inuit cosmology provides a narrative about the world and the place of people within it. Rachel Attituq Qitsualik (Inuk) writes: "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."
Traditional stories, rituals, and taboos of the Inuit are often precautions against dangers posed by their harsh Arctic environment. Knud Rasmussen asked his guide and friend Aua, an angakkuq (spiritual healer), about Inuit religious beliefs among the Iglulingmiut (people of Igloolik) and was told: "We don't believe. We fear."
The environment in which the Inuit lived inspired a mythology filled with adventure tales of whale and walrus hunts. Long winter months of waiting for caribou herds or sitting near breathing holes hunting seals gave birth to stories of mysterious and sudden appearance of ghosts and fantastic creatures.
Some Inuit looked into the aurora borealis, or northern lights, to find images of their family and friends dancing in the next life. However, some Inuit believed that the lights were more sinister and if you whistled at them, they would come down and cut off your head. For others they were invisible giants, the souls of animals, a guide to hunting and as a spirit for the angakkuq to help with healing. They relied upon the angakkuq (shaman) for spiritual interpretation.
The nearest thing to a central deity was the Old Woman (Sedna), who lived beneath the sea. The waters, a central food source, were believed to contain great gods.
Like all mythology, Inuit myths and legends are both entertaining and instructive. The Inuit designated the powers of good and evil to deities living in a spirit world closely entwined with the starkly beautiful northern landscape. These tales were intrinsically linked to Inuit shamanism.
Inuit myths and legends are usually short dramatic forms dealing with the wonders of the world: the creation, the heavens, birth, love, hunting and sharing food, respect for the aged, polygamy, murder, infanticide, incest, death and the mystery of afterlife.
Inuit myths are rarely simple, usually abounding with behavioural codes that may only be fully understood by those living within that society. The stories reinforce a close relationship with all of nature, as well as the belief that animals have the magical power to hear and understand human words.
Inuit religion was closely tied to a system of rituals integrated into the daily life of the people. These rituals were simple but held to be necessary. 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, any hunt that failed to show appropriate respect and customary supplication would only give the liberated spirits cause to avenge themselves.
The harshness and unpredictability of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived with concern for the uncontrollable, where a streak of bad luck could destroy an entire community. To offend a spirit was to risk its interference with an already marginal existence. The Inuit understood that they had to work in harmony with supernatural powers to provide the necessities of day-to-day life.