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Eskimo Mythology - The World Powers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



For the Eskimo, as for all savage people, the world is up-held by invisible powers. Everything in nature has its Inua, its "owner" or "indweller"; stones and animals have their Inue, the air has an Inua, there is even an Inua of the strength or the appetite; the dead man is the Inua of his grave, the soul is the Inua of the lifeless body. Inue are separable from the objects of which they are the "owners"; normally they are invisible, but at times they appear in the form of a light or a fire — an ill-seen thing, foretokening death.

The "owners" of objects may become the helpers or guardians of men and then they are known as Tornait. Especially potent are the Inue of stones and bears; if a bear "owner" becomes the Tornak of a man, the man may be eaten by the bear and vomited up again; he then becomes an Angakok, or shaman,' with the bear for his helper. Men or women with many or powerful Tornait are of the class of Angakut, endowed with magical and healing power and with eyes that see hidden things.

The Greenlanders had a vague belief in a being, Tornarsuk, the Great Tornak, or ruler of the Tornait, through whom the Angakut obtained their control over their helpers; but a like belief seems not to have been prevalent on the continent.' In the spiritual economy of the Eskimo, the chief place is held by a woman-being, the Old Woman of the Sea, — Nerrivik, the "Food Dish," the north Greenlanders call her,—while Sedna is a mainland name for her.' Once she was a mortal woman; a petrel wooed her with entrancing song and carried her to his home beyond the sea. Too late she found that he had deceived her. When her relatives tried to rescue her, the bird raised such a storm that they cast her into the sea to save themselves; she attempted to cling to the boat, but they cut off her hand, and she sank to the bottom, her severed fingers being transformed into whales and seals of the several kinds. In her house in the depths of the sea Nerrivik dwells, trimming her lamp, guarded by a terrible dog, and ruling over the animal life of the deep. Sometimes men catch no seals, and then the Angakut go down to her and force or persuade her to release the food animals; that is why she is called the "Food Dish." It is not difficult to perceive in this Woman of the Sea a kind of Mother of Wild Life — a hunter folk's goddess, but cruel and capricious as is the sea itself.

In the house of Sedna is a shadowy being, Anguta, her father. Some say that it was he who rescued her and then cast her overboard to save himself, and he is significantly surnamed "the Man with Something to Cut." Like his daughter, Anguta has a maimed hand, and it is with this that he seizes the dead and drags them down to the house of Sedna — for her sovereignty is over the souls of the dead as well as over the food of the living; she is Mistress of Life and of Death. According to the old Greenlandic tradition, when the Angakut go down to the Woman of the Sea they pass first through the region of the dead, then across an abyss where an icy wheel is forever revolving, next by a boiling cauldron with seals in it, and lastly, when the great dog at the door is evaded, within the very entrance there is a second abyss bridged only by a knifelike way. Such was the Eskimo's descensus Averno.



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