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Eskimo Mythology - The World's Regions

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

As the Eskimo's Inland is peopled with monstrous tribes, so is his Sea-Front populous with strange beings. There are the Inue of the sea — a kind of mermen; there are the mirage-like Kayak-men who raise storms and foul weather; there are the phantom women's boats, the Umiarissat, whose crews, some say, are seals transformed into rowers. Strangest of all are the Fire-People, the Ingnersuit, dwelling in the cliffs, or, as it were, in the crevasse between land and sea. They are of two classes, the Pug-Nosed People and the Noseless People. The former are friendly to men, assisting the kayaker even when invisible to him; the Noseless Ones are men's enemies, and they drag the hapless kayaker to wretched captivity down beneath the black waters. An Angakok was once seal-hunting, far at sea; all at once he found himself surrounded by strange kayaks — the Fire-People coming to seize him. But a commotion arose among them, and he saw that they were pursued by a kayak whose prow was like a great mouth, opening and shutting, and slaying all that were in its path; and suddenly all of the Fire-People were gone from the surface of the sea. Such was the power of the shaman's helping spirit.

In the Eskimo's conception there are regions above and regions below man's visible abode, and the dead are to be found in each. Accounts differ as to the desirability of the several abodes. The mainland people—or some of them—regard the lower world as a place of cold and storm and darkness and hunger, and those who have been unhappy or wicked in this life are bound thither; the region above is a land of plenty and song, and those who have been good and happy, and also those who perish by accident or violence, and women who die in child-birth, pass to this upper land. But there are others who deem the lower world the happier, and the upper the realm of cold and hunger; yet others maintain that the soul is full of joy in either realm.

The Angakut make soul-journeys to both the upper and the lower worlds." The lower world is described as having a sky like our own, only the sky is darker and the sun paler; it is always winter there, but game is plentiful. Another tale tells of four cavernous underworlds, one beneath the other; the first three are low-roofed and uncomfortable, only the fourth and lowest is roomy and pleasant. The upper world is beyond the visible sky, which is a huge dome revolving about a mountain-top; it is a land with its own hills and valleys, duplicating Earth. Its "owners" are the Inue of the celestial bodies, who once were men, but who have been translated to the heavens and are now the celestial lights. The road to the upper world is not free from perils: on the way to the moon there is a person who tempts wayfarers to laughter, and if successful in making them laugh takes out their entrails. Perhaps this is a kind of process of disembodying; for repeatedly in Eskimo myth occur spirit-beings which when seen face to face appear to be human beings, but when seen from behind are like skeletons.

The Sun and the Moon were sister and brother — mortals once. In a house where there was no light they lay together, and when the sister discovered who had been her companion, in her shame she tore off her breasts and threw them to her brother, saying, "Since my body pleaseth thee, taste these, too." Then she fled away, her brother pursuing, and each bearing the torches by means of which they had discovered one another. As they ran they rose up into the heavens; the sister's torch burned strong and bright, and she became the Sun; the brother's torch died to a mere ember, and he became the Moon. When the Sun rises in the sky and summer is approaching, she is coming "to give warmth to orphans," say the Eskimo; for in the Far North, where many times in the winter starvation is near, the lot of the orphan is grimly uncertain.

The Greenlanders are alert to the stars, especially those that foretell the return of the summer sun; when Orion is seen toward dawn, summer is coming and hearts are joyous.

The Eskimo tell how men with dogs once pursued a bear far out on the ice; suddenly the bear began to rise into the air, his pursuers followed, and this group became the constellation which we name Orion. A like story is sometimes told of the Great Bear (Ursa Major). Harsher is the tale which tells of the coming of Venus: "He who Stands and Listens" — for the sun's companion is a man to the Eskimo. An old man, so the story goes, was sealing near the shore; the noise of children playing in a cleft of rock frightened the seals away; and at last, in his anger, he ordered the cleft to close over them. When their parents returned from hunting, all they could do was to pour a little blood down a fissure which had been left, but the imprisoned children soon starved. They then pursued the old man, but he shot up into the sky and became the luminous planet which is seen low in the west when the light begins to return after the wintry dark.

The Eskimo do not greatly trouble themselves with thoughts as to the beginnings of the world as a whole; rather they take it for granted, quite unspeculatively. There is, however, an odd Greenlandic tale of how earth dropped down from the heavens, soil and stones, forming the lands we know. Babies came forth — earth-born — and sprawled about among the dwarf willows; and there they were found by a man and a woman (none knows whence these came), and the woman made clothes for them, and so there were people; and the man stamped upon the earth, whence sprang, each from its tiny mound, the dogs that men need. At first there was no death; neither was there any sun. Two old women debated, and one said, "Let us do without light, if so we can be without death"; but the other said, "Nay, let us have both light and death!" — and as she spoke, it was so.

The Far North has also a widely repeated story of a deluge that destroyed most of the earth's life, as well as another wide-spread account of the birth of the different races of man-kind — for at first all men were Eskimo — from the union of a girl with a dog: the ancestors of the white men she put in the sole of a boot and sent them to find their own country, and when the white men's ships came again, lo, as seen from above, the body of each ship looked precisely like the sole of a boot!

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