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Inuit mythology has many similarities to the religions of other polar regions. Inuit traditional religious practices could be very briefly summarised as a form of shamanism based on animist principles.
In some respects, Inuit mythology stretches the common conception of what the term "mythology" means. Unlike Greek mythology, for example, at least a few people have believed in it, without interruption, from the distant past up to and including the present time. While the dominant religious system of the Inuit today is Christianity, many Inuit do still hold to at least some element of their traditional religious beliefs. Some see the Inuit as having adapted traditional beliefs to a greater or lesser degree to Christianity, while others would argue that it is rather the reverse that it true: The Inuit have adapted Christianity to their worldview.
Inuit traditional cosmology is not religion in the usual theological sense, and is similar to what most people think of as mythology only in that it is a narrative about the world and the place of people in it. In the words of Inuit writer Rachel Attituq Qitsualik:
|“||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.||”|
Indeed, the traditional stories, rituals and taboos of the Inuit are so tied into the fearful and precautionary culture required by their harsh environment that it raises the question as to whether they qualify as beliefs at all, much less religion. Knud Rasmussen asked his guide and friend Aua, an angakkuq (shaman), about Inuit religious beliefs among the Iglulingmiut (people of Igloolik) and was told: "We don't believe. We fear." Living in a varied and irregular world, the Inuit traditionally did not worship anything, but they feared much. Some authors debate the conclusions we might deduce from Aua's words, because the angakkuq was under the influence of missionaries, and later he even converted to Christianity — converted people often see the ideas in polarisation and contrasts, the authors say. Their study also analyses beliefs of several Inuit groups, concluding (among others) that fear was not diffuse.
|“||First were unipkaaqs : myths, legends, and folktales which took place "back then" in the indefinite past (taimmani).||”|
The 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 - a common belief present in practically all human societies. 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." By believing that all things have souls like those of humans, killing an animal is little different from killing a person. 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 harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived constantly in fear of unseen forces. A run of bad luck could end an entire community, and begging potentially angry and vengeful but unseen powers for the necessities of day-to-day survival is a common consequence of a precarious existence even in modern society. For the Inuit, to offend an anirniq was to risk extinction. The principal role of the angakkuq 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.
The anirniit were seen to be a part of the sila - the sky or air around them - and were merely borrowed from it. Although each person's anirniq was individual, shaped by the life and body it inhabited, at the same time it was part of a larger whole. This enabled Inuit to borrow the powers or characteristics of an anirniq by taking its name. Furthermore, the spirits of a single class of thing - be it sea mammals, Polar Bears, or plants - were in some sense held to be the same, and could be invoked through a sort of keeper or master who was connected in some fashion with that class of thing. In some cases, it is the anirniq of a human or animal who became a figure of respect or influence over animals things through some action, recounted in a traditional tale. In other cases, it is a tuurngaq, as described below.
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.
|“||Humans were a complex of three main parts : two souls (iñuusiq and iḷitqusiq : perhaps "life force" and "personal spirit") and a name soul (atiq). After death, the iñuusiq departed for the east, but the other soul components could be reborn.||”|
Some spirits were by nature unconnected to physical bodies. These figures were called tuurngait (also tornait, tornat, tornrait, singular tuurngaq, torngak, tornrak, tarngek). Some were helping spirits that could be called upon in times of need. Some were evil and monstrous, responsible for bad hunts and broken tools. They could also possess humans, as recounted in the story of Atanarjuat. An angakkuq with good intentions could use them to heal sickness, and find animals to hunt and feed the community. He or she could fight or exorcise bad tuurnait, or they could be held at bay by rituals; However, an angakkuq with harmful intentions could also use "tuurngait" for their own personal gain, or to attack other people and their tuurngait.
Though once upon a time Tuurngaq simply meant "helping spirit", it has, with Christianisation, taken on the meaning of demon in the Christian belief system, (quite literally demonizing the word).
The angakkuq (Inuktitut syllabics ᐊᖓᑦᑯᖅ or ᐊᖓᒃᑯᖅ, also angakuq; plural angakuit) of a community of Inuit was not the leader, but rather a sort of healer and psychotherapist, who tended wounds and offered advice, as well as invoking the spirits to assist people in their lives, or as often as not fighting them off. His or her role was to see, interpret and exhort the subtle and unseen. Angakkuq were not trained - they were held to be born with the ability and to show it as they matured. Rhythmic drums, chants and dances were often used in the performance of the duties of the angakkuq. Illumination (Inuktitut: qaumaniq) was often used by the angakkuq to describe a spiritual aura, the removal of which could, in their opinion, result in death.
The function of the angakkuq has largely disappeared in Christianised Inuit society.
Below is an incomplete list of Inuit myth figures thought to hold power over some specific part of the Inuit world:
In Inuit mythology, Wentshukumishiteu (or Uentshukumishiteu) is a water-elemental spirit which fiercely protected the young of various animal species from human hunters. It is particularly fond of otters. The Inuit say that Wentshukumishiteu is able to travel anywhere on the water and can break through the thickest ice. It can also travel under the ground and through rocks.