A myth is usually defined as a poetic attempt to explain some phenomenon of nature or ancient tradition that cannot be understood rationally. A legend is a story handed down by tradition but loosely based on history. Both these forms are widely used by preliterate societies. The INUIT were just such a society until the mid-20th century.
Inuit who make their homes across the vastness of Canada's Arctic belong to a much larger Eskimoid family that extends from the Bering Sea through Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland (see ESKIMO). These imaginative, hardy and resourceful people are linked not only linguistically but by a distinctly similar culture and way of life. Songs, dances, myths, legends and art forms all link these widely flung, seminomadic people (see INUIT ART). Their earliest myths and legends, along with their hunting techniques, must have travelled with them out of Asia (see PREHISTORY). Their songs and story forms of myths and legends, linguistically as well as stylistically, relate most closely to Siberian, Finno-Ugric and early Hungarian (Magyar) traditions. Language and legend may give clues to ancient routes of migration.
Inuit myths and legends perform a useful function by answering, at least in part, many puzzling questions. The Inuit designated the powers of good and evil to deities living in a spirit world (see NATIVE PEOPLE, RELIGION). For the Inuit that spirit world was closely entwined with the starkly beautiful northern world in which they lived.
The ancient Inuit oral traditions were employed as the most important method of conveying and preserving ideas, augmented sometimes by small carvings that may have served as illustrations for events. Songs and dances also enhanced the meanings of myths and legends which upheld the existing system, bolstered the traditional customs of Inuit society and verbalized a sense of right and wrong. These early tales may have preceded the priesthood that grew around them, developing into Siberian and Eskimo shamanism (see SHAMAN).
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 of food, respect for the aged, polygamy, murder, infanticide, incest, death and the mystery of an afterlife. Even in recent times, Inuit storytellers will remodel old myths and create new legends, subtly disguising the true identities of the persons involved.
Inuit myths are rarely simple, usually abounding with curious behavioural codes that may only be fully understood by those living within that society. Inuit believe that they have a close relationship with all of nature and that animals have the magical power to hear and understand the human word. For this reason, hunters in their camps, when singing or speaking of walrus or seal, may carefully refer to them as maggots or lice, or call caribou lemmings, thus confusing the animals that are necessary for their survival.
Until modern times, Inuit agreed that there were other worlds beneath the sea, inside the Earth, and in the sky where some gifted angakoks (shamans) had the power to journey in trances and in dreams, visiting places that ordinary mortals would only experience in some afterlife.
Dreams have always played an important part in the lives of Inuit, perhaps serving as the basis for some myth forms. Dreams are interpreted with care. Dreams of white bears are said to have sexual overtones. Dreams of weasels suggest troubles. Bird dreams forewarn of blizzards.
Some Inuit myths are thought provoking in any language. An extremely short example is as follows: Onto a boy's arm came a mosquito. "Don't hit! Don't hit!" it hummed, "Grandchildren have I to sing to." "Imagine," the boy said, "So small and yet a grandfather."
Among the most famous of the vast array of myths is the legend of the sea goddess who has various names (Sedna, Nuliayuk, Taluliyuk), the legend of Lumiuk (Lumak, Lumaag), the legend of Kiviok and the legend of Tiktaliktak.
Once, on south Baffin Island, I saw a myth come alive. Some young children were playing near a tidal ice barrier with many dangerous hidden cracks. Their grandmother crept with great care down among the ice hummocks and from a hidden position called out, "Oohhwee, Oohhweee!" The children ran back onto the land and said the sea goddess Taluliyuk had frightened them. Later, the grandmother said, "I told them about the woman who lives under the sea. Now she will keep them away from the dangerous places." The grandmother was referring to the powerful sea goddess in this central Arctic song:
That woman down there beneath the sea,
She wants to hide the seals from us.
These hunters in the dance house,
They cannot mend matters.
They cannot mend matters.
Into the spirit world
Will go I,
Where no humans dwell.
Set matters right will I.
Set matters right will I.
The legend of the sea goddess, though known in various regions by different names, is one of the most widespread. One version is that some time ago, during a violent blizzard, a handsome young stranger entered a family IGLOO. He was wearing a necklace with 2 large canine teeth. He was welcomed into the bed and slept with the entire family. When they awoke next morning, the young man was gone. The father, seeing only animal tracks outside, said, "We were deceived. That must have been my lead dog disguised as a man." When his daughter became pregnant, the father was ashamed of what she might produce. He made his daughter lie on the back of his kayak while he paddled her out to a small island where he abandoned her. His lead dog secretly swam to the girl, leaving her tender pieces of meat. Thus she remained alive and gave birth to 6 young. Three of them were Inuit children, but the other 3 had bigger ears and snoutlike noses. The young mother did not know how to build a kayak. Instead, she sewed some sealskins into one large slipper, and placing the 3 strange children inside, she pushed them off toward the south, calling out, 'Sarutiktapsinik sanavagumarkpusi' (You shall be good at making weapons). Some Inuit say that all white men and Indians are descended from those 3 dog children and only through them are they related to Inuit.
The second part of the story, usually told on the following night, tells of the father going in an UMIAK, a large skin boat, and taking his daughter off the island. On their way home a storm rose and it was feared that the overloaded boat would capsize. The boatmen decided that to lighten the load they must throw the daughter overboard. When she tried to climb back into the boat, her father cut off her fingers. These became the seals in the sea. She tried again and he cut off her hands and they became the walruses. She made one last attempt and he cut off her forearms, which became the whales of the oceans. After that she sank into the depths and became Sedna, or Taluliyuk, the woman who controls all the sea beasts, and became half woman and half fish. Many songs are sung to this powerful goddess. In new seasons, pieces of liver of the first-killed sea mammal are returned to the waters, imploring Sedna to release her bounty to the hunters so that they might feed their families.
A number of anthropologists agree that although many ethnic societies wished to preserve their history, they preferred to record it in myths and legends. Perhaps this was because these were close societies where every man knew his neighbour well. Until recently, Inuit had no need for last names. This also suggests that to repeat the tale of a wife-stealing or a feud leading to a massacre within a tribal group would be not only socially unacceptable but dangerous. But by transforming enemies into mythical beasts and family members into heroes, the story might travel safely down within the tribe through many centuries.
Ancient tools and art objects may lie preserved in the permafrost unharmed for countless centuries waiting to be discovered. But oral myths and legends, and songs and dances that are parts of Inuit culture, represent a valuable intellectual possession. Once lost, they have no way of returning. For this reason, every effort should be made to record the important Inuit myths and legends that are a part of the priceless heritage of Canada before they slip away. In the past, explorers and anthropologists performed this task, but in recent years Inuit have become concerned with preserving their traditions.