I read The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling recently and enjoyed a story called “Quiquern” about an Inuit boy and girl. It included a number of references to Inuit folklore, and for the readalong posts I wanted to include some background information on that, but it turned out to be surprisingly difficult. In my online search for Inuit folklore in general and “quiquern” references in particular, I found:
- legitimate sites that weren’t in English, to my great chagrin
- possibly-legitimate blog posts that didn’t credit any sources which made me side-eye and look elsewhere looking for online
- a hundred sketchy sites that merely quoted Wikipedia in its entirety
I also noticed that the main source for the creature “quiquern” or “qiqern” was, in fact, The Jungle Books, so I’m reallyyyyyy questioning its existence.
I then took my search to where I should have begun it:
The library had a lot of books on Inuit history and culture, which are good and relevant, but not precisely what I was looking for. They had exactly one book with “Inuit Mythology” in the title, in kids’ nonfiction. They had many picture books that retold Inuit tales (or at least claimed to).
For those of you adrift on the same ice floe as me, I’m going to share the results on my search. Obviously, I came at this topic from a place of extreme ignorance; I did my best not to spread misinformation. If you have some great sources on Inuit mythology, hook me up. Otherwise, you can check out my sources at the end of this post.
Important fact: there are lots of different Inuit tribes, just like the Native Americans of North America, but in the broadest survey they’re divided into: Central Inuit, which is mostly super far northern Canada; Alaska Inuit; and Greenland Inuit. A lot of the folktales can only be found in one of the distinct geographical swathes.
Like other mythologies, Inuit folklore and tales are deeply rooted in their religious beliefs. The core of their belief is that everything has a soul. Once a person or animal dies, their soul becomes a spirit, and it’s REALLY IMPORTANT to keep the spirits happy. If you’re dealing with a good spirit, you want to befriend them. If you’re dealing with an evil spirit, you want to not piss them off. Angatoks, or shamans, interact and communicate with spirits the most.
Often a main character will get a seal-skin, or an ermine-hat, that will allow them to transform into that animal (or at least disguise themselves?) when needed. One boy gets a beluga canoe that can go really fast and underwater when needed. Sometimes these items rely on the animal’s goodwill, other times it isn’t mentioned.
Most of the folktales involve humans dealing with animal spirits, whether dead or alive. If you’re dealing with a dead animal, especially, you want to treat its body with care. If you killed it for food, for example, there are rules on how you skin it or treat it. You don’t want its spirit to come after you later.
Inuit folklore doesn’t have a single accepted creation myth. One thing I found interesting is that the Alaska Inuit have a lot of Raven stories, similar to Raven stories in other North America native mythologies. The Alaska Inuit have some stories about Sparrow and Raven being the first, and creating the earth by forming things out of clay, including people. Raven directs the first people to kill a giant sea monster and use pieces of the carcass to create more islands for them to live on.
The mythological figure that recurred the most in my search was Sedna. She is referred to sometimes as a sea goddess, sometimes as the mother of all sea creatures. She also possibly has some role in the afterlife: CANNOT CONFIRM. Her story is pretty dark: she starts out as a human girl. The version from Greenland has a loon who tricks her into marrying him by taking on human form. Once Sedna realizes what a mistake she’s made, her dad rescues her from the loon’s island, but the loon chases after and the dad realizes what a mistake HE made. He tosses Sedna into the ocean, but she holds tight to the boat, so he has to cut off her fingers one by one. She drowns and becomes the sea goddess; her fingers turn into sea creatures.
Greenland has a story about a girl who marries one of the “little people” or “gnomes” (it’s translated in different ways so I’m not sure of the exact connotation). The girl’s father has had to fight off a bunch of normal-human suitors because they’re jerks, but the gnome son-in-law wins him over and eventually the family gets to gloat a little over the girl’s previous suitors by sharing the food their gnome friend acquired for them.
Giants tend to be pretty nice dudes in these stories, rather than monsters and/or villains like I see them in other mythologies. One story I particularly loved (from the Bering Strait Inuit) is about a woman named Taku who escapes her abusive husband and befriends a giant named Kinak. Kinak looks after her for a while, and even after she returns to her husband, Kinak continues to look after her and, ahem, take care of anyone who makes her unhappy.
There are quite a few stories where family members or in-laws try to murder the main character. Women are scarce so sometimes a freeloading bachelor will come along and decide to murder her husband and “liberate” her. Another story has a boy go into some kind of berserker rage and, after killing his enemies, accidentally kills his grandmother as well. Usually the murderer or attempted murderer is punished in some way; often a murder will be “justified” because someone broke the rules of hospitality (as guest or as host).
“The Adventures of Kiviog” (Central Inuit) combines a few different common themes that I’ve touched on. The boy Kiviog is given a seal-skin by his mother, which he uses to go avenge the murder of his father (killed before Kiviog was born). After he’s completed that, he gets a little entangled with a witch, and uses his seal-skin to escape. He eventually marries a wolf-girl, who is in human form but is also a wolf???? but Kiviog’s wolfy mother-in-law gets super jealous and murders her daughter, and takes her skin as a disguise. Kiviog realizes what she’s done and escapes. If there’s a moral, I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of “humans and animals shouldn’t get too cozy.” It also implies that the treacherous wolf mother-in-law will starve to death, because she’s too weak to hunt her own food.
I’m still really ignorant of this branch of mythology but it was fun and stretching research Inuit stories. Again, if anyone can point me in the direction of some good sources, I would appreciate it.
Angutinngurniq, Jose. The Giant Bear: An Inuit Folktale. Inhabit Media, 2012.
Bial, Raymond. The People and Culture of the Inuit. Cavendish Square Publishing, 2016.
Christopher, Neil. On The Shoulders of a Giant: An Inuit Folktale. Inhabit Media, 2015.
Wolfson, Evelyn. Inuit Mythology. Enslow Publishers, 2001.