Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jeudi: Great Spirits

Western Alaska is experiencing a pretty nasty storm right now.  I’m thankful to be on the outskirts of the weather but I’m thinking often of the battered coast of my state, where the sea, the ice, the wind and the cold can conjure up some pretty terrifying things.  Some of these things have come down to us as tales of the spirits of the north and one of the greatest of these is the Old Woman of the Ocean, Sedna.

The Inuit people tell us that Sedna was one of the most beautiful young women among them.  She lived in a comfortable home with her father Anguta (whose name means “he who has something to cut”) and men from all around her village came to court her with soft pelts and seafood.  Though Sedna could have her pick of a husband, she was seduced away by a minion of the trickster, Raven.  The bird promised her a life of luxury where she would never have to work another day and she flew off with him.

Instead of the warm, bearskin-lined hut she was promised, Sedna found herself keeping house in a filthy nest where she was exposed to the elements and forced to labor day and night.  When, after a year and a day, Anguta came to visit his daughter she fell before him in tears.  She apologized for leaving him and then told him of all the evils that her corvine mate had brought down upon her.  Anguta, moved by his daughter’s misery, bundled her up in his kayak and paddled for home under cover of night.

Unwilling to give Sedna up, her husband called upon his cousins and a host of bird-people chased after the girl and her father.  Anguta worked to escape but the birds were relentless and the cold, dark sea threatened to swallow him and his daughter alive.  As the bird-people closed in, Anguta threw Sedna into the sea.  Why he did this varies in different versions of the story; he was selfish and sacrificed her life for his own, he wished to save her from the revenge of her husband’s family, he planned to follow her into the murky depths.  Whatever the reason, Sedna would have none of it.  She clung to the boat desperately while her father, also in desperation, cut off first her fingers, then her hands, then her arms up to the elbows.  Finally he shoved her with his oar, mutilating one of her eyes, and she sank pitifully to the bottom of the icy sea.

There, Sedna underwent a miraculous transformation.  She was remade into a half-seal, half-woman whose regenerated arms, hands and fingers gave birth to all the fish and mammals of the sea.  She set up house in a palace made of whale ribs, made a companion in the form of an ugly and vicious dog-seal and called her kingdom Adlivun.  From here, she sent her sea-children to the shores to feed the humans who had once been her family.  Her father, Anguta, eventually joined her and became the harvester of the souls of those who died at sea.  These drown shades also lived with Sedna in Adlivun.

Sedna’s generosity had parameters, however, and the souls of her slaughtered sea-children would return to her to tattle on the humans if they broke her rules.  In such cases Sedna would bring her sea-children back to Adlivun and deny the humans their much-needed meat. 

When this happened, a skilled shaman would need to take up a trance and journey to Adlivun to beseech Sedna for their people’s lives.  He or she would meet many terrible challenges including the realm of those who died by drowning, a razor-sharp wheel of ice and Sedna’s terrifying dog.  If the shaman passed through each challenge successfully, he or she would be asked to ease the pain in Sedna’s arms and hands; the pain caused by the inappropriate killing of her sea-children.  Should the shaman succeed, Sedna might relent and allow the creatures over whom she held sway to return to the sight of men.

Among her people, Sedna was spoken of as Old Food Dish, the spirit who gave life or death depending on the unspoken contract long established between herself and the Inuit people.  Sedna is a favorite subject for Native Alaskan and Native Canadian art and her story is told and retold around stoves and in schools to this day.

Header: Sedna with a Mask by Alaska Yupik and Inupiaq artist Susie Silook c 1999


Timmy! said...

Cool story. Nice to see a Native Alaskan post, Pauline.

Pauline said...

I like this one a lot; it's nice to think that the sea critters have someone looking after them.