What Are the Major Elements of Inuit Mythology?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Inuit mythology is a deeply complex series of beliefs, images, and stories passed down among Inuit people for many generations. Like many mythological traditions, the major elements of Inuit mythology give insight into ancient cultural concepts and modern belief systems. Some of the important elements in Inuit mythology include animism, the importance of animals, the existence of multiple deities, and the presence of mythological creatures.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Animism suggests that non-human entities possess a soul or spirit equal to that of a human. This belief is consistent throughout Inuit mythology, with many of the principal characters in folk stories depicted as animals or animal spirits. The fact that Inuit people traditionally rely on the consumption of animals for survival is often a source of strife and fear in Inuit mythology. A frequently quoted concept from Inuit culture suggests that much of the peril of human existence arises from the contradictory, if necessary, practice, of deriving sustenance by eating other souls. Killing animals without reason or necessity is often presented as immoral, rendering the killer vulnerable to attack by the vengeful spirits of the dead.

The importance of animism leads to a heightened emphasis on animals in Inuit mythology. According to some versions of the Inuit creation myth, a powerful spirit called Raven is responsible for creating man and providing him with woman as a companion. Many folk tales involve human relationships with animals, including stories of intermarriages between animals and people. Animals aiding or hindering humans, and the transformation of humans into animals or vice versa, are also recurring elements in many popular folktales.

Extremely powerful spirits, or gods and goddesses, also play an important role in the folklore of the Inuit people. One unique principle of Inuit mythology is the absence of a parental or godhead figure. Unlike Greek mythology, in which the pantheon is ruled by Zeus and Hera, Inuit deities are not subject to a single head god. Instead, each god or goddess holds power over a specific part of nature or the natural world, serving as a protector and a patron of a chosen element. The names and roles of gods and goddesses may vary determining on the region, but frequently recurring deities include Sedna, goddess of the sea, and Malina and Anningan, the sibling rulers of the Sun and Moon.

The mythical beasts of Inuit folktales are frequently terrifying creatures, held responsible for many deaths, disappearances, and unexplained accidents. Popular manifestations include the wendigo, an amphibious, alligator-like creature said to hunt in lakes, delighting in the destruction of fishing implements. The qalupalik, a marine creatures similar to a mermaid, is famed for luring naughty children away to live under the waves. These ferocious creatures, often thirsty for human suffering, serve as a reminder of the savage powers of the natural world, and the incredibly harsh terrain of the polar region.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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