Authored by: Nicole Fletcher on April 1, 2013
One of my favourite aspects of Inuit art is the fantastic stories that artists pass along through their artwork. Understanding these legends definitely adds to the beauty of the artworks that they are inspired by.
The most powerful spirit in Inuit shamanistic belief system is commonly known as Sedna, Taleelayuk, or Nuliayuk. Her story and name varies between different areas of the Arctic but the theme remains the same. Here is one version of the story:
Sedna was a beautiful girl who lived alone with her father. She believed that she was too beautiful to marry an average man so she continually turned down suitors. Eventually, her father told her that she must marry the next man that proposes since he was no longer able to provide for them both.
A few days later, an elegantly dressed but mysterious hunter visited their camp. The man approached Sedna’s father about marrying Sedna. Sedna’s father was suspicious of the hunter because he hid his face, however he was reassured by the man’s well-to-do attire. After much protest, Sedna boarded the hunter’s kayak and journeyed to her new home. The couple arrived at a barren rocky island after a tiring voyage. Sedna was astonished as she noticed that there was no campsite or village to be found. As she walked ashore the hunter laughed ominously as he unmasked himself, revealing that he was actually a kakoodlak, or a bird of the storm.
Sedna was terrified and she wept and called her father’s name. The strong winds carried Sedna’s pleas back to her father. Her father felt guilty for forcing her to marry and causing Sedna so much pain so he decided to rescue her.
When Sedna’s father arrived at the remote island, Sedna was waiting for him on shore. She jumped into his kayak and they paddled away. The kakoodlak was furious when he discovered that Sedna had escaped with her father. In a rage, the kakoodlak flew off in search of Sedna and her father. He soon caught up with them and flapped his wings feverishly creating a raging storm with huge waves that threatened to capsize the kayak. Terrified, Sedna’s father threw Sedna overboard in hopes that the kakoodlak would be appeased. Sedna flailed in the icy water but managed to grasp the edge of the kayak. However, Sedna’s father beat at her hand with a paddle, chopping off Sedna’s fingers. Tired and injured, Sedna drifted to the bottom of the sea.
Sedna’s severed fingers morphed into seals, whales, and other sea creatures as they sank to the ocean floor and Sedna transformed into a powerful sea goddess who rules over all life in the sea. The Inuit know to treat Sedna with respect because she will offer them abundance when she is happy but if offended, she will withhold food and bring starvation.
Sedna is usually depicted as a mermaid-like being, half-fish and half-woman. While viewing the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s collection of Inuit art, try to find as many depictions of Sedna as possible and notice the differences between each artist’s representation. What other Inuit legends are you familiar with?
If you would like to know more about Inuit art, stop by for a drop-in tour of Creation & Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art on April 7 or 14.