Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sedna, a Dark Tale For Winter Solstice

For this blog, I will travel north, far above the lands of the Athabascan peoples, into the land of the Inuit.

Sedna is the Inuit goddess of sea creatures, of primary importance to the Inuit people whose food source was the seal, fish, and whales which once abounded in the Arctic Ocean. Her story is a dark one, filled with mixed signals for any modern reader, especially if raised on cleaned-up versions of these often strange and bloody stories. 

Every human group created these origin tales in ancient times, and what is now formally designated “mythology” comes from stories told around campfires where small family groups rested after their daily struggle to survive in a world which seemed indifferent to their presence.   The Inuit, like other northern human groups, were nomadic people who followed the game that they relied upon for food, clothing, and shelter. They hunted along the sea shores and across the ice.

Men and women filled different roles in this society—the men hunting and making tools, the women doing almost everything else. Sedna is supposed to have been both beautiful and accomplished. This meant she would have been able to clean what the men caught, prepare food from the flesh and prepare hides and gut to make clothing, containers and shelter. 

There are many versions of this story, but Sedna is supposed to have rejected all the suitors who came to her. Her father, tiring of this, (or food had grown scarce--depends upon which tale you read) told his daughter that the next young hunter who came looking for a wife would become her husband. And sure enough, almost at once a handsome stranger presented himself, one who promised to be a good provider and give Sedna furs, warm blankets and plenty of food, both fish and meat.   

Sadly, after Sedna went away with him, her new husband stripped off his human disguise and revealed that he was not a man at all, but a Fulmar. Instead of a warm home, she was expected to live in a rocky stinking nest and eat nothing but raw fish. The nest stank because the Northern Fulmar has a reservoir of oily nasty smelling fluid in its gut, which it can spray at will upon the birds which prey upon it, or upon men at sea who anger it.

When her father at last came to visit, he found Sedna in despair. Angry, and frightened too, that this shape-shifter had taken his daughter away under false pretenses, he waited beside her on the windy  rocks. When the Fulmar returned at night, and while he was still in his bird shape, the older man killed him. He and his daughter fled in a skin boat, but the other Fulmars, learning of what had happened, pursued them.

With their mighty pelagic magic, the Fulmar raised a great storm. The father, now fearing for his life, decided to save himself. He pushed Sedna overboard into the icy Arctic water, hoping that the Bird Spirits would be appeased. When Sedna tried to climb back into the boat, he chopped off her fingers so she could not hang on. As her fingers and blood fell into the water they became seals and whales and walruses and all the other mammals of the sea.

Sedna, transformed in this great storm of magic which surrounded her, sank to the bottom of the ocean, the Adlivum, which is the Inuit underworld. Here, in a new fish-tailed, flipper-handed form, she now rules both the dead and the wide ocean, giver of all life. It is Sedna ("The One Down There") that Inuit Shaman call upon for help when game is scarce and the people are starving. In trance, they descend into the watery darkness to visit her, to soothe her by combing her hair and massaging her wounded hands. They beg her to release the sea mammals who hide in her hair.
Sophia Kelly Shultz-explore her magical artwork here

What can we make of this ancient story? Here we have a female heroine who commits the sin of pride, who suffers and dies, and is transformed. She becomes Mother Ocean, sometimes angry, sometimes peaceful. When she is happy she sends her animals, to feed the people. If people disrespect her, she will withhold her gifts; if children do not listen to their elders and play in dangerous places on the sea ice, she is likely to snatch them away, down into the dark underworld.  

At her most abstract, Sedna reminds us, we spiritual travelers, that there are "nourishing gifts to be found in the dark, cold places that we most fear."*

*Goddesses Knowledge Cards of Susan Eleanor Boulet, text by Michael Babcock  

~Juliet Waldron

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1 comment:

  1. What an interesting read. My husband traveled to Inuvik a number of years ago for business and came home with a soap stone carving entitled "Sedna and Friends". It's two sided - on one side is a human face and a whale, and on the other side a mermaid and a seal. Now I know the story behind it! :)