BY DEREK NORTON
(as told to Kate, when she was very young)
When the Inuit want to tell a story about the old days – and I mean the really old days, back before there was anything but the sun, the moon, and the stars. This is when the earth was just getting started, so they say, “ In the first days…” This is one of those stories, so…
“In the first days, when the world was young and people and animals could still talk to one another, there was a great hunter who had a lovely daughter. The hunter really wanted his daughter to marry and have children, so when they grew up they could help him in his old time when he could not hunt anymore. This is the Inuit way.
Their daughter, though, did not want to marry just anyone. She wanted to find a husband she could love. This was alright with her father at first, but she seemed so choosy that finally he grew very angry. When he could stand it no longer, he arranged to have his daughter married to this man who lived alone on an island. Now some say this man was a dog-person… and some say that he was a powerful shaman, or sorcerer.
Now shamans were very weird people, often running around talking like animals and with walrus tusks sticking out of their mouths. Not everyone liked them because they were very, very different. These days, there are people who we think are “crazy”, mainly because we have a difficult time understanding their actions. The Inuit, though, always thought that these people were somehow “touched” with a great life spirit. Thinking this did not mean that they liked the “crazies” any better… actually, having this much power so close to them often made them a bit nervous. So when a shaman would go travelling, he or she would sometime hear of these children who maybe had the power. Because they were frightened, the parents would sometimes sell the children to the shaman and sometimes the shaman would simply steal them away!
The shaman would then train the child to know the old ways. This meant learning the speech of animals; and learning the old tongue from the time before. The apprentice was also taught the entire history of the world, because he had to be able to tell it to others later. And the shaman would teach what herbs had healing powers and how to fix broken bones, because the shaman was a doctor too. All this took years and years before finally, and this is the part we’ve all been waiting for, the young shaman was taught the old dances and ceremonies and, of course, magic.
Now I’ve been talking away here and meanwhile poor Sedna is being married off to the shaman on the island and she really doesn’t want to be… and what’s more, besides being a shaman, her husband turns out to be a very, very cruel man. Sedna is terribly unhappy living on her island – it was a long and very lonely winter for her.
At long last, summer came and the ice melted. The world began to grow again and Sedna’s family came to visit in the big boat – the ‘umiak’. They came for a whole month or so – and had parties and Sedna was so glad to see them that she simply could not imagine that it was going to be like after they left. So she decided, in secret, that she would leave with them.
She knew her husband would be terribly angry if he learned of this planned escape, so she waited to the absolute last moment before her family sailed away… and ran down the beach and jumped into the boat. Seeing this, the husband grew very angry… his eyes became terribly, terribly dark, and he started to mutter strange things to himself. Of course, we don’t quite know what he had to say because he was cursing away in the old tongue which nobody speaks anymore… but let’s say the air was fairly blue around that island that day and leave it at that!
Finally he stormed up to the top of the hill and, after much hocus-pocus and calling upon spirits, he changed himself into a huge bird. And he went in search of the boat with a heart as black as thunder.
When he caught up with the umiak he swooped down and circled around and around and around and caused such a storm with his wings that the family got very frightened. Fearing the boat was going to sink, and thinking only of saving themselves, they grabbed Sedna and threw her overboard. The water was dark and very, very cold and poor Sedna clung on to the side of the boat. The father and brothers were desperate, and took their knives and hacked away at her fingers trying to make Sedna let go. A very strange thing happened… as her fingers fell into the ocean they became the fishes, the seals, the walrus, and the whales! Of course, this was all too peculiar at the time, and it certainly didn’t help Sedna any… for with no fingers to hang on with, she gave up and slid down into the deep, dark water.
But that’s not the end of the story, for something most wonderous happened down there in the cold deep… Sedna did not drown. Somehow she changed from being a girl into a half-woman, half-fish! And she became very, very powerful – she did not need to fear her cruel husband anymore, or anyone else, for that matter.
The Inuit think that Sedna became the god of the sea… actually, because she’s a woman, she is properly called a goddess. She controls everything under the ocean, and all the sea creatures obey her because they are really part of her – remember her fingers!
The Inuit also think that Sedna can see them when they are out on the ice hunting. So when a hunter is crouched over the breathing hole waiting for a seal to surface so he can catch him, he feels that Sedna is watching him closely to see what sort of man he is – does he observe all the laws? Does he have proper respect? Because you know, there are many, many chinks in the ice that the seals use to come up for air… how come that seal comes to that particular breathing hole? Well, it’s because Sedna has decided this hunter is a good man- and presents him with the seal. So the hunter’s job is to catch the seal as quickly and as cleanly as possible and to let the soul of the seal go back to the seal, to Sedna, to be reborn. He is left with the body of the seal- which gives him his meat and the seal-oil for his lamps. This is his present from Sedna.
The Sedna story is the same in Arctic Canada as it is in Greenland, Lappland, Alaska, and Siberia. Her name, Sedna, or sometimes ‘Taleyayo’, means ‘bringer of food’, ‘giver of food’, and sometimes food itself.
But even though she is now a goddess and ruler of the sea, Sedna is still the very lonely woman she was before. She would still like a husband to share her domain with. Some nights, as the wind speaks, she comes to the edge of the ice and sings her song. A beautiful, terrible, haunting song it is too, and hunters who have, perhaps, been out on the ice too long are hypnotized by it. Out, out onto the dangerous ice they go and try to find who is singing such a sad and beautiful tune – but men cannot live where the lonely Sedna lives – and they drown.
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