The Arctic

The Arctic Islands were settled by the Aleut, and by 1000 a.d., their relatives, the Inuit ("people"), had extended from the Bering Sea to Greenland. Of course, the Eurasian Arctic was settled long before this, and the cultures along the Arctic circle are closely similar.

Notwithstanding the long periods of sunlight and twilight (nine months of the year!), bright aurorae, and frequent episodes of light snow and haze, there is a lively body of Inuit astronomical lore. Recent studies by John MacDonald (1998) provide for the first time a substantial summary of the astronomical interests of the Inuit and related groups. MacDonald received information from 28 named elders as well as citing many published studies.

MacDonald (1998, p. 14) points out that the Inuit have only 16 or 17 named constellations, or, more appropriately, asterisms, including ~33 individual stars among them. Groupings of stars are identified as inanimate objects and humans or animals as individual stars. The constellations among various groups are briefly summarized in Table 13.3, derived from MacDonald (1998) and sources cited therein. We have arranged them according to counterclockwise order around the pole. Of special interest are the names given to Sirius. One of these is "red fox and white fox," alternately trying to get down the same hole. Another is "flickering or pulsating" as a candle flame, which MacDonald associates, reasonably, with seeing effects. Although the "pulsating" and "red fox and white fox" designations invoke a strongly scintillating bright star near the horizon, the mysteries surrounding Sirius (cf. §5.8.4) permit an entirely different interpretation.

According to MacDonald, the Inuit did not really distinguish among the planets, which they referred to as Ullursi-aqjuat ("great stars"). The singular of this word (Ulluriaqjuat) may have been applied to both morning and evening appearances of Venus, although other groups seem to have had separate designations for the two apparitions; for example, in Greenland, one of the names for Venus was Seqernup maleruarta, "Sun's follower," appropriate only for its evening appearance.

The Igloolik Inuit name for the Milky Way, Aviguti, "divider," is simliar in West Greenland. In Labrador and Northern Quebec, it is kopput, "Stripe" or "streak"; in the area of the Bering Strait, it is kopput, "the track," made by Raven's snowshoes as he "walked across the sky"; among the Yup'ik Inuit, it is Tanglurallet, deriving from "snowshoe," and among the Norton Sound Inuit, it was recorded in the 1840s as Tangukhuatlyat, recorded as the name for the Milky

Table 13.3. Constellations among Arctic groups.




Aagjuuk (I)a Aassu(u)tit (G) Peggiyttyn (C) Akuttujuuk (I) Akuttut (G) Kingulliq (I) (A, E) Sivulliq (I) Sivulliik (I) Kingulliq (I) Nanurjuk (I) Qimmiit (I) Sakiattiak (I) Kaguyagat (I) Siqupsiqat (A) Qillugtussat (G) Nuutuittuq (I) Qitirarjuk (CE) Ursuutaattiaq (I) Pituaq (I)

Quturjuuk (I) Sikuliarsiujuittuq (I)

Singuuriq (I) I-gha-lum ki-mukh- ti (B) Kajuqtuq Tiriganniaglu (N) Singoreq (R)

Ubluriakjuak/Udluriaralu (H) Tukturjuit (I) Ullaktut (I) Qangiamariik (I)


Constellation appearing on shortest day

Bringer of the New Yearb

"Those placed far apart";season indicator'

"(Big) one behind" or "second one"

"One in front" (relative to Vega) "Two in front"

"One behind" (in reference to a legend)

"Having spirit of a polar bear"

"Dogs" (attacking Nanurjuk)


"Red fox"


"Baying dogs"

"Never moves"

"Spinal chord?"

"Sealskin oil container"

"Lamp stand"

"Collarbones"; time indicator in late winter Legendary character: "the one who never goes onto the newly formed sea-ice" "Flickering" or "pulsating" as a candle flame "The Moon's dog" "Red fox and white fox" "Pulsating" "Big star" "Caribou" "Runners"

"Nephews" or "nieces"

a Boo (Arcturus) a + h Boo b Ori (Rigel) a Tau (Aldebaran) Hyades Pleiades a UMa (Polaris)

"W" of Cassiopeia a + ß + g Cas (leading

"V" of the "W") a+ß Gem + a+ß Aur a CMi (Procyon)

a CMa (Sirius)

Big Dipper Orion's Belt M42 (Orion Nebula)

a Code: A = Point Barrow, Alaska; B = Bering Strait; CE = Caribou Eskimo (Hudson Bay, NWT); C = Chukchi;E = East Greenland; G = Greenland;^ = Hudson Bay;/ = Igloolik, NWT; Co = Coppermine, NWT; R = Repulse Bay, NWT. b First appearance on the NE horizon near the winter solstice. c When seen in daytime, it is a sign that the days are getting longer.

Way. Among the Alaska Nunmaiut, it was a celestial river.

The spiraling motions of the Sun and Moon are celebrated in a myth remininscent of that of the Tlingit discussed earlier (§13.4). The sister is abused by her brother; she eventually catches him at it, and he chases her around in circles until they ascend to the sky, where she becomes the Sun and he the Moon.

This completes our survey of the astronomies of North and Central America. We next examine the astronomy of the cultures of South America.

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