Inuit Cosmology

The Inuit peoples, who live (mainly) in the extreme north of Canada, occupy one of the most hostile and challenging environments in the world. Their communities, scattered over eight thousand kilometers (five thousand miles) from the eastern tip of Siberia eastward to the west coast of Greenland, seem to an outsider to represent outposts in a vast, icy wilderness. Yet to the Inuit themselves the Arctic tundra is a homeland—the central part of which now forms the Canadian territory of Nunavut—that for countless generations has provided a variety of resources deriving from both land and sea animals and is navigable by kayak and dog-drawn sled.

The survival of human communities in such an inhospitable environment seems, to most outsiders, nothing short of miraculous. How survival was achieved varied from place to place, according to the resources available. Thus for the central Inuit, living around Hudson Bay, subsistence needs had to be satisfied in very different ways during the two seasons of the year. Winters were traditionally spent in fixed coastal settlements, with sea mammals the main source of food and other essentials. Summers were traditionally spent in temporary camps while hunters followed the caribou herds and other land animals. This basic dichotomy is reflected in central Inuit people's conception of the structure of the world. So, too, are gender qualities. For example, women are regarded as belonging more to the sea, sea mammals, and the winter season, while men belong more to the land, land animals, and summer. Such principles determine the materials of which, say, hunting (male) and sewing (female) tools are made; they can also influence the orientations of male and female burials. Similar principles also extend to a number of perceived Other Worlds: the Land of the Moon Spirit, Birdland, and Belowsea Land. Belowsea Land, for example, is ruled by Sea Woman, while the night sky is a reflection of terra firma, where the male moon spirit drives his sled across smooth ice (clear sky) or through trickier snow fields (clouds).

As for numerous other indigenous peoples, sky myth and symbolism formed an integral part of Inuit understanding of the workings of the cosmos—knowledge that ensured well-being and, ultimately, survival. What makes the Inuit case particularly interesting is that they are one of the very few sets of human communities living at very high latitudes (the only others are in northern Scandinavia and parts of Siberia). Here, the appearance and behavior of the celestial bodies is distinctive in several ways. Many Inuit communities lie within the Arctic Circle, which means that there is a period around the summer solstice when the sun never sets, and around the winter solstice when it never rises. During the hours (and—around the winter solstice each year for those living north of the Arctic circle—the weeks) of darkness, whenever the skies are clear, the stars are seen to pass around the sky in circles only shallowly inclined to the horizontal, a great many of them never disappearing below the horizon.

The Sun and Moon Spirits are prominent in Inuit cosmology; the sun is female and the moon male. Yet the sun's role in Inuit myth is limited; by far the more important figure is the moon, her brother. Moon Man was widely seen as a benevolent and approachable spirit, a direct help in maintaining human life. This is scarcely surprising, since it is the principal luminary during the long, dark winter nights, especially prominent during those years (depending upon the lunar node cycle) when the winter moon would circle above the horizon each month for several days on end.

Observances to mark the winter solstice, or (above the Arctic Circle) to mark the first brief noonday appearance of the sun after the "great darkness," were certainly important. Great festivities lasting for many days have been recorded in Greenland, but in many other places they were rather subdued, since this is one of the most difficult times of the year. Children (symbolic of renewal) were often to the fore: in one custom, they would smile at the newly appeared sun, but only with one side of their face. This was to show that while warmer weather was now assured, the coldest part of the winter was yet to come. The summer solstice, in contrast, apparently was of little or no importance. Summer festivals recorded by early ethnographers tended to take place later in the season or as the first terrestrial signs (such as the formation of ice floes) heralded the onset of winter.

Traditionally, Inuit communities have named relatively few bright stars and constellations. They saw the majority generally as spirits of the dead or as "holes in the sky." Ursa Major is one distinctive group of stars that was widely recognized; it was seen variously as a herd of caribou or as a single animal. It was used for navigating and for marking time. Specific meanings, and the stories associated with them, most often attached to those brighter stars that were seen to set and rise again. Thus Sirius, which only appeared low in the southern sky in the middle of winter, and flickered brightly in different colors owing to atmospheric effects, was known by some Inuit peoples as the "fox star," and was seen as a red fox and a white fox fighting to get into the same foxhole. The annual patterns of appearance and disappearance of these stars were also used to mark times of the year.

The exceptional nature of the terrestrial environment in which they live has strongly influenced Inuit knowledge and beliefs, but so too has their exceptional sky. The extent to which their distinctive view of the positions and motions of the celestial bodies has given rise to characteristic aspects of Inuit cosmology is an issue about which little more may be knowable, but it highlights the wider cultural significance of the shreds of evidence that have survived concerning traditional Inuit sky knowledge.

See also:


Heliacal Rise; Moon, Motions of; Solstices. References and further reading

MacDonald, John. The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore and Legend. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum and Iqaluit: Nunavut Research Institute, 1998.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, 59-68. Loughborough, UK: Group D Publications, 1993.

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