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Sedna

SEDNA

SEDNA . The concept of an owner, or master, of the animals appears in many hunting and fishing societies. For the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada and Greenland, for whom sealing was of vital importance, this powerful being was the mistress of seals and other sea animals. Franz Boas, in his monograph about the Inuit on Baffin Island (1888), gave her name as Sedna, which probably means "the one down there." Other Inuit groups referred to the Sea Woman under different names, such as Nerrivik (Polar Inuit, "the place of the food") and Nuliajuk (Netsilik Inuit, "the lubricious one").

An origin myth tells how Sedna was once a girl who was thrown overboard from a vessel. While she tried to hang on, her fingers were cut off at the joints. She sank to the bottom of the sea, the segments of her fingers turning into sea mammals, and she became the Sea Woman, who was in control of these animals. According to some Iglulik Inuit and Baffin Islanders, she also ruled over the souls of those who had gone to the undersea land of the dead.

Variants of this myth have been recorded from many localities in Greenland and Canada, but from Alaska only a single reference exists. In some variants an orphan girl is thrown overboard, but more often the myth begins with the story of a girl who was fooled into marrying a petrel that had taken on human form. When her father tried to rescue his unhappy daughter and to take her away, the petrel pursued them and stirred up a heavy storm. The father tried to pacify the petrel by throwing his daughter overboard. When she tried to cling to the side of the boat, her father cut off her fingers at the first joint. Her fingertips fell into the sea and became small seals. When she again grasped the side of the boat, her father cut off her fingers at the next joint; these segments fell into the sea and became big, bearded seals. When she still clung to the side of the boat with the stumps of her fingers, her father cut them off at the last joint, and these segments turned into walruses. Sometimes the order of the creation of the sea animals is different, with whales being created first (the girl's nails are associated with baleen), followed by small seals and bearded seals.

In some variants the girl's father forces her to marry a dog because she has refused to marry. Her children become Indians, white people, and so on. In this way the mother of the sea animals is made the mother of men as well; as such, she represents the female principle of the world.

According to Inuit belief, the Sea Woman had the power to withhold the sea animals when certain hunting, birth, and death taboos had been broken. In Greenland it was told that the transgressions would materialize as dirt in the Sea Woman's hair, making her feel uncomfortable; because she had no fingers, she was unable to comb her hair. During a séance, the shaman, whose job it was to rectify this situation, would undertake a journey to the Sea Woman while the others attending the séance would sit silently in the darkness. Before the shaman could comb Sedna's hair he had to fight her. Afterward, she would set the sea animals free, and the shaman would returnthat is, wake from his tranceand make the good result known.

In Greenland, ritual wife-exchanges were sometimes held in order to please the Sea Woman and to ensure good hunting, but otherwise the Sea Woman's ritual role was less important there than in Canada, even if myths about shamans' dangerous travels to her undersea house were well known.

In Canada, powerful shamans would draw the Sea Woman up and make her promise to send seals, or the shamans would themselves visit her in the sea. Among the Copper Inuit a shaman might be possessed by the Sea Woman and during a séance tell what caused the lack of seals. Then the participants would quickly admit the taboos they had broken. The dangerous situation was neutralized when its cause was made known.

The Inuit on Baffin Island held great feasts, lasting several days, in which Sedna was ritually killed. These calendar feasts took place in the autumn when sealing was prevented by storms that broke the ice open. Sedna was harpooned through a coiled thong on the floor, which represented a seal's breathing hole. A shaman followed her and stabbed her, thereby cleansing her of the transgressions of taboos that had taken place the previous year (and thereby securing that she no longer would withhold the sea animals). When the lamps were lit again after the séance, blood was seen on the harpoon point and the knife; the blood was an omen of good hunting in the future.

One of the rites that took place as part of the Sedna feast at this change of season was a tug-of-war between those born in the summer and those born in the winter. The result predicted the weather. During the Sedna feast of Baffin Island, normal social bonds were temporarily dissolved when a ritual wife-exchange took place under the leadership of disguised figures representing spirits. These figures were later ritually killed and then revived with a drink of water in the same way as killed seals were given a drink.

Seals and other sea animals were the basis of the existence of nearly all Inuit. The relationship with the Sea Woman was therefore important but very sensitive: she not only controlled these animals, they originated from her.

Bibliography

The classic description of the Sedna cult on Baffin Island is to be found in Franz Boas's The Central Eskimo (1888; reprint, Lincoln, Nebr., 1964). Boas has also published the only reference to the Sea Woman by Inuit from Alaska in his article "Notes on the Eskimo of Port Clarence, Alaska," Journal of American Folklore 7 (1894): 205208. Erik Holtved analyzed the variants of the Sea Woman myth through the use of the historical-geographical method in his article "The Eskimo Myth about the Sea-Woman: A Folkloristic Sketch," Folk 8/9 (19661967): 145153. A structural analysis of the myth can be found in Rémi Savard's piece "La déesse sous-marine des Eskimos," in Échanges et communications: Mélanges offerts à Claude Lévi-Strauss, vol. 2, edited by Jean Pouillon and Pierre Maranda (The Hague, 1970), pp. 13311355. John F. Fisher's article "An Analysis of the Central Eskimo Sedna Myth," Temenos (Helsinki) 11 (1975): 2742, includes a summary of previous analyses of the Sedna myth.

Inge Kleivan (1987)

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