Greenland: The Legend of the Mother of the Sea – The story of Sedna

Greenland: The Legend of the Mother of the Sea – The story of Sedna

NordenBladet – The Mother of the Sea is a colorful and fantastic tale of how Greenland’s animals came to be – and reminds us of our responsibilities.

The Mother of the Sea was bothered by the Inuits’ evil deeds at the settlement and as a punishment gathered all the animals the Inuits used to hunt in her fiery hair at the bottom of the sea. When “The Blind One” came down to remedy the situation, he combed her hair, gathered the dirt in a heap and then threw it away.

At the same moment everything came alive, and there were bear, fox, hooded seal, bearded seal, ringed seal, harp seal, common seal, walrus, narwhal and all manner of birds.”

This is a passage from the legend of the Mother of the Sea, probably the most famous of all the Greenlandic myths and legends. The legend’s universe is colourful and fantastic, and the overall moral of the tale is that people must not be greedy and that they must observe society’s customs and the word of the shaman.

“The famous Greenlandic artist, Aka Høegh has used the legend of the Mother of the Sea to produce beautiful decorations and illustrations in books and in visual art. She has also used it as inspiration when decorating ships and not least in the large murals at the college in her home town of Qaqortoq.

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The story of Sedna

Sedna (Inuktitut: ᓴᓐᓇ Sanna, previously Sedna or Sidne) is the goddess of the sea and marine animals in Inuit mythology, also known as the Mother of the Sea or Mistress of the Sea. Sedna is also known as Arnakuagsak or Arnaqquassaaq (Greenland) and Sassuma Arnaa (“Mother of the Deep”, West Greenland) and Nerrivik (“Table”, northern Greenland) or Nuliajuk (District of Keewatin, Northwest Territories, Canada). She is sometimes known by other names by different Inuit groups such as Arnapkapfaaluk (“Big Bad Woman”) of the Copper Inuit from the Coronation Gulf area and Takánakapsâluk or Takannaaluk (Igloolik). In Killiniq, Labrador, she was referred to as “Old-woman-who-lived-in-the-sea”.The story of Sedna, which is a creation myth, describes how she came to rule over Adlivun, the Inuit underworld.

More than one version of the Sedna legend exists. In one legend Sedna is a giant, the daughter of the creator-god Anguta, with a great hunger that causes her to attack her parents. Angered, Anguta takes her out to sea and throws her over the side of his kayak. As she clings to the sides, he chops off her fingers and she sinks to the underworld, becoming the ruler of the monsters of the deep. Her huge fingers become the seals, walruses, and whales hunted by the Inuit.

In another version of the legend, she is dissatisfied with men found for her by her father and so marries a dog. Her father is so angry at this that he throws her into the sea and, when she tries to climb back into the boat, he cuts off her fingers. Her fingers become the first seals and she becomes a mighty sea goddess. When she is angered, the shaman travels to wash and comb her hair for her, after which she is placated and releases the animals to the hunters.

In the Netsilik region, the story states that Nuliayuk was a mistreated orphan. One day the people tried to get rid of her by attempting to drown her by chopping off her fingertips. But the fingertips would transform into seals and walruses. Eventually, Nuliayuk marries a sculpin and lives in the sea controlling all sea mammals.

Other versions of the legend depict Sedna as a beautiful maiden who rejects marriage proposals from the hunters of her village. When an unknown hunter appears, Sedna’s father agrees to give her to him as wife in return for fish. Sedna’s father gives Sedna a sleeping potion and gives her to the hunter who takes her to a large nest on a cliff, revealing his true form: a great bird-spirit (variously described as a raven, a fulmar or a Kokksaut/petrel-spirit). She wakes surrounded by birds. Her father attempts to rescue her, but the bird-spirit becomes angry, causing a great storm. In desperation, Sedna’s father throws her into the raging sea. Attempting to cling to the kayak, her hands freeze and her fingers fall off becoming the creatures of the sea. She falls to the bottom of the sea and grows a fishtail.

Sedna is kidnapped by a different bird creature in yet another version. Her father then leaves in his kayak to rescue her from the floating ice-island where she is imprisoned while the bird creature is away. The creature, enraged by her disappearance, calls to a spirit of the sea to help him. The sea spirit locates the kayak with the two humans aboard and creates huge waves to kill them. Her father throws Sedna overboard in the hope that this will appease the angry god. Sedna clings to the kayak but her father grabs a little ax and chops three of her fingers off before striking her on the head. The three fingers each become a different species of seal. The stroke to her head sends Sedna to the ocean floor where she resides, commanding the animals of the sea.

The varying legends each give different rationales for Sedna’s death. Yet, in each version, her father takes her to sea in his kayak, chopping off her fingers. In each version she sinks to the bottom of the sea, worshiped by hunters who depend on her goodwill to supply food. She is generally considered a vengeful goddess, and hunters must placate and pray to her to release the sea animals from the ocean depths for their hunt. At Killiniq, people threw worn-out harpoon-heads, broken knives, and morsels of meat and bone into the sea as offerings.



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