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Sedna, Mother of Sea Beasts

Sedna,Mother of Sea Beasts

The goddess Sedna appears in her most attractive form in this story. In her one-eyed guise, though, she was such a horrible sight that only a shaman or medicine man – called an ‘angakoq’ in the Inuit language – could bear to look at her.

They were gawky youths, milling around outside the igloo and being pests, so shy that they had come courting in a group. All hung back, teasing each other, pushing first one forwards then the next, no one daring to speak to the object of their dumb admiration. From what she could see, none of them was the least bit handsome, strong or prosperous and, as for wit, that didn’t figure in their scheme.

In those early days of creation, Sedna was regarded as the loveliest girl alive among the Inuit people. The attentions of all sorts of young men, both local and from far away lands, were nothing new to her and not particularly welcome. She could choose and so she felt it was within her rights to be choosy. It was only sensible.

“Go away,” she told them. “I would more gladly marry a dog than any of you.”

That was her favourite way of dismissing suitors, and she said it often to many disappointed young men.

“Oh, Sedna,” complained Angusta, her father, when she came back inside. “When will you meet someone good enough? I need help with the hunting. Ever since your mother died, it has only been the two of us. Would not a husband for you and a son-in-law for me be a fine thing?”

“What if I married one of the men from far away and went off  with him? How would you like that?”

“I would be lonely but if you such took a foreigner, at least I would only have to hunt for myself.”

“I’m not marrying just anybody,” she said firmly.

Time went by and still not a week or month passed without some fellow arriving to ask for Sedna’s hand, to awkwardly try to show off his prowess as a hunter or to moon around ineffectually. All were turned away with a flea in their ear. One or two of these suitors wished he were a dog so as to have stood a better chance, because she was so beautiful and spirited. Others were glad they were not dogs, and need not have a wife so sharp tongued and pitiless. Eventually the stream of suitors became a trickle.

“At least stop saying that about dogs,” her father advised. “We have a dog.” He patted their pet’s eager head and went on. “There is ugly talk that you have married it and that such a thing is bad luck and will bring bad luck on everyone.”

“Nonsense,” Sedna sniffed.

One day a handsome, mysterious young man came to their seaside dwelling. Dressed in furs and armed with an ivory spear, he was a striking figure. For some time however, he sat in his canoe, saying nothing, just riding the gentle waves, watching Sedna going about her chores. Finally, she faced him, hands on hips, ready to dismiss him. Then he spoke.

“You work hard for a beauty,” he said in rather a nice voice. “That is very good to see.”

“ But no good to you,” she replied. She did not turn away though, add a cutting remark or speak of a preference for dogs.

“Come away with me. Come to the land of the birds. Come with me to where you will never be hungry or cold. Where you will rest in my fine home on lush bear skins, your lamp will be ever filled with oil and the cooking pot always full of meat.” He seemed to sing to her rather than merely to speak.

“No thank you,” Sedna sneered before giving her habitual response. “I would rather marry …”

“A dog, I know. Everyone says so. But why not something else for a change?”

“What?” she exclaimed.

“Never mind, but I think you would like my country, if you would only come there. What fine ivory necklaces I would give you and …” He continued in melodical vein, painting such a wonderful picture of his home that in spite of herself Sedna became fascinated both by it and by the handsome stranger.

Gradually, as he talked she moved closer to the edge of the water and he paddled nearer too.

“So,” he concluded. “Will you come?”

“Why not?” Sedna shrugged. As she glanced in the direction of her home, her father appeared and looked curiously at her and the strange young man. “I’ll marry this one, then,” she shouted to him with a brief wave to him and the dog at his heels.

The stranger helped her into his canoe and they rowed way, leaving her father and the dog inconsolable. They would never again see her on the shores where their home stood and, despite everything, they had been fairly happy.

When, after a long time on the water, Sedna and her new husband came to the place he had so boasted of, she was shocked, though she had been subtly warned on the journey. Up close, once she was over her rather foolishly abrupt parting from her father, and the tears in her eyes had cleared, she could see that her husband was not the man she had thought he was. There was something not quite right about him and his possessions, even the canoe.

His home was a rocky island where nothing seemed to grow, where no animals could survive but the many squawking birds surrounding the place. The fine abode he had described was just a shabby hut of twigs and stones where no human could live. The furs were nothing but a few scraps of uncured animal hides.

She turned to him in anger and horror at his temerity, but her words froze in her throat. The handsome young man appeared even less human now. His shape was changing before her eyes, the human figure fading and the rather vague and ghostly image of a bird taking its place.

“You are a bird spirit,” she cried in anguish. “A Kokksaut.” That is what the Inuit call such creatures.

“Yes,” her husband squawked. “But I can look human, I will be a handsome man again for you in a moment. I will bring you good food, and just look at the home I have made for you.”  You have tricked me,” she said, sitting down on a rock and bursting into tears.

“I saw you first while I was flying and that is when I fell in love with your beauty.”

“With my beauty,” she muttered between sobs.

Of course the bird spirit did not know how people lived and Sedna was physically miserable on the desolate island. The scraps of carrion meat he brought were disgusting to her and the shelter was quite inadequate. Most of all she could not get used to her husband. Neither as himself nor in his guise as a vague and unreal man could she overcome her repugnance or her anger at the cruel trick he had played on her.

Now, Angusta had never got over the sudden departure of his daughter and missed her very much. One day he and the dog set off in a canoe to find her. People had seen where the young man had come from, more or less, far though it was and difficult to find. Eventually Angusta arrived to find Sedna utterly forlorn, lamenting her fate and delighted to see him. 

The bird spirit was away and, taking Sedna in his arms, Angusta carried her to his boat as the dog barked its greeting. Covering her with furs, he set off, paddling as fast as he could.

When the bird spirit returned and found Sedna gone and the marks where the canoe had been drawn up on the rocky beach, he took to the air again in search of her. Guessing what had happened, he knew which direction to go in and soon came within sight of Angusta’s canoe. Changing into his man-shape again some distance behind, the bird spirit paddled hard to catch up. As he neared the fugitives, he shouted for them to stop.

“Where is Sedna?” he cried. “Please let me see her.”

Angusta ignored him and rowed on as the bird spirit followed, calling out to Sedna. Finally he gave up and turned back into a bird, swooping on them, still crying out like a loon. Then he disappeared, flying up into the growing darkness where he caused the sea to become very rough and dangerous, throwing the boat about and frightening Angusta almost as terribly as the bird spirit himself had begun to do. The more he thought about what had happened the more he realized his offence. As the storm worsened, he knew he had made an enemy of the powers of nature.

In despair of his life, certain that it would bring bad luck on his people if he did nothing, and suspecting it was the fate of his beautiful daughter all along, he picked her up and threw her over the side of the boat.

“It must be,” he called to her in sorrow.

When Sedna, pale and in shock, came to the surface she reached up and clung to the side of the boat. The waves pulled at her, claiming her as she struggled to climb back into the craft.

Franticly her father beat at her hands, pried at her fingers and in the end chopped at them with a paddle. Sedna’s fingertips were cut off and for a moment she disappeared beneath the waves but then she kicked and swam up once more, clutching at the side of the boat.

Again Angusta struck with the paddle and now Sedna’s fingers were cut off at the second joint and she fell away under the sea. But then a third time she surfaced and held onto the boat with her bleeding hands. Flailing at them in near delirium while the dog shivered in the prow of the small boat, Angusta chopped off Sedna’s fingers at the knuckle.

Slipping for the last time beneath the waves, Sedna sank. But the severed bit of her fingers turned into new sea creatures even as she died a human woman. Her fingertips had become seals, the second joints ‘ojuk’ or deep-sea seals. The next joints caused walruses and whales to come into being.

With the sacrifice complete, the sea calmed and soon the boat reached the shore. Angusta tied Sedna’s dog to a tent pole and went inside. Horrified at what he had done, exhausted by his labours and by grief, he threw himself upon his bed and fell into not so much a deep sleep as unconsciousness.

Overnight there was an unusually high tide which came far up the shore and swallowed up the tent and everything in it. Thus Angusta and the dog were reunited with Sedna in the depths of the sea, where they still rule over the Adlivun, ‘those beneath us’. Here souls go after death to expiate the sins committed during life, for a period of time or for eternity, according to their deserts.

As the Spirit of the Sea and Mother of Sea Creatures, Sedna must be placated. This is not always easy as she has little regard for humans.An Angakoq, or shaman, must spiritually journey to her domain, confess the sins of men, beg forgiveness and comb the goddess’s hair, for with no fingers she cannot do this herself. This simple act of homage makes her feel better, and in return she will allow people to take some of her charges for food.

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