Has a story ever moved you in such a way you feel changed upon hearing it?
Has a myth or wonder tale ever worked a subtle magic leaving you with the feeling that the world is somehow different?
It’s happened to me a few times…hence I’m asking the question.
The tale of ‘Jumping Mouse’ set me off on my storytelling journey. The ‘Birth of Ossian’ felt like it spoke directly to my soul. ‘The Bird Who Gifted Fire’ is a story that anchors me in the best of Scottish culture. The “man who entertained bears’ carried me through one winter.
Yet the story I feel having the most vivid impact on me is an Inuit tale of Sedna, the ocean goddess. When I found that story something inside me changed. Something came alive that had been dormant before. It awakened something old and almost forgotten.
When I found ‘Sedna’ I was shocked. (Be warned, it’s pretty rough!) Yet somehow I was satisfied by the treachery and the absolute disruption of my expectation. I realised I was delighted by stories that surprise me, and that these old tales can do just that. I love stories that I could never make up myself, that could not be created from a modern mind. To witness patterns of the psyche that arose pre-industrialisation is a joy. Hunter gatherer psyche. A human imagination in close contact with the earth.
Sometimes the modern world is too predictable, the ‘happily ever after’ tales too contrived. Sometimes they are comforting. Surely they have their place, yet it doesn’t pay to sugar coat everything. That’s not how life is…or my life anyway. Maybe it’s the fatalistic Highlander in me that yearns for a good, harsh dose of ancient, Inuit mytho-poetic reality every now and again. How about you?
In these lands it does not pay to always expect things to go well. The cold can kill. Hunger can kill. The wild ocean can kill. How do we hold such brutal truths alongside the light and joy of living? Story is one such container that lets us feel dark and light from the safety of the fireside.
Time to kindle a flame. Utter a few words in the old tongue.
But what of Sedna?
This brief telling is based on the version I found. As always, trying to hear it from the people who traditionally told it is best. Furnish the imagery with learning about the people and ecology of the far north. Maybe offer a nod of respect in their direction.
But for now, here is a version of the tale that lit a fire in my mind that still glows.
Sedna was the most beautiful girl in the village. Raven black hair, eyes ocean deep, cheeks rosy as blood on snow.
Many men came to court her but she wasn’t keen on any of them. These local boys bored her. Her father became worried, “Sedna, I am getting old. I cannot hunt forever. You must find a husband and start your own family.”
She was in no hurry to do so.
Until one day a man crossed the sea by canoe. He was dressed in fine furs and wore walrus tusk sunglasses. He looked exotic and sounded extraordinary. When he sang it was enchanting. His voice carried like wind sweeping across the tundra, it rose from his belly like the growl of the great white bear. It was sweet and sharp as summer berries. In his courtship song he promised many things; a warm home laden with soft furs, meat to eat every day. How could Sedna resist?
She fell instantly for this bold stranger. Her father’s delight eclipsed the disappointment of the local lads. Sedna was married. There was celebration, feasting, ritual, blessing, games. Then she left with her new husband across the sea.
The first sign of foreboding was when they landed on a rocky storm-swept island. “Why are we landing here?”, “This is where we will stay”, she was told.
She clambered after her nimble husband, ascending rocks until they came to a ledge furnished with sticks, branches and moss in a wide circle. “This will be our home.” her husband stated.
It wasn’t quite what she’d imagined. She huddled that first night under tough walrus skin blankets. The next day her husband went to get food, returning with fish. He ate them raw. She did likewise.
This was her new life. Living atop a cliff, eating fish each day, with her strange husband. The sheen of her hair became dull, her eyes misty with disappointment.
One day he returned from fishing and tripped on the rim of the nest. His walrus tusk glasses fell off and for the first time she saw into his eyes. They were small, beady and black. She was aghast!
“What ugly bird’s eyes you have!” she spat. Her repulsion delighted her husband who proceeded to remove his clothes. For the first time she saw him truly, under his boots were flat webbed feet, under his jacket, long grey feathers, and as he removed his hood she saw a long nobbled beak protruding from his face.
“Aja, I’ve married a fulmar, the ugliest of gulls!” she exclaimed. He threw his head back, opened his beak and let out a long cackling laugh. She had made the choice, she was stuck with it. She was his wife, whether human or not.
The next day as her Fulmar husband went fishing she spent the day weeping, calling out on the wind, “Aja, Aja, Father I have made a poor choice. Aja, Father help me?’
Anguta, her father was hunting when he heard the call. He dropped everything. He readied his canoe and paddled across the sea following the distant call of his daughter’s voice.
When he came to the island Sedna was waiting by the shore. “Father, let’s go quickly. My husband the fulmar will be back soon.”
And so they turned and paddled. Sedna told her strange tale of hardship.
Anguta’s eye kept darting to the horizon as her tale unfolded.
“What is that?” he asked, pointing in the distance. As the speck came closer they made out the long wings, the grey feathers, the angry squawking beak.
Soon the fulmar husband was above them screeching down, demanding his wife return. “Never!”, father and daughter cried in unison.
The fulmar became angry. He flapped his wings heavily, causing waves to rise and the boat to rock treacherously in the water. As he beat his wings storm clouds gathered and the wind picked up. The fulmar called up a storm. The sea frothed and foamed.
As the boat lurched in the swelling water and the risk of death became real, fear gripped Anguta’s heart. He called above the howling wind and swirling waters, “Maybe you should go with him, you chose to marry him!”, “Father! I can’t, I won’t”, “You must or we will both die.”
Sedna was aghast at her father’s suggestion, she flatly refused.
Fearing for his life, Anguta grabbed her and tossed her overboard, landing with a splash in in the frigid waters. “Have her.” he called to the shrieking Fulmar.
The ocean was ready to claim her first. Ice cold it gripped her, stole her breathe, weighed down her clothes. Somehow Sedna grabbed hold of the side of the canoe, pulled herself alongside, “Father!”, she pleaded.
Anguta’s mind was made up, he tried to prise her fingers from the canoe, but she clung on for dear life.
Anguta reached into his hunting bag. He took out his knife and cut the tips of her fingers on each hand. They each fell into the sea, as they drifted down they became seals.
Sedna cried out, still she gripped with bloody hands. Arguta cut again, the rest of her fingers fell into the sea and became walrus.
Somehow she still held on and as he cut her hands, they fell into the sea and became the whales. Sedna fell down with them.
She fell down, down, down to the bottom of the ocean. All the way down to the underworld.
In time she became the goddess of the ocean. She was an angry goddess, and who can blame her! She commanded the sea and all of the sea creatures. She could give life and take it away.
When the sea was stormy and it was difficult to hunt and get food, it was because Sedna was angry. She became angry when the people hunted and did not respect the spirits of the animals they killed. In such cases a shaman would need to visit her world through trance and appease her. Make offerings, understand ways of living in better balance.
One way of appeasing Sedna was to comb her hair, seeing as she has no hands, she couldn’t do it herself anymore. To Combe her hair would release the animals. If she was appeased, then the sea would calm and people could hunt again.
In some places, this dance of life still goes on. Rare places, precious places.
“She still dwells at the bottom of the northern ocean.
That woman down there beneath the sea,
She wants to hide the seals from us.
These hunters in the dance house,
They cannot mend matters.
They cannot mend matters.
Into the spirit world
Will go I,
Where no humans dwell.
Set matters right will I.
Set matters right will I.”
(verse from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)
That’s the story of Sedna…or at least one version. There are many others equally beguiling.
I’m not qualified to talk about the cultural meaning of this story. It feels a bit edgy and out of my depth to even tell it. I do know that it moved me in a profound way though.
When I hear this story I don’t find myself looking for the meaning. This is no Aesop’s Fable. It is wild and old and just coming into contact with it is enlivening. There’s something in its fabric that I yearn for, something I feel starved of. This story has not arisen in the modern mind, there is an ancient, harsh patterning to it. Although I love it, I’d rather meet such patterns first in story, rather than real life.
Northern myths often have a harsh gravity to them. It’s why I like them. I’ve been through enough Scottish winters to sense their truth, especially if I cast my imagination back a generation or two. With a father who grew up on a windswept Sutherland croft, I’ve heard tales that tell me I’m only a generation away from people with lived knowledge that starvation comes close and winter claims lives.
In many ways, modern life is comfortable, our senses can afford to become dull and disconnected from natural patterns and cycles. Yet if the electricity goes out any time soon, the bite of winter will seem real again. That edge can bring out the best in people, or the worst. I’m drawn again to the end of the story and left to wonder.
So that’s it. A wee musing on an Inuit tale that for some reason stays with me, alive amongst all the others.
I’d love to hear of the tales that have stuck with you, moved you or even changed you somehow? Leave a comment if you’ve got one to share.
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