Lessons for today from Inuit myths of the past | book reviews
Perhaps in this difficult time we have found ourselves in, a look back at ancient mythology can offer some guidance. The virus that has upended the lives of every human being on our planet reminds us that we as humans are not immune to the forces of nature.
A global culture that grew out of the liberating idea of individualism has hampered our ability to treat nature as a collective species. The battles over how to approach calamity hinge on the debate between those who seek to find a balance with nature and those who prefer to embrace the individual at all costs, including death. The balance between these competing impulses seems impossible to achieve.
Mythology is often based on the understanding of this enigma. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the seemingly worldwide mythological trope of the hero’s journey, a concept popularized in modern culture by the late Joseph Campbell.
Campbell’s theories have been the subject of much criticism, but they present a valid approach to understanding mythology and, in doing so, finding that elusive balance.
The hero sets off alone into a mythical landscape to discover himself, experiences a series of magical events, and returns home to rediscover the culture left behind and his place in the universe.
These are some of the thoughts I had while reading ‘The Owner of the Sea’, a new interpretation of three cycles of Inuit myths by Richard Price, an award-winning British poet. The stories themselves are ancient, passed down orally across millennia, and only in the last century brought to light by Westerners, including the famous northern explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen. Drawing inspiration from these English translations, Price translated the stories into verse form in a book that finds the wisdom of the present in the distant past.
The book contains three captions. The first bears the same title as the book itself and tells the story of Sedna, the goddess of the sea. It is basically a creation myth that explains how the world the Inuit knew before the contact with the West has emerged. How it was populated. Why creatures behave the way they do.
Like all gods in mythology, including the one found in the Bible, Sedna is prone to rapid mood swings, offering punishments and rewards, and treating humans alternately with great kindness and kindness. with love, or with indifference and even disdain. This is how the world treats us after all. We create our gods in our image.
A second tale, “The Old Woman Who Changed into a Man”, is a story of gender fluidity. Two women, alone in an empty landscape, choose to become lovers to escape their common loneliness.
In a shift common to many mythos, one becomes a man, but both remain as they are, transcending gender and reaching into a deeper humanity.
The third and by far longest tale, however, offers the best insight into humanity’s role in current reality. Titled after its main character, Kiviuq, it is an epic on par with Gilgamesh and Odysseus. A true hero’s journey. Kiviuq sets out into the world, wandering the sea and the land, encountering all sorts of adventures in a realm with no clear distinction between male and female, human and animal, flesh and landscape. All merge into one whole. All beings, including Kiviuq, can shape-shift from species to species, gender to gender, as needed at the time.
“Kiviuq” is not a linear tale, just as life itself does not follow an orderly direction. The story itself is drawn from countless legends, because mythology works that way.
A single character can be many things in many cases, again depending on the needs of the moment. Kiviuq is at the center of a lot of stories, of which Price only pulled a few.
Kiviuq takes an animal form. Animals take on human form. They interact, come together and separate. They often have sex (the repeated sexual and scatological occurrences in these tales are a reminder of how non-Western cultures often had healthier relationships with their own human bodies than can be found historically in the often disgusted West and suppressed).
The supernatural realm found in these Kiviuq stories is enchanted and, more importantly, connected. Kiviuq roams there, marrying animals that have taken on human form and being exploited by others who have done the same. There is no clear division between it and the natural world as we see it in the West. Kiviuq’s success is not in forcing such a division to exist, but in blending into it all.
In the penultimate scene, he and the animals he is engaged with gather for a meal, where “For a good hour all the rivals feasted as friends”. Soon they are separated again, but in that brief moment the truth of their common origin and mutual destiny puts them all on the same level.
Kiviuq eventually returns to a home that has changed in his absence. He “was gone minutes in a song’s time / but years in a lifetime” as Price puts it. He leaves, but perhaps to come back. “Have you seen Kiviuq? Is this just the beginning of his story?
Maybe he turned to stone. Maybe the lichen has invaded his face. We do not know. What we do know is that he has met the world and will continue to shape it. He is both an individual and completely at the mercy of the forces of life. Some of them are benign, others malignant, but none escape.
There is a lesson here for our conflicts today. We cannot own the world, the world cannot own us. It is all one. The key is to learn how to fit in and accept it. The good and the bad. Such is the power of the myth found in this marvelous and unexpectedly topical book.