Oral Tradition: Between the Physical and the Spiritual Worlds
According to Inuit tradition, human beings could travel between the physical and spiritual worlds. Humans could also transform into animals and animals could transform into human beings. As well, there were invisible spirits that were capable of changing into any form. (Read The Man Who Married the Fox.)
Inuit saw the world as having infinite possibilities. In their stories, ordinary Inuit could have supernatural powers, which they could conjure up by a thought or an appeal to one or more spirit helpers, charms or a guardian spirit.
Stories with Spirit Helpers
Spirit helpers were beings with supernatural powers. They were conjured up by people who talked to animals, and by shamans, when they required additional help in times of great need. Shamans were individuals who faced serious challenges and tests of endurance to better commune with spirits and gain extraordinary powers. These prominent figures were both feared and respected by Inuit who were sometimes torn between their beliefs in the shaman's powers and Christian ideas. A person's spirit helper could be a bird, an animal or even a rock, depending on what was available when the person conjured the spirit helper or the region in which the story was told. The titles of the stories also varied from region to region. Even the names of main characters in stories sometimes varied according to different regions of the Arctic.
Stories That Teach a Lesson
Whereas many legends were for entertainment and amusement, there were also stories that taught lessons to the listeners. (Read Qasiagssaq, the Great Liar.) For example, in most stories that dealt with children being mistreated, the children triumphed in the end. Some of these children grew up to be strong and achieve great things. Sometimes, they took revenge on their abusers, such as in Lumaaq. (Read Lumaaq [available in French only].) In the many stories about Kiviuq (or Qiviuq), an eternal Inuit wanderer, the hero had to overcome various obstacles. His adventures are well known in Inuit society.
Stories of Creation
Some Inuit stories explained how children, animals, stars and heaven came to exist.
According to Inuit tradition, there was nothing but water when the world began. Suddenly, stones and rocks came down from the sky. Land was created! There was only darkness, and humans and animals lived together as one species. The animals and human beings took on each other's forms and shapes. Words were created and, because these words had never been used before, they contained very powerful magic. Whenever anyone used words, strange things would happen. For example, when Tiriganiaq, the fox, met Ukaliq, an Arctic hare, the fox said, "Dark, dark," because he wanted to steal meat from the human beings. Ukaliq replied, "Light, light," because he wanted to find food in the grass. That is how it became light in daytime and dark at night. Many other things, such as the concepts of good and bad, were created by the magical powers of words.
The Constellation Udleqdjun and the The Birth of Fog are two well-known creation stories as are the stories of Sedna, the sea goddess, whose fingers were cut off and turned into sea mammals. (Read The Legend of Sedna the Sea Goddess.)
Oral Tradition and Songs
Some legends include songs that give the listener a clearer picture of the legend's main characters. Inuit oral tradition also includes throat-singing songs. There are a variety of ways to throat sing. In some regions of Canada words to throat songs have been lost, yet throat songs typically have bird or animal sounds with a variety of tones and pitches, including bird and walrus sounds commonly used by Inuit hunters to attract their prey. (Listen to a recording by Laura Bolton. [Animal sounds]) Animal sounds in some Inuit throat songs also demonstrated respect for the animals and for Sedna, the sea goddess.