SEDNA/NULIAJUK – SEA GODDESS

SEDNA – (also known as Nuliajuk) – The sea goddess and the most celebrated deity in the Inuit pantheon. Even mythology books that cover no other figures from Inuit myths will usually have an entry on her. She was the daughter of the god and goddess Anguta and Isarrataitsoq and, like countless female figures in Inuit myths, she refused all prospective husbands. Sedna instead had sexual relations with dogs and the “freakish” offspring of these unions were said to be white people and Native American tribes that the Inuit were often at war with.

A ghoulish twist to the story is how Sedna took to using her parents as food (a recurring theme in Inuit myths because of the scarcity of food in the frozen north at times and how instances of cannibalism during such famines were much-discussed). Sedna devoured both of her mother Isarrataitsoq’s arms and had finished eating one of her father’s arms before he was able to subdue her and take her out to sea in his canoe, intent on banishing her to the sea. Continuing to struggle, Sedna clutched the sides of the canoe as her father tried to submerge her, prompting him to take his long knife and cut off her fingers.

Since, to the Inuit,  loss or mutilation of the hands was often seen as a horrific transformation into something new, the myth states that Sedna now embraced her fate, transforming her now-fingerless hands into flippers and transforming her severed digits into the various species of sea animals. When the one-armed Anguta returned to shore, where his still-armless wife awaited, Sedna, now fully realized as the sea goddess, caused a massive wave to wash over her parents, dragging them down to her new home to serve in her subaquatic court.

This subsea realm is called Adlivun, and it is also the place where the souls of the coastal Inuit and the game animals they thrive on go after death to be eventually reincarnated (similar to how the souls of the Inuit from the interior and the souls of their game animals go to the supercelestial afterlife called Udlormiut when they die and are reincarnated, though the moon god does not seem to play a role in the rebirth of souls from Adlivun). Sedna’s home in the deep is said to be constructed of a whalebone frame with walls made of all the clothing of people who have drowned at sea and furnishings fashioned from their bones and sunken ships.

The sea goddess’ father Anguta oversees the punishment of dead souls for taboos they violated in life, eventually purging them from the taint of their wrongdoing. After that the souls are free to dwell with the other deceased spirits until they are ready to be reincarnated. Sedna retained her preference for bestiality, taking the giant sea-scorpion god Kanajuk as a husband, a spouse she shares with her armless mother. The god Kataum guards the entranceway to Sedna’s undersea dwelling and also keeps an eye on taboos being violated by the coastal Inuit.

The god Sila uses Sedna to enforce the taboos (as he uses the goddess Pukimna to enforce the taboos for the Inuit of the interior), and, to counteract Sedna’s recalcitrant nature, does this by causing the breaking of taboos to manifest as knots and filth in Sedna’s hair. When the sea goddess’ hair becomes so polluted that she can no longer stand it she orders the godling-child Unga to act as a shepherd and round up all the game animals of the sea. This causes a scarcity of game for the coastal Inuit, a problem resolved only by a shaman traveling to Adlivun in their astral body to comb the knots and filth from Sedna’s hair, thus appeasing her. (She cannot comb her hair herself because she has flipper, not hands) 

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Nuliajuk’s Story

Nuliayuk (Sedna) Nuliayuk lives in the ocean for a very long time. Nuliayuk just sits on the ocean floor, her long hair flowing, moving back and forth with the tides and the currents. When you look down into the sea over the side of a boat in summer, you can see her hair, swaying back and forth. Sometimes as her hair moves with the water, it gets all disheveled and tangled up. The creatures of the sea get caught in it and no matter how hard they try they cannot get out. It would be so nice if Nuliayuk can run her fingers through her hair and let all these animals out, but Nuliayuk has no fingers. You see a long time ago, when she was just a girl, Nuliayuk refused to marry; she would take no men for a husband. It was a cruel world in which she lived. There were no animals to hunt, no caribou, seals, whales, walruses, fish, nothing. Her family was starving and could no longer feed her. If she had married she would have had a husband to support her but no she refused to marry anyone. One day Nuliayuk’s parents loaded their boat with the few things they had and headed off to another hunting place, hoping for better luck. They left Nuliayuk behind. They could no longer support a woman who had refused to marry. Nuliayuk did not want to be left behind so she swam out to the boat. Nuliayuk grabbed the gunwales and tried to climb aboard. Her father took his axe and chopped her fingers off to keep her from climbing in. Nuliayuk no longer to hold on to the gunwales of the boat, slipped down to the depths of the sea. And that is where she lives to this day. Her fingers too fell into the sea one by one and one by one they became the animals of the sea. They became whales, walruses, fishes and all the other sea creatures. But now Nuliayuk has no fingers with which to comb her hair, and when her hair is all tangled up, these poor animals get caught in and cannot get out. They tickle her head and that makes her angry. She shakes her head; she screams and flails her arms about. She makes the water boil until there are big waves. If her hair gets tangled up, there are no animals to hunt, no meat to eat, no sealskin for boats, no whale meat to feed the dogs. Even if there were animals about no one could go to sea to hunt them when Nuliayuk is angry. Nuliayuk has become the most feared creature in all the land. She has the power of life and death over all the people. The only people who can calm her down are the shamans. Now and then, they dive down to the bottom of the sea. They run their fingers through her hair and make it all neat and tidy. They free the animals. They soothe her and settle her down and the sea becomes calm and smooth again. There are seals, walruses, fish and whales again. People can go out to hunt and have food to eat.

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