Taissumani, Feb. 15
Last week I wrote about the taboos that regulated Inuit behaviour where caribou were concerned. There are many other beliefs associated with this most important of land animals. One belief concerns a type of egg that could occasionally be found on the land during spring.
These eggs were called silaqsait (silaqsaq in the singular), and often rendered into English as “earth eggs.” (The spelling varies. Some accounts give the words as silaaqsaq and silaaqsait.)
Francois Quassa, an Igloolik elder, told a visiting anthropologist in the early 1990s that these eggs were solitary, never found in nests, and were often bluish in colour, and that people “were warned to be careful of the silaqsait, ” because they contained the children of sila, the powerful spirit that governed the weather.
In most accounts, the animal which could hatch from an earth egg would be an albino caribou but it was also possible for the egg to hatch into a bearded seal, a polar bear, or another animal. If one were to break such an egg or kill a hatchling, said Noah Piugattuk, also of Igloolik, bad weather would ensue.
Quassa also remembered that someone had recently crushed such an egg accidentally, and that as a result the weather was bad for a whole year. Others attributed thick fog and heavy rain to the inadvertent breaking of a silaqsaq.
In Pond Inlet in 1957, an Inuk told a Catholic priest about the white caribou that were believed to hatch from the earth eggs: “We call them ‘ground eggs’ because they are produced in the ground. The sun, during the spring, warms them up and makes them hatch. Not any bigger than a goose’s egg, their shell breaks only at the end of the season. A small, very small caribou comes out, but he grows very fast. These caribous remain white summer and winter.”
The late Felix Kuppaq of Repulse Bay, who passed away in 2005, gave a detailed account of finding an earth egg to the anthropologists, Frederic Laugrand and Jarich Oosten:
“I, too, have come across an earth egg on the side of a niaquptaq, a clump of moss. It was not too big; it was smaller than a seagull’s egg and rounder, but larger than the egg of a pitsiulaaq, a black guillemot. It was on its side and protruding out of the ground. I took it and tried to make sure I didn’t disturb the earth around it. Part of it was brown and dark. That’s the pattern that it had. It was rounder than a bird’s egg. I took it home.”
His mother asked him where the egg had come from, and told him it was an earth egg, and might turn into a wolverine or even into a muskox, because of its dark colour. His father told him that “if it was going to become a hare or a polar bear, it would have been white.” His parents told Felix to return it to where he had found it.
“So I put it back where I found it and went home again,” he continued. “After I got home, it started raining for five days. Maybe if I had actually broken it, the rain would have been a lot worse…”
In the early 1920s, the shaman Aua told Knud Rasmussen in detail about the giant caribou that could hatch from a silaqsaq (Rasmussen spelled it silaasaat in the plural): “There are in the earth large white eggs… as big as the bladder of a walrus. They turn to silaat or silaaraaluit. These silaaraaluit are, when fully developed, shaped almost like caribou, but with large snouts, hair like that of a lemming, and legs as tall as tent poles. They look as if they were as big as an umiaq, but they are not dangerous — they have the nature of the caribou. Their foot-marks are so large that two hands with outstretched fingers will not cover one. If it is killed, and one wishes to cut it up, it will take several days, so great are these animals…
“When one of these giant beasts is seen among caribou, it appears like a white mountain of snow. When it takes to flight and treads the ground, rain falls, pouring, drenching rain, and a thick mist covers the earth.”
Aua told Rasmussen that he had seen such an animal at close quarters, and seen it take flight along with terrified caribou.
Aua knew that stories of the silaat stretched people’s belief. He explained, “To speak of them or describe them is like lying, no one believes it, but it is nevertheless true. They are called silaq... and this means something of sila, of the earth, of the universe, of the air, of the weather. It is said that they are the children of the earth. Anyone killing such a silaq must observe the same taboo as a man who has lost his brother.”
The belief in the existence of earth eggs continues to this day.