Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 11, 2014 - 2:39 pm

Taissumani, Jan. 10

Sedna, the Woman at the Bottom of the Sea

KENN HARPER

I have sometimes been asked about the word Sedna, which is often used in books on Inuit art and legend. Carvings of the being known as Sedna are popular, and the name has found many usages in popular culture.

Sedna is one of many names used to refer to a creature from mythology, a woman who lives at the bottom of the sea who sometimes withholds the bounty of the harvest from Inuit hunters.

At times of famine it was necessary for an angakkuq — a shaman — to make a dangerous trip to Sedna’s home at the bottom of the sea to arrange for the release of the animals so that hunters might have success in their hunt.

Her legend is associated with the creation of sea mammals. Some of her other names in various geographical regions are Nuliajuk, Taliilajuq, Nerrivik (in the Thule District of Greenland), Uinigumasuittuq (“the one who does not want to marry”) and Takannaaluk Arnaaluk (“the terrible woman down there.”)

In southern Baffin Island, it is the name “Sedna” that is used, although that spelling is somewhat inaccurate. In Cumberland Sound, the powerful lady at the bottom of the sea was known as “Sanna”.

The earliest written reference to this name is in the diary of Brother Matthias Warmow, a German Moravian missionary from Greenland who spent a winter in Cumberland Sound in the 1850’s, and recorded the name as “Sanak” or “Sana.”

Charles Francis Hall, who explored Frobisher Bay in the early 1960’s and whose spelling of Inuit names was usually very inexact, called her “Sidne” and on his second voyage “Sydney!”

The spelling which has become so popular, Sedna, is that of Franz Boas, the pioneer anthropologist who spent the winter of 1883-84 in Cumberland Sound and wrote the first major ethnological work on Canadian Inuit, “The Central Eskimo.”

Boas wrote a great deal about Inuit belief in “Sedna.” His spelling may not even be so far off the mark, for the name may once have been “Satna” — there has been a tendency in recent years in Baffin for the gemination of consonant clusters. Remember also that it is only in the last few decades that Inuktitut spelling has been standardized in either Syllabic or Roman orthography.

I have often also wondered if the name is not, in fact, merely a demonstrative pronoun used, as was often the case in Inuktitut, to avoid using a proper name, especially of one
fearful or deserving of respect.

The name used in Iglulik, “Takannaaluk arnaaluk” — “the terrible woman down there,” is built on this model, and the first word of it is derived from “kanna” — “the one down there.” Could not “Sanna” be simply a variant of this? (Schneider’s ‘Ulirnaisigutiit” — a dictionary of Nunavik dialects — records “sanna” as meaning “down there” on the Hudson’s Bay coast of Quebec.)

The word has survived into modern times and is used throughout southern Baffin Island. In a Pangnirtung oral history project in about 1986, Qattuuq Evic recounted the times when the Inuit worshipped “a false god who they called Sanah.”

In an Arctic College publication from 1999, “Transition to Christianity,” Victor Tungilik from Naujaat said, “She has been given different names. She has been called Sanna. In my dialect she is called Nuliajuk. Among the Iglulingmiut, she is called Takannaaluk.”

Sedna, the popularized spelling of Sanna, is synonymous with Nuliajuk, a word equally well-known to describe the same being. The words are used in different parts of Nunavut, but their meaning is the same.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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