Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic July 13, 2012 - 1:55 pm

Taissumani, July 13

Taboos After Childbirth

KENN HARPER

Earlier articles have enumerated some of the “numerous and irksome” life rules that governed Inuit society before the coming of Christianity.

Here are some more, which the Danish-Greenlandic explorer and ethnologist, Knud Rasmussen, learned from the Iglulik shaman Aua, and his wife Orulo.

A whole series of taboos governed the activities of a mother who had just given birth, taboos that were necessary for her to follow to ensure the survival of her child, herself, and indeed of her whole camp.

Among the Iglulik Inuit, a pregnant woman had to give birth in a special snowhouse or tent, alone, without assistance. After the birth, the mother had to clean herself all over, in winter using snow, in summer with water, and she had to cut away any portions of her clothing that may have become stained with blood.

After that she could proceed to the kiniqvik, another special dwelling where she would have to remain with her child for anywhere between one and three months.

While in the kiniqvik, a woman could receive visitors but was strictly forbidden to go visiting herself. She was regarded as so unclean, so dangerous to her surroundings, that her impurity was supposed to issue forth in an actual, albeit invisible, smoke or vapour, which drove away all game.

Should she break the taboo against visiting, all this foul smoke or impurity collected in the form of filth in the hair of the Mother of the Sea Beasts (the spirit known as Nuliajuk, Takannaaluk Arnaaluk or Sedna), who in disgust shut up all the game, leaving mankind to starve. A woman recently delivered must therefore always have her hood thrown over her head when she went out, and must never look round after game.

Rules about eating at this time were particularly important. In the kiniqvik, she must have her own wooden tray (puugutaq) from which to drink soup, and in which to place the meat she ate. She must also have her own cooking pot and her particular wooden ladle, which was used either for soup or for water, and these must always be placed in front of her, near the lamp, the wooden ladle in the wooden mug along with a meat fork made of caribou horn or a piece of pointed marrow bone.

Every morning the woman had to melt ice or snow for drinking water. And each time she drank, she had to put a drop of water into the child’s mouth with her middle finger.

This must be done immediately after the child was born, and repeated every time the mother drank. The middle finger possessed a special power with regard to infants, so that the water dripping into the mouth was thought to prevent the child from ever suffering from thirst.

This was especially important for male children, who, in those days, were all destined to be hunters. Among the Inuit, thirst was regarded as the worst of all sufferings, far more dreaded than hunger.

(To be continued)

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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