Taissumani, Nov. 16
Polar Bear Hunting Taboos
Earlier this year I wrote a series of articles outlining taboo behaviour in the time before Inuit adopted Christianity. Taboos varied from region to region. For some, they are poorly documented. But for others, especially the areas through which Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition travelled, there is a wealth of detail.
Hunting was carefully regulated by the observance of taboos. The taking of sea mammals especially had to be done in strict accordance with numerous rules. This was because, according to Inuit legend, sea mammals had been created from the fingers of the legendary woman at the bottom of the sea, the woman called Takannaaluk Arnaaluk, or Uinigumasuittuq, or Sedna, or a variety of other terms depending on location.
It was extremely important that sea mammals not come into contact with the animals of the land. To allow this to happen without taking certain precautions would be to court disaster.
In Iglulik and Aivilik (the area of Repulse Bay,) no work could be done by men or women for three days after a bear, a whale or a bearded seal had been killed. This included a prohibition on cutting turf to use for fuel, because it came from the land.
There were exceptions, though. For example, women were allowed to mend clothing, although making new articles of clothing was prohibited.
If a man returned with an animal that he had taken at the floe edge, he had to take off his outer clothing before entering his house.
Some special taboos had to be observed after successful bear hunts.
If a male bear was taken, its penis, bladder, spleen and part of the tongue were hung up inside the house with the man’s implements. After three days, the bear hunter had to take these and throw them onto the floor of the house’s entrance passage. The children had to then see who would be the first to seize the implements and return them to their owner.
If the bear was a female, a sewing needle, thread and an ulu (the woman’s knife) were hung up with the bladder, the gall bladder and the spleen, also for three days.
The number of days was significant, because Inuit believed that the bear’s soul only remained there for three days.
On returning to his house after killing a bear, a man had to take off all of his outer clothing, including his kamiks and mittens, before entering the house. He also had to refrain from eating meat or fat from the bear for a month.
If the bear’s fat was used in the lamps or cooking or lighting, then the occupants of that house could not crack marrow bones or eat the delicious marrow.
Among many groups of Inuit were people who had resorted to cannibalism to preserve their own lives. An important taboo applied to the behaviour of these people. They were never to eat bear meat because it was said to taste so much like human flesh.
These were some of the taboos that applied to bear hunting. In a future article, I will look at the many more that applied to seals and seal hunting.