Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Nunavut November 23, 2012 - 5:48 pm

Taissumani, Nov. 23

The Seal and its Many Taboos

KENN HARPER

For most Inuit, the hunting of sea mammals was the very essence of Inuit livelihood. All the sea mammals had been created from the fingers of the sea spirit and she demanded obedience to the taboos that had developed around these animals.

The seal was the most important of these. It provided meat for food, skin for clothing, and fat to fuel the qulliq. For a people whose lives were dependent on this bounty of the sea, it was especially important to follow the many taboos associated with seal hunting, and accord the animal the respect it deserved after a successful hunt. 

Here are some of the taboos surrounding seals that had to be followed among the Iglulingmiut and the Aivilingmiut in pre-Christian times.

When a seal was brought into the house while the people were living in snow huts during the winter, no woman in the house could sew or do any other work until the seal had been cut up.

Before a newly-caught seal had been cut up, no one could wipe rime from a window pane, no one could shake skins from the sleeping platform over the floor, or straighten or re-arrange the willow twigs that were under those skins.

Care must also be taken not to spill any oil from the lamp, and no work could be done with stone, wood or iron. Women could not comb their hair, wash their faces, or dry any footwear.

When seals were caught, one could not move camp the next day, but only two days after the catch. This was because the seals would be offended if the hunters did not show their gratitude by remaining in the same place.

When a seal was brought into a snow house, a lump of snow was dipped into the water bucket and then allowed to drip into the seal’s mouth. It was said that the soul of the seal was drinking the water. But in summer the seal does not require water.

Persons hunting seal from a snow hut on the sea ice could not work with soapstone.

If a seal was brought into a house where a widow was present who had been widowed for not more than a year, then she must pull up her hood and not express her pleasure at the capture.

Young girls present in a house where a seal was being cut up had to take off their kamiks and remain barefoot while the work was in progress.

Men could cut up a seal at the ice-edge if they intended to eat some of it there, but if a seal were brought home, it was the women who must cut it up.

When the seal was cut up and lay in pieces on the floor, a lump of fresh snow was laid on the spot where the head was, and trodden down there by the men. The sea spirit did not like it if women tread on the spot where the head had lain.

The soul of a seal resides in the naulaq – the harpoon head – for one night after the seal has been killed. Therefore the harpoon head, with line and shaft, must be taken into the house and placed beside the lamp when the hunter came home after a successful hunt.

This was so that the soul of the seal may be warm throughout that first night while it remained in the harpoon that killed it.

Women must never make sinew from a ringed seal, a natsiq. Anyone who tried to sew with sinews made from a ringed seal would die because the sinews of the ringed seal are so short that the seal is ashamed of them, and its soul would kill anyone who tried to use them.

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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