Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Nunavut November 29, 2012 - 8:13 am

Taissumani, Nov. 30

More Taboos – Seal and Bearded Seal

KENN HARPER

When a man who had lost his wife went out hunting and caught a seal for the first time, he had to observe a special taboo. He should cut up the carcass after three days, and he had to take the meat, but must leave the bones whole and also leave the entrails, skin and blubber.

He had to wrap the skin and blubber around the skeleton, and place it on the ice as a sacrifice to the soul of his deceased wife. He must follow the same practice with the next two seals he took, except that he could do it immediately without waiting three days.

No stranger must eat from these first three seals, only the widower himself. Only once a fourth seal was caught was the death taboo removed.

When a bearded seal was caught, a special sacrifice was required. Takannaaluk Arnaaluk (the Mother of the Sea Beasts, who went by various names depending on region) was particularly fond of bearded seals, and the animals knew it.

So when they had been killed by humans, they went to her to complain. Therefore special precautions had to be taken when a bearded seal – ugjuk – was taken.

As soon as the news went out that a bearded seal had been taken, the sleeping skins had to be made ready without delay, as they must then not be arranged for the next three days. During those three days, it was also forbidden to move camp.

In addition, no scraping of hair from skins could take place for three days after the capture of a bearded seal. If a seal or bearded seal was captured, all the women of the village must touch the meat of it with their index fingers. 

Some places had special taboos. If a seal were caught in Tasiujaq, the great lake at Pingerqalik near Iglulik, the hunter must not work on hunting implements, neither making nor repairing them. He had also to cook his food in a special pot for a year after the capture.

These were the same taboos that had to be observed by a man who had lost his brother. The severity of these taboos was because the seal would be a fresh-water seal — qasigiaq — and was thought to be not in its proper element, which should be salt water.

The seal may have regarded this lake as a sanctuary. It was said that there was once a man who caught a seal there and failed to observe the taboo — although he had been perfectly healthy, he fell down dead soon after.

Hunting of sea mammals was dangerous, especially in open water from a qajaq. But if the bird known as saarvaq, a small snipe, was placed in the bow of a kayak, the qajaq-man would not upset in a heavy sea.

The first time a man paddled out in a newly-covered kayak, his wife should place a cup of water on the place from where he embarked. This would give him good hunting, because the creatures of the sea were thought to be always thirsty.

Boys who have not yet caught bearded seals or walrus must not play at making string figures.  Such figures were called ajaraat in Inuktitut. In English they are often called “cats’ cradles.” Making them is a popular pastime in many cultures.

But if boys who have not yet caught their first large sea mammal make these figures, they are liable to get their fingers tangled in the harpoon lines and be dragged into the sea. This taboo was reinforced by stories designed to convince boys not to while away their idle hours in making such figures.

These were some of the taboos that governed the lives of the Iglulik and Aivilik Inuit in relation to sea mammal hunting.

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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