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The Mother of the Sea Creatures « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

The Mother of the Sea Creatures

In the collection of Inuit art at The Polar Museum, amongst the delicate miniature carvings of polar bears and the beautiful representations of birds and walruses, there are a few pieces of art which look a little different. These sculptures all show the same woman, with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish. In one she also has the beak of a bird; in another she rests her chin in her hands, gazing up at some invisible figure in front of her; in a third her back arches and her hair streams out behind her as if she is diving. Her mermaid-like shape seems familiar, and yet she holds powers that a mermaid could only dream of. These are sculptures of Sedna, the Mother of the Sea Creatures. Let me introduce her to you…

Soapstone carving

Soapstone carving. Sedna, ‘Taleelayuk’ the sea goddess by Manasie Akpaliapik, 1992.

Sedna (who might also be called Nuliajuk or Taleelayuk to give her just a few of her many names) is an important cultural figure for Inuit across the Arctic and she has an impressive origin story to match. Sedna’s story varies slightly from place to place and region to region, but one version of the legend starts with Sedna as a human woman who has refused all her would-be suitors. Eventually, she falls for a man who beguiles her with his voice and goes to live with him on an island. When they reach the island, the man she has married transforms and Sedna realises that he isn’t really a human man at all – he’s a seabird. Sedna is not happy living on the island with the seabird. Her father comes to visit her and while he is there she persuades him to help her escape. But the seabird, realising that Sedna is trying to leave the island, calls up a storm which rocks her father’s boat so much that he and Sedna think they will be killed. Sedna’s father, wanting to save himself, decides that the only way to stop the storm is to throw her overboard. Sedna manages to cling to the side of the boat by her fingers but her father chops them off so that she can’t hold on and she sinks to the bottom of the sea. She grows a tail like a fish and her fingers which have been cut off become the first sea mammals: the seals, walruses and whales of the Arctic.

Sedna now lives at the bottom of the sea and controls all of the sea mammals, which are the traditional food source of the Inuit. It is important that she is not upset or offended by human actions because she has the power to take all the sea mammals away, keeping them at the bottom of the sea with her and away from Inuit hunters. In the past, when Inuit were entirely dependent on ‘country food’ – or food harvested from the land – a lack of sea mammals would have resulted in starvation.

Serpentine carving

Green serpentine carving of Sedna, ‘Taleelayuk’ the sea goddess by Kaka Ashoona, 1961.

Shamans were traditionally the link between Sedna and the Inuit (before the loss of the shamanic tradition as a result of contact with Christian missionaries to the Arctic). If there were no sea creatures to be found, the shaman would visit Sedna underneath the sea to find out what was wrong. The shaman would then have to negotiate with Sedna so that she would allow the animals to be available for the Inuit again (sometimes these negotiations took the form of the shaman brushing her hair because, not having her fingers, Sedna is unable to do it herself). By having this total control over the principal sources of food, (as well as the clothing and fuel which were also produced from sea mammals) Sedna held the line between human life and death in her hands.

Carving of Taleelayuk the sea goddess

Black soapstone carving of Sedna, ‘Taleelayuk’ the sea goddess by Tarulagak. Before 1966.

Although the details of Sedna and her powers vary across the Arctic, the ideas of human to animal transformations (and vice versa), and the image of a female controlling force over the sea mammals are important concepts which can be found across many Arctic cultural groups. Visual art is often theorised as helping artists to represent and understand the world around them, and communicate this knowledge to the audience of people who see their works. It is unsurprising then that Sedna, who is such an important traditional cultural figure, is depicted so regularly in Inuit art. We are very fortunate to have such beautiful representations of her in our collection.


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