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An Inuit story

of betrayal and death
The goddess Sedna

Sedna is a beautiful young Inuit woman who drowns following betrayal by her husband and father, thereupon sinking to the bottom of the sea to become the immortal ocean goddess who governs the fish, seals, walrus, and whales upon which the Inuit depend for food.


Several versions of the Sedna myth exist amongst the Inuit, who live in northern Canada and Greenland, but the basic plot line above is more or less consistent through the variations. An elaboration of some of those variations follows.

Most versions of the myth describe a beautiful young Inuit woman, Sedna, living with her widower father, although one version does mention her mother being alive. She is unmarried upon reaching adulthood, often having rejected several suitable young men as husbands. Some versions say she rejected suitors from pride, others say she simply refused to follow tradition. Some versions of the myth have her taking a first husband, a dog. In one version the dog marriage is punishment by her father for refusing to marry and the marriage consummated by the dog raping Sedna, but in another version Sedna falls in love with the dog who proves to be a kind a loving husband. Some versions have no offspring from the dog marriage, but other versions have both human and canine offspring who go on to be the ancestors of Europeans and Inuit. In any event, the dog dies, is killed by the father, or drops out of the picture.

Regardless of whether the dog marriage is contained in the myth, all versions talk about the fulmar, a birdman, as the key husband of the myth. For the dog versions, the birdman is the second husband. For the non-dog versions, the birdman is Sedna’s only husband.

Most versions begin this part of the story as follows: a well dressed stranger (in Inuit terms this means lots of fur clothing) arrives promising a fine comfortable life and asks Sedna’s father for her hand in marriage. The father says yes, and Sedna, in some versions willingly and other versions unwillingly, goes with the stranger and they paddle off to his island. He promptly takes off his furs and shows himself to be not a human but a fulmar, birdman. Sedna also discovers that his promises of a fine and comfortable life are a pack of lies. All the fulmar does is provide cold raw fish in a poorly-made stinking nest of broken twigs. Most versions do not speak of any children from the birdman marriage.

Some versions have the father next arriving at the island for a routine visit, and other versions have the father hearing his daughter’s cries of anguish. In any event the father arrives and observes first hand Sedna’s difficult life, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

Two plot lines emerge at this point. One version had the father killing the birdman and taking off with Sedna in his kayak to head back to the father’s home. The birdman’s friends and relatives, discovering the birdman had been killed, fly off to attack the father in revenge. A second version has the father arriving while the birdman is out hunting fish, and the father and Sedna escape in the father’s kayak. The birdman, arriving home and discovering his wife is gone, flies out over the ocean to get her back.

Regardless of which two versions of the story are being told, a battle takes place in the ocean involving the father and either the birdman or his relatives. Sedna dies in the course of the battle in both versions.

The description of the battle is remarkably consistent in the various versions. Either the birdman or his relatives flap their wings to such an extent that a great wind is generated creating a huge storm which threatens to sink the kayak containing Sedna and her father. Fearing for his life, the father throws Sedna overboard into the cold sea in the hopes of placating the birdman or his relatives so that the father might live. Sedna tries to crawl back in the kayak to escape the cold water, but as she grabs the edge of the kayak, her father cuts off her fingers one by one so that she cannot grasp the boat, and she sinks into the frigid Artic ocean and drowns. As her severed fingers sink into the sea, one finger becomes the fish, another the seals, another the walrus, and another the whales. Sedna’s father escapes death in the battle, but later dies of grief over what had happened.

One version of the myth has the Moon spirit and the Air spirit turning Sedna in the Ocean goddess to govern the Inuit, but other versions simply say Sedna became the spirit of the ocean. In any event because Sedna’s fingers were the source of the fish, seals, walrus, and whales, she rules them from her deep ocean home where her spirit dwells. In the dog-marriage versions of the myth, the dog joins her there as her protector.

Sedna soapstone carving

She is usually pictured in Inuit soapstone carvings as being fish from the waste down and human from the waste up with long hair, but Sedna is no mermaid. As goddess of the ocean, Sedna sets strict rules about the proper way to treat the animals of the hunt which the Inuit require for sustenance. This includes proper treatment of the animals' spirit when killed for food. When she feels the rules have been broken, she cuts off the supply of food. When that happens the Inuit tribal shaman is required to take a shaman’s journey to the bottom of the ocean to speak to the goddess. It is considered the most dangerous journey an Inuit shaman is called upon to make.

Upon arrival at the bottom of the sea the shaman is required to comb Sedna’s hair, because Sedna has no fingers to comb it herself, and to find out what the tribe has done wrong that the food has been cut off. Then the shaman has to do a deal with Sedna, promising that if the tribe corrects whatever transgressions it has made, the goddess will return the food supply to the tribe. The shaman then returns to the tribe with the list of things the goddess requires to be done to get the food back.

Thus, because Sedna controls the food supply for the tribe, she is given the highest status of the various Inuit gods and goddesses.


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