Combing Sedna's Hair

My previous post referred to the Inuit story of Takannaaluk, an powerful figure in Inuit legend.  This was my excuse to learn more about Inuit stories, and to do a Takannaluk - inspired drawing, as you can see.  Takannaluk can be translated as "the terrible woman down there" or "the great one below".    She has many other names but is best known as Sedna, so that is what I will call her.

There are many versions of Sedna's story.  In some she marries a dog, in others she is so greedy that she tries to eat her father.  Here is my own version of her story, patched together from several sources:

This is the story of Sedna.  There she sits at the bottom of the sea with her long hair tangling  and all her creatures coming and going around her - the sharks, the seals and the all the little fish. When the hunting is bad the Inuit people say that Sedna is angry and has called all her creature to be close to her.  She is in pain and remembers who hurt her.

Long ago Sedna was a human girl, her father's only daughter. She was beautiful and proud and many young men came courting her - but none of them were good enough for Sedna.  She was content with her life as it was and did not want to get married.

Her father became impatient.  He argued with his daughter but nothing he said would change her mind.  One day he lost his temper and promised that he would marry her to the very next man who came asking.  And so he did.

Sedna raged and cried, but it did no good.  In the struggle to get her into the stranger's canoe nobody paid much attention to her new husband.  Nobody wondered why he did not take down his hood and his face was always hidden.  The stranger paddled his canoe out to sea, taking Sedna to the island where he lived.

When they reached the island Sedna was horrified.  It was nothing but a lump of rock in the middle of the sea.  There was nowhere to make a fire and no shelter from the wind.   She turned to her new husband, and saw that he had cast off his clothes, and was not a man at all.  The stranger who had carried her off in his canoe was a bird - he was Raven.  Raven laughed at her fear and offered her no comfort at all.

That was a very bad time for Sedna.  Raven did not look after her as a husband should.  She had nowhere to shelter from the weather and he brought her no food to eat.  He treated her cruelly and beat her every day.  Sedna wept. After a time her father heard of this and regretted his anger. He missed his daughter, and set out in his canoe to fetch her home.

At first his luck was good.  Raven was not at his island and Sedna scrambled back into her father's canoe, happy to be on her way home again.  But their luck did not hold for long.  There was Raven, flying up over the sea and screaming in rage to see his bride  stolen from him.  He flew over them, flapping up a storm in his huge wings.

"Give her back, or I will drown you both!" cried the Raven and it seemed inevitable that the canoe would capsize and that Sedna and her father both drown in the freezing water.  Now fear overcame Sedna's father.  Why should both of them die if one could survive?  He seized his daughter and tried to throw her over the side of the canoe.  But Sedna resisted.  She clutched at her father and held on to the side of the canoe.  In a frenzy of fear her father struck at her with his paddle. The paddle's sharp blade cut into her hands.  Sedna's fingers fell into the sea and one by one turned into the big and little fishes and swam away.

Still Sedna held on, and still her father beat at her with the paddle.  He cut off her hands and as they fell into the water they changed and became the seals and the walruses - and swam away.  But Sedna still held on, grasping at the canoe with her arms.  Raven screamed in the sky above them, sweeping the sea into ever bigger waves.  In a last attempt her father beat at her arms and cut them off at the elbow.  Sedna's arms fell into the sea and became the whales and the killer whales, and swam away.

So at last Sedna could resist no longer and she slipped over the side of the canoe into the water. She dropped like a stone down, down to the bottom of the sea.

And that is where she is to this day.  Her creatures swim around her and tangle in her long hair - the sharks, seals and the little fish.  And sometimes when her limbs pain her she remembers who caused her injuries and her anger grows.  At such times, Sedna calls all her creatures down to the bottom of the sea, and the Inuit people starve.

That is when a shaman must make the dangerous journey down into Sedna's realm.  There are many obstacles - some say there is a great grinding wheel of ice, and others that the door to her realm is as thin as the blade of a knife.  To calm Sedna the shaman combs and plats her long black hair.  Sedna finds this soothing and it makes her forget her pain - for a time.  And so Sedna lets her creatures rise once again to the surface of the sea where they can be hunted.

You can read some other versions of this story

  • here by Linore Lindeman at Canada's Arctic
  • here an excerpt from Knud Rassmussen at the Inuit Art Zone
  • here from Inuit Art of Canada (this one reveals where white people came from as well)

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