Monday, November 29, 2021

The Greenland Bestiary (Island folktales 1. - Greenland)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. "Island folktales" is a series where I read stories from islands that are not sovereign nations. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

THIS BOOK IS FOR 18+ only. CW: basically everything. Be warned.

Bestiarium Greenlandica

A compendium of the mythical creatures, spirits, and strange beings of Greenland
Maria Bach Kreutzmann
Eye of Newt Books, 2021.

If you think the krampus is the epitome of folk horror, don't read this book. Or do. If you dare.
I found the book at the National Museum of Denmark, and I immediately had to buy it. It is a real treat for storytellers, folklorists, horror fans, and artists alike: An encyclopedia of the mythical creatures of Greenland that does not only contain descriptions and short legends, but also an illustration for every single creature. Artists from Greenland created illustrations that are equal parts gorgeous, fascinating, and sometimes nightmare-inducing.
Next to the high quality, the book also contains a lot of in-depth information. There is an introduction about how the collection was born, a chapter on Greenland's history, a list of alternate names and their spelling, a bibliography, a glossary, a map, artist bios, and even a short essay on Greenland shamanism. Every creature comes with a pronunciation guide (which really comes in handy, you'll see why). The culture presented on the page is rich, enchanting, and probably unknown to a lot of people (especially because many think Greenland is just like Iceland, but bigger) (the Vikings thought so too).
The stories only appear in shortened versions, but I found a good number of them online in this book.


Sassuma Arnaa, the Mother of the Sea, is a character I have loved for a long time. She is the goddess of the ocean. When the sins and carelessness of humans tangles and dirties her hair, the animals get stuck in it, and life disappears from the waters. Then, a shaman has to descent into her realm to clean and untangle her hair.
Another interesting character was Asiaq, goddess of the wind, whose body is all topsy-turvy (her mouth is vertical, for example), and so is her home. No one wanted to marry her, so she stole a baby and raised it to be her husband. When she gets bored with him, she turns him into a baby again. She makes rain by shaking his urine out of the diapers... A third powerful figure was Pissaap Inua, the Lord of Strength, a human-faced fox who gifts strength to the weak. In one story a bullied orphan boy asked him for help, and grew so strong that he could kill polar bears with his hands. The Lord of Strength gave him the gift by throwing him into the air with his tail, and shaking all the childhood toys out of his pockets (read the story here).

Art by Agust Kristinsson
I was fascinated by the creature called aassik, basically a giant worm (like in Dune, but with ice instead of sand). According to legend, they can be tamed and harnessed to pull a sled. In one story a young man harnessed a polar bear, and aassik, and an amaroq to his sled to go rescue his sister. Amaroq are giant wolves that can also change into humans sometimes. In one story a young man died in the wilderness, and his body was consumed by amaroq. Their grandmother collected their excrement, covered it with moss, and brought the man back to life. He became a famous hunter.
Art by Jonatan Brüsch

Another exciting creature was the eqalussuak, a Greenland shark that can walk on land, and despite its terrifying appearance it protects orphans, widows, and single women. The award for best name, however, goes to the ikkiillineqanngeqqissaartoq (something akin to a fox, but with a sharp blade on its back that it can use to disembowel giants). The nicest beings were the little people called qamallarlutik who can never sit still, and sometimes turn into ptarmigans. 
Among the shaman legends the strangest was the one about a young man who did not want to accept his calling as a shaman, so one of his helper spirits, a nappaasilat (giant polar bear) dragged him out of the house by the testicles and tossed him into the sea, where another helper, and aaverpak (walrus) bit him and kicked him around until he agreed to become a shaman. (By the way, the nappaasilat can also possess a shaman, and make them turn into a polar bear with healing powers). There were other exciting shaman legends as well, such as the one where children were kidnapped by a monster named amaarsisartoq. A shaman rescued them, but then the monster stuffed him into its hood instead. Eventually, the shaman was rescued by his helper spirits. 
Art by Maja-Lisa Kehlet
There was a beautiful story about a girl abandoned by her lover, who was invited into the home of a woman in black clothes. At the end, it turned out that the mysterious woman who consoled the girl was an inorrooq, a raven shapeshifter.
One of the creepiest creatures was the akueqqutit, an invisible spirit, a kind of reverse conscience: it whispers to people, making them do all the wrong things. Allegedly it is so evil that not even flesh can grow on it, which is why it is invisible.
Another haunting belief was about the qivittut: if someone wants to acquire magic powers, they have to walk into the wilderness, and freeze to death in five days. After that, they become magical creatures, and the women even turn into half polar bear.


Next to all the mythical creatures and shaman beliefs, Christianity also made an appearance. A shaman called Aattaaritaa decided to convert, after he saw a vision of the end of the world. One of his helper spirits tried to talk him out of it ("If the world ends, I will start it again!"), but the shaman turned his back on the spirit world in the end.

Art by Agust Kristinsson

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