Inua: the soul. Human, Animal & Spirit in Inuit culture


This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.

"I am an Inuk one whose ancestors sheltered in the winter igloo of the great arctic; One whose future is free like the wild animal of the artic spirit. I am an Inuk who was given a place in the tundra so I could remember the cold winter darkness and the bright spring day. I am Inuk and I know that my heart is free to go where all animals are free". -Simionie Kunner                                                                                                                                                               Survival from the harsh environment and attaining food were primary concerns of the all Inuit peoples living in the harsh northern lands. Inuits did not solely rely on life skills such as hunting for survival, but they observed certain taboos, which aided them to live in the right relationship with their environment, especially with animals and  spirit beings. The Inuit worldview is strongly influenced by the relationship between humans and animals. Animals not only provided food through their flesh, but they provided fur for parkas, sinew as thread, water-resistant boots from seal skin and antlers, bones to create hunting weapons. So intimate is the relationship between human and animal that Inuit mythology told of a time when human could become an animal and an animal could become a human. In order to receive these animals and hunt them, humans would have to be careful and respect the animals Inua- Its life essence. It was believed that animals gave themselves to the hunters, and failure to follow strict taboos would result in a shortage of animals, as the soul of the offended would inform others and they would refuse to be caught.                                                       The land is an old friend for the Inuit people and it lays on a sensitive balance beam made out of respect and spiritual observance. It is consistently dipping into two worlds, that of human and spiritual. This exhibition depicts interactions between human and spiritual beings as well as  representations that show the respect and connection forged between humans and animals for mutual survival.                                                                          

Sedna And Walrus, Osuitok Ipeelee, 1976, From the collection of: Museum of Inuit Art
It seems fitting to start this exhibition with the carved statue depicting the powerful sea spirit, Sedna, for she is the one who insures that all sea related taboos are respected. This story is perhaps the most widely known Inuit traditional story. Sedna's sacrifice produced a bountiful harvest of sea mammals for Inuit, but in order to receive this harvest their Inua, the animals spirit, needed to be respected. Rules and taboos needed to be observed while hunting in order to keep Sedna happy. If the hunters did not respect the animals for giving its life up for them, than Sedna would withhold her creatures and produce great storms which would lead to starvation.
Demons And Hunter, Quvianatuliak Takpaungai, 1975, From the collection of: Museum of Inuit Art
This sculpture depicts the negative side of the spirits. One reason for demons to attack and kidnap hunters is if they are not observing the rituals put in place for hunting. Not only did hunters have to follow taboos to respect the Inua of animals killed, but hunters have to respect the boundaries between sea spirit and land spirit and the products that come from each. For example equipment used in marine hunting could not be used on land. This is because the two spirit forces overseeing the division between land and sea were territorial and disliked each other. This sculpture showcases the real fear that Inuit's had if they showed disrespect for life or any disregard for the spirit forces.
Three ivory harpoons, From the collection of: British Museum
The close relationship between hunter and animal was an important design source in the manufacturing of Inuit hunting weapons. The Inua of an animal was respected not only by performing rituals, but also in the weapons that were used to hunt them. Extraordinary care was taken in the construction of each weapon as a sign of respect towards the animal. It is believed that hunters would design their hunting weapons with attributes of animals, which would symbolically be transferred within the object.
Qulittuq / parka, Unknown / Inconnu, 1900/1930, From the collection of: McCord Stewart Museum
An essential element of Inuit culture is the parka. The design element of the parka played a role in distinguishing between the maternity of women and men that were hunters. The man's parka as seen here, served as a metaphoric reference to the animals and symbolically assisted him as a hunter. As mention before weapons had to be separated for the use on land and on sea to appease the spirits that offered animals to the hunters. The type of parkas worn also had to respect this division between land and sea. Caribou furs would be worn to catch caribou, while sealskins would be worn to catch seals. This not only helped to camouflage the hunter, but assisted him in identifying with the animal. Taking a closer look at the details of this piece, it is seen that the hood has caribou ears attached to it and if it follows traditions it will also have a stylized predatory tail on the back panel. This creates a zoomorphic reference that aided the hunter on a functional and symbolic level in the pursuit of his prey.
Replica of a shaman's parka, made by Rachel Uyarasuk, 1988/1990, From the collection of: British Museum
This parka differs from the previous parka as it belonged to a Shaman. Stories of encounters with spiritual beings were created on parkas to remember and respect the forces that reveled themselves to humans. Traditionally, each individual in Inuit culture was responsible with maintaining a good relationship with the spirits and observing taboos. There were certain situations that called upon a shaman to be a intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds. This particular parka has a supernatural source. One account of the parka's origin was recorded and it retells the story of a great Iglulik shaman that encountered four mountain spirits. One of the spirits was searching for his son, whom the group feared had been killed by humans. The oldest spirit fell upon the shaman as he suspected him of being the murder. After declaring his innocence, the spirits departed "in friendship and mutual understanding". The great shaman went home and created a parka with the hand prints to show where the spirt had placed his hands on him.
Shaman's belt, Unknown / Inconnu, 1930/1965, From the collection of: McCord Stewart Museum
The belt was the creation of the shaman and an important symbol of his/her power. There are various styles of shaman belts and each represents and enhances the power of the individual shaman. The model knives motif on shaman's belt here symbolizes the shaman's ability to combat evil spirits.
Inuinnaq dancing cap topped with a loon skin, worn at drum dances, Unknown / Inconnu, 1965/1968, From the collection of: McCord Stewart Museum
Drum dances were major social events, held especially to welcome the arrival of visitors. The loon was admired for its song and for the beauty of its dance in the courtship ritual. The loon also had mystical attributes such as its skill as a diving bird and connecting with Sedna at the bottom of the sea. There can be a connection made between humans and evoking the loon's love for music and its elegance of movement and interpreting this into the drum dance festivities.
Seal Mask, ca. 1890, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Describing the beauty and physical aspects of a mask is merely scratching the surface of the detailed story behind the mask's creation and ceremonialism. Some masks were created to depict an animal's spirit and were called spirit masks. The masks are usually large enough to cover a person's face so that they can fully transform and evoke the characteristics of that animal or spirit. Depending on the designs on each mask, the masks would have different meanings. In the case of this mask, it represents an individual seal because its facial features are proportioned and not exaggerated. The mask could have been used to merely imitate the animal for dances or portray a mythological seal creator. The downturned mouth represented on a seal symbolizes a bounty of food.
Mask with seal or sea otter spirit, late 19th century, From the collection of: Dallas Museum of Art
This mask is also a spirit mask and would have been used during the Bladder Festival. This was a festival dedicated to honoring the animals killed in the previous year’s hunt so that their spirits would provide food for the next year. Its design represents not an individual seal, as the pervious mask, but it represents the vital force of all the individual spirits of that genus which had lived, were living, or were to live. This is represented through the human face seen in the center of the mask. This representation goes back to the word Inua/Yua which can mean "its human being" therefore a spirit resembles a "human being", and can be represented on a mask with a human face. Taking a look at the hands of the seal in this mask they have holes through them, which signifies the passage of the spirit of the animals from one world to the next.
Untitled, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, 1980, From the collection of: Museum of Inuit Art
I selected this image because it embodies the connection between humans and a predatory animal such as bears. There is a great deal of respect towards the bear as it is a great hunter, but as seen in the image there is also a great fear of such a powerful animal. The following is a traditional Inuit legend that describes how and why taboos were created. It is called How Inuit Learned the Proper Taboos for when A Bear is Killed. "In the time when there was no difference between humans and animals, their speech was nearly the same. Animals had their own expressions, but otherwise spoke like Inuit, except that their speech was in dialects, as if from a distant and foreign country. A story is told of a woman who once sought refuge in a bear's dwelling, there she heard bear speech, and from the events she witnessed there she taught people how important it is that the proper taboo is observed when bears are killed. For if a bear's soul is shown the proper respect, the soul will live on and a new bear will be born, it even happens that bears are grateful at having been killed by humans, for the presents that are made to their souls pass to them in the next life.
Credits: All media
This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
Google apps