Jump to content

Inuit religion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Ignirtoq)

Carving of Sedna, depicted with her legs turned into the tail of a fish, and her fingers cut off.
Sedna, an Inuit deity

Inuit religion is the shared spiritual beliefs and practices of the Inuit, an indigenous people from Alaska, northern Canada, parts of Siberia, and Greenland. Their religion shares many similarities with some Alaska Native religions. Traditional Inuit religious practices include animism and shamanism, in which spiritual healers mediate with spirits.[1] Today many Inuit follow Christianity (with 71 per cent of Canadian Inuit identifying as Christian as of 2021);[2] however, traditional Inuit spirituality continues as part of a living, oral tradition and part of contemporary Inuit society. Inuit who balance indigenous and Christian theology practice religious syncretism.[3]

Inuit cosmology provides a narrative about the world and the place of people within it. Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley writes:

The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now.[4]

Traditional stories, rituals, and taboos of the Inuit are often precautions against dangers posed by their harsh Arctic environment. Knud Rasmussen asked his guide and friend Aua, an angakkuq (spiritual healer), about Inuit religious beliefs among the Iglulingmiut (people of Igloolik) and was told: "We don't believe. We fear." Authors Inge Kleivan and Birgitte Sonne debate possible conclusions of Aua's words, because the angakkuq was under the influence of Christian missionaries, and later he even converted to Christianity. Their study also analyses beliefs of several Inuit groups, concluding (among others) that fear was not diffuse.[5]

First were unipkaaqs : myths, legends, and folktales which took place "back then" in the indefinite past (taimmani).[6]

Iñupiat dance near Nome, Alaska, 1900

Inuit cultural beliefs[edit]


Among Canadian Inuit, a spiritual healer is known as an angakkuq (plural: angakkuit, Inuktitut syllabics ᐊᖓᑦᑯᖅ or ᐊᖓᒃᑯᖅ[7][8]) in Inuktitut[9] or angatkuq in Inuvialuktun.[10] The duties of an angakkuq include helping the community when marine animals, kept by Takanaluk-arnaluk or Sea Woman in a pit in her house, become scarce, according to Aua, an informant and friend of the anthropologist Knud Rasmussen. Aua described the ability of an apprentice angakkuq to see himself as a skeleton,[11] naming each part using the specific shaman language.[12][11]

Inuit at Amitsoq Lake[edit]

The Inuit at Amitsoq Lake (a rich fishing ground) on King William Island had seasonal and other prohibitions for sewing certain items. Boot soles, for example, could only be sewn far away from settlements in designated places.[13] Children at Amitsoq once had a game called tunangusartut in which they imitated the adults' behaviour towards the spirits, even reciting the same verbal formulae as angakkuit. According to Rasmussen, this game was not considered offensive because a "spirit can understand the joke."[14]

Netsilik Inuit[edit]

The homelands of the Netsilik Inuit (Netsilingmiut meaning "People of the Seal") have extremely long winters and stormy springs. Starvation was a common danger.[15]

While other Inuit cultures feature protective guardian powers, the Netsilik have traditional beliefs that life's hardships stemmed from the extensive use of such measures. Unlike the Iglulik Inuit, the Netsilik used a large number of amulets. Even dogs could have amulets.[16] In one recorded instance, a young boy had 80 amulets, so many that he could hardly play.[15][17] One particular man had 17 names taken from his ancestors and intended to protect him.[15][18]

Tattooing among Netsilik women provided power and could affect which world they went to after their deaths.[19]

Nuliajuk, the Sea Woman, was described as "the lubricous one".[20] If the people breached certain taboos, she held marine animals in the basin of her qulliq an oil lamp that burns seal fat. When this happened the angakkuq had to visit her to beg for game. In Netsilik oral history, she was originally an orphan girl mistreated by her community.[21]

Moon Man, another cosmic being, is benevolent towards humans and their souls as they arrived in celestial places.[22][23] This belief differs from that of the Greenlandic Inuit, in which the Moon's wrath could be invoked by breaking taboos.[22]

Sila or Silap Inua, often associated with weather, is conceived of as a power contained within people.[24] Among the Netsilik, Sila was imagined as a male. The Netsilik (and Copper Inuit) believed Sila was originally a giant baby whose parents died fighting giants.[25]

Caribou Inuit[edit]

Caribou Inuit is a collective name for several groups of inland Inuit (the Krenermiut, Aonarktormiut, Harvaktormiut, Padlermiut, and Ahearmiut) living in an area bordered by the tree line and the west shore of Hudson Bay. They do not form a political unit and maintain only loose contact, but they share an inland lifestyle and some cultural unity. In the recent past, the Padlermiut took part in seal hunts in the ocean.[26]

The Caribou have a dualistic concept of the soul. The soul associated with respiration is called umaffia (place of life)[27] and the personal soul of a child is called tarneq (corresponding to the nappan of the Copper Inuit). The tarneq is considered so weak that it needs the guardianship of a name-soul of a dead relative. The presence of the ancestor in the body of the child was felt to contribute to a more gentle behavior, especially among boys.[28] This belief amounted to a form of reincarnation.[27][29]

Because of their inland lifestyle, the Caribou have no belief concerning a Sea Woman. Other cosmic beings, named Sila or Pinga, control the caribou, as opposed to marine animals. Some groups have made a distinction between the two figures, while others have considered them the same. Sacrificial offerings to them could promote luck in hunting.[30]

Caribou angakkuit performed fortune-telling through qilaneq, a technique of asking questions to a qila (spirit). The angakkuq placed his glove on the ground and raised his staff and belt over it. The qila then entered the glove and drew the staff to itself. Qilaneq was practiced among several other Alaskan Native groups and provided "yes" or "no" answers to questions.[31][32]

Copper Inuit[edit]

Spiritual beliefs and practices among Inuit are diverse, just like the cultures themselves. Similar remarks apply for other beliefs: term silap inua / sila, hillap inua / hilla (among Inuit), ellam yua / ella (among Yup'ik) has been used with some diversity among the groups.[33] In many instances it refers to "outer space", "intellect", "weather", "sky", "universe":[33][34][35][36][37] there may be some correspondence with the presocratic concept of logos.[34][38] In some other groups, this concept was more personified ([sɬam juɣwa] among Siberian Yupik).[39]

Among Copper Inuit, this "Wind Indweller" concept is related to spiritual practice: angakkuit were believed to obtain their power from this indweller, moreover, even their helping spirits were termed as silap inue.[40]

Greenland Inuit[edit]

Greenlandic Inuit believed that spirits inhabited every human joint, even knucklebones.[41]


The Inuit believed that all things have a form of spirit or soul (in Inuktitut: anirniq meaning "breath"; plural anirniit), just like humans. These spirits are held to persist after death—a common belief present in most human societies. However, the belief in the pervasiveness of spirits—the root of Inuit worldview—has consequences. According to a customary Inuit saying, "The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls." Since all beings possess souls like those of humans, killing an animal is little different from killing a person. Once the anirniq of the dead animal or human is liberated, it is free to take revenge. The spirit of the dead can only be placated by obedience to custom, avoiding taboos, and performing the right rituals.

The harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived constantly in fear of unseen forces. A run of bad luck could end an entire community and begging potentially angry and vengeful but unseen powers for the necessities of day-to-day survival is a common consequence of a precarious existence. For the Inuit, to offend an anirniq was to risk extinction. The principal role of the angakkuq in Inuit culture and society was to advise and remind people of the rituals and taboos they needed to obey to placate the spirits, since he was held to be able to see and contact them.

The anirniit are seen to be a part of the sila — the sky or air around them — and are merely borrowed from it. Although each person's anirniq is individual, shaped by the life and body it inhabits, at the same time it is part of a larger whole. This enabled Inuit to borrow the powers or characteristics of an anirniq by taking its name. Furthermore, the spirits of a single class of thing — be it sea mammals, polar bears, or plants — are in some sense held to be the same and can be invoked through a keeper or master who is connected with that class of thing. In some cases, it is the anirniq of a human or animal who becomes a figure of respect or influence over animals things through some action, recounted in a traditional tale. In other cases, it is a tuurngaq, as described below.

Since the arrival of Christianity among the Inuit, anirniq has become the accepted word for a soul in the Christian sense. This is the root word for other Christian terms: anirnisiaq means angel and God is rendered as anirnialuk, the great spirit.

Humans were a complex of three main parts: two souls (iñuusiq and iḷitqusiq: perhaps "life force" and "personal spirit") and a name soul (atiq). After death, the iñuusiq departed for the east, but the other soul components could be reborn.[42]


Some spirits have never been connected to physical bodies. These are called tuurngait (also tornait, tornat, tornrait, singular tuurngaq, torngak, tornrak, tarngek) and "are often described as a shaman's helping spirits, whose nature depends on the respective angakkuq".[43] Helpful spirits can be called upon in times of need and "[...] are there to help people," explains Inuit elder Victor Tungilik.[43] Some tuurngait are evil, monstrous, and responsible for bad hunts and broken tools. They can possess humans, as recounted in the story of Atanarjuat. An angakkuq with good intentions can use them to heal sickness and find animals to hunt and feed the community. They can fight or exorcise bad tuurngait, or they can be held at bay by rituals; However, an angakkuq with harmful intentions can also use tuurngait for their own personal gain, or to attack other people and their tuurngait.

Though once Tuurngaq simply meant "killing spirit", it has, with Christianisation, taken on the meaning of a demon in the Christian belief system.

Inuit shamanism[edit]

Ikpukhuak and his angatkuq (shaman) wife, Higalik (Ice House)

Shamans (anatquq or angakkuq in the Inuit languages of northern parts of Alaska and Canada[44]) played an important role in the religion of Inuit acting as religious leaders, tradesmen, healers, and characters in cultural stories holding mysterious, powerful, and sometimes superhuman abilities. The idea of calling shamans "medicine men" is an outdated concept born from the accounts of early explorers and trappers who grouped all shamans together into this bubble. The term "medicine man" does not give the shamans justice and causes misconceptions about their dealings and actions.[45] Despite the fact they are almost always considered healers, this is not the complete extent of their duties and abilities and detaches them from their role as a mediator between normal humans and the world of spirits, animals, and souls for the traditional Inuit.

There is no strict definition of shaman and there is no strict role they have in society. Despite this, their ability to heal is nearly universal in their description. It has been described as "breathing or blowing away" the sickness but there is not set method any one shaman or groups of shamans perform their deeds. Even though their methods are varied, a few key elements remain in virtually all accounts and stories. In order to cure or remove an ailment from someone, the shaman must be skilled in their own right but must have the faith of those being helped.[45]

In stories of shamans there is a time of crisis and they are expected to resolve, alleviate, or otherwise give resolution or meaning to the crisis. These crises often involve survival against the natural elements or disputes between people that could end in death.[46] In one such story, a hunter kidnapped a man's daughter and a shaman described in terms of belonging to the man. The shaman pulled the daughter back with a magic string.[47] The shaman is also able to bestow gifts and extraordinary abilities to people and to items such as tools.[48]

Some stories recount shamans as unpredictable, easily angered, and pleased in unusual ways. This could be shown as illustrating that despite their abilities and tune with nature and spirits, they are fickle and not without fault.[49] There are stories of people attempting to impersonate shamans for their own gain by pretending to have fantastical abilities such as being able to fly only to be discovered and punished.[50]

A handful of accounts imply shamans may be feared in some cases for their abilities as they specify that someone did not fear being approached and talked to by a shaman.[51] This leads to further ideas that the shaman's power was to be greatly respected and the idea that the shaman was not necessarily always a fair and good force for the people around them.

The Christianization of the Inuit by both willing conversion and being forcefully pressured into converting to Christianity has largely destroyed the tradition of the shaman. Priests, pastors, and other Christian religious authorities replaced the shamans as the connection between the human world and the other world.[52]


Below is an incomplete list of Inuit deities believed to hold power over some specific part of the Inuit world:

  • Agloolik: evil god of the sea who can flip boats over; spirit which lives under the ice and helps wanderers in hunting and fishing
  • Akna: mother goddess of fertility
  • Amaguq/Amarok: wolf god who takes those foolish enough to hunt alone at night
  • Anguta: gatherer of the dead; he carries them into the underworld, where they must sleep for a year.
  • Ignirtoq: a goddess of light and truth.[53][54][55]
  • Nanook: (Nanuq or Nanuk in the modern spelling) the master of polar bears
  • Pinga: the goddess of strength, the hunt, fertility and medicine
  • Qailertetang: weather spirit, guardian of animals, and matron of fishers and hunters. Qailertetang is the companion of Sedna.
  • Sedna: the mistress of sea animals and mother of the sea. Sedna (Sanna in modern Inuktitut spelling) is known under many names, including Nerrivik, Arnapkapfaaluk, Arnakuagsak, and Nuliajuk.
  • Silap Inua or Sila: personification of the air
  • Tekkeitsertok: the master of caribou.
  • Tarqiup Inua: lunar deity
  • Pukkeenegak: Goddess of domestic life, including sewing and cooking.[56]

Creatures and spirits[edit]

  • Ahkiyyini: a skeleton spirit
  • Aningaat: a boy who became the moon; brother to Siqiniq, the sun; sometimes equated to the lunar deity Tarqiup Inua
  • Aumanil: a spirit which dwelled on the land and guided the seasonal movement of whales[57]
  • Qallupilluit: monstrous human-like creatures with that live in the sea and carry off disobedient children.[58]
  • Saumen Kar: also called Tornit or Tuniit are the Inuit version of the Sasquatch or Yeti myth. They may be the people of the Dorset culture who were said to be giants.
  • Siqiniq: a girl who became the sun; sister to Aningaat, the moon
  • Tizheruk: snake-like monsters.

See also[edit]

  • Inuit group, a set of satellites that orbit Saturn, many named after figures from Inuit religion



  1. ^ Texts of mythology Sacred text.com. Retrieved 26 January 2013.
  2. ^ "Religion by Indigenous Identity: Canada, Provinces and Territories". Statistics Canada. doi:10.25318/9810028801-eng.
  3. ^ "Inuit (Eschimo)". Archived from the original on 2008-12-20. Retrieved 2008-12-31.
  4. ^ Qitsualik, Rachel Attituq (10 September 1999). "Shooting the Breeze". www.nunatsiaq.com. Nunatsiaq News. Retrieved 16 May 2024.
  5. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985: 32
  6. ^ Lowenstein 1992: p. xxxv
  7. ^ "Eastern Canadian Inuktitut-English Dictionary ᐊᖓᑦᑯᖅ". Glosbe. Retrieved September 30, 2020.
  8. ^ "Eastern Canadian Inuktitut-English Dictionary ᐊᖓᒃᑯᖅ". Glosbe. Retrieved September 30, 2020.
  9. ^ "Dreams and Angakkunngurniq : Becoming an Angakkuq". Francophone Association of Nunavut. Archived from the original on April 17, 2021. Retrieved September 30, 2020.
  10. ^ "Inuinnaqtun to English" (PDF). Copian. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-09. Retrieved September 30, 2020.
  11. ^ a b Merkur 1985:122
  12. ^ Rasmussen 1965:170
  13. ^ Rasmussen 1965:244
  14. ^ Rasmussen 1965:245
  15. ^ a b c Rasmussen 1965:262
  16. ^ Rasmussen 1965:268
  17. ^ Kleivan & Sonne:43
  18. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:15
  19. ^ Rasmussen 1965:256,279
  20. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:27
  21. ^ Rasmussen 1965:278
  22. ^ a b Kleivan & Sonne 1985:30
  23. ^ Rasmussen 1965:279
  24. ^ Rasmussen 1965:106
  25. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:31
  26. ^ Gabus 1970:145
  27. ^ a b Kleivan & Sonne 1985:18
  28. ^ Gabus 1970:111
  29. ^ Gabus 1970:212
  30. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:31, 36
  31. ^ Rasmussen 1965:108, Kleivan & Sonne 1985:26
  32. ^ Gabus 1970:227–228
  33. ^ a b Kleivan & Sonne 1986: 31
  34. ^ a b Mousalimas, S. A. (1997). "Editor's Introduction". Arctic Ecology and Identity. ISTOR Books 8. Budapest • Los Angeles: Akadémiai Kiadó • International Society for Trans-Oceanic Research. pp. 23–26. ISBN 978-963-05-6629-2.
  35. ^ Nuttall 1997: 75
  36. ^ Merkur 1985: 235–240
  37. ^ Gabus 1970: 230–234
  38. ^ Saladin d'Anglure 1990 Archived 2006-05-17 at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 447
  40. ^ Merkur 1985: 230
  41. ^ Subin, Anna Della. "The enchanted worlds of Marshall Sahlins".
  42. ^ Lowenstein 1992: p. xxxiii
  43. ^ a b Neuhaus 2000:48
  44. ^ Hall 1975: 445
  45. ^ a b Norman, Howard (1990). Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 173-177. ISBN 0394540603.
  46. ^ Hall 1975: 450
  47. ^ Hall 1975: 401
  48. ^ Hall 1975: 297–298
  49. ^ Norman, Howard (1990). Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 189-191. ISBN 0394540603.
  50. ^ Norman, Howard (1990). Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 182. ISBN 0394540603.
  51. ^ Hall 1975: 148
  52. ^ Meyer, Lauren. "Sámi Noaidi and Inuit Angakoq: Traditional Shamanic Roles and Practices".
  53. ^ Leach, Marjorie (1992). Guide to the Gods. Gale Research. p. 191. ISBN 9780874365917.
  54. ^ Ann, Martha; Myers Imel, Dorothy (1993). Goddesses in World Mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 369. ISBN 9780195091991.
  55. ^ Boaz, Franz (1907). The Eskimo of Baffin Land and Hudson Bay: from notes collected by George Comer, James S. Mutch, E.J. Peck. American Museum of Natural History. p. 498.
  56. ^ The Goddess Guide, Priestess Brandi Auset, ISBN 0738715514, 9780738715513
  57. ^ L'Ethnographie (in French). L'Entretemps éditions. 1922.
  58. ^ "Qallupilluit - from the Inuit tribes, a "troll-like" creature". Franz Boas (1888) The Central Eskimo. (p.212-213). Retrieved 18 February 2012.


  • Kleivan, Inge; B. Sonne (1985). Eskimos: Greenland and Canada. Iconography of religions, section VIII, "Arctic Peoples", fascicle 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: Institute of Religious Iconography • State University Groningen. E.J. Brill. ISBN 90-04-07160-1.
  • Laugrand, Frédéric; Jarich Oosten; François Trudel (2000). Representing Tuurngait. Memory and History in Nunavut, Volume 1. Nunavut Arctic College.
  • Lowenstein, Tom (1992). The Things That Were Said of Them : Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikiġaq People. Asatchaq (informant); Tukummiq (translator). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06569-7.
  • Neuhaus, Mareike (2000). That's Raven Talk: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures. Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada: University of Regina Press. ISBN 978-0-88977-233-5.
  • Rasmussen, Knud (1926). Thulefahrt. Frankfurt am Main: Frankurter Societăts-Druckerei.
  • Rasmussen, Knud (1965). Thulei utazás. Világjárók (in Hungarian). transl. Detre Zsuzsa. Budapest: Gondolat. Hungarian translation of Rasmussen 1926.
  • Merkur, Daniel (1985). Becoming Half Hidden: Shamanism and Initiation among the Inuit. Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis • Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. ISBN 978-91-22-00752-4.
  • Gabus, Jean (1944). Vie et coutumes des Esquimaux Caribous (in French). Libraire Payot Lausanne.
  • Gabus, Jean (1970). A karibu eszkimók (in Hungarian). Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó. Translation of Gabus 1944.
  • Menovščikov, G. A. (Г. А. Меновщиков) (1968). "Popular Conceptions, Religious Beliefs and Rites of the Asiatic Eskimoes". In Diószegi, Vilmos (ed.). Popular beliefs and folklore tradition in Siberia. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.
  • Hall, Edwin (1975). The Eskimo Story-Teller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

Further reading[edit]