Books

Ancient Inuit mythology sheds light on a troubled present in new volume

The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold

Richard Price, Carcanet Classics, 188 pages, 2021. $18.99

Perhaps in this difficult era we have found ourselves in, looking back to ancient mythology can offer some guidance. The virus that has upended the lives of every human on our planet reminds us that we as humans are not immune to the forces of nature. A global culture that has grown from the liberating idea of individualism has hobbled our ability to deal with nature as a collective species. Battles over how to approach the calamity hinge upon the debate between those who seek to find balance with nature and those who prefer embracing the individual at all costs, including death. Equilibrium between these competing impulses seems impossible to attain.

Mythology is often grounded in the understanding of this conundrum. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the seemingly global mythological trope of the “hero’s journey,” a concept popularized in modern culture by the late Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s theories have been subjected to much critique, but they do present a worthy approach to understanding mythology, and in so doing, finding that elusive balance. The hero sets out alone into a mythic landscape to discover his or herself, experiences a series of magical events, and returns home to rediscover the culture left behind, and their place in the universe.

These were some of the thoughts I found myself having while reading “The Owner of the Sea,” a new interpretation of three Inuit myth cycles by Richard Price, an award-winning British poet. The stories themselves are ancient, passed down orally through millennia, and only in the last century put to the page by Westerners, including the famed northern explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen. Drawing from these English translations, Price has rendered the stories into verse form in a book that finds wisdom for the present in the distant past.

The book contains three legends. The first bears the same title as the book itself and tells the story of Sedna, the goddess of the sea. It is at heart a creation myth that explains how the world the Inuit knew prior to contact with the West came to be. How it was peopled. Why creatures behave as they do.

As with all gods of mythology, including the one found in the Bible, Sedna is prone to rapid mood shifts, to offering punishments and rewards, and to treating humans alternately with great kindness and love, or with indifference and even disdain. This is how the world treats us after all. We create our gods in our likeness.

A second tale, “The Old Woman who Changed Herself into a Man,” is a story of gender fluidity. Two women, alone in an empty landscape, choose to become lovers to escape their shared loneliness. In a switch common to many myths, one becomes a man, but both remain who they are, transcending gender and reaching for deeper humanity.

The third and by far longest tale offers the best insight into humanity’s role in the present reality, however. Titled after its lead character, Kiviuq, it’s an epic on par with Gilgamesh and Ulysses. A true hero’s journey. Kiviuq sets out into the world, wandering the sea and the land, encountering all manner of adventures in a realm with no clear lines of distinction between men and women, humans and animals, flesh and landscape. All blend together into a single whole. All beings, including Kiviuq, can shape-shift from one species to the next, from one gender to another, as befits the needs of the moment.

“Kiviuq” is not a linear tale, just as life itself does not proceed in one tidy direction. The story itself is drawn from countless legends, because mythology works that way. A single character can be many things in many instances, again, as befits the needs of the moment. Kiviuq is at the center of a great many stories, only some of which has Price drawn from.

Kiviuq takes animal form. Animals take human form. They interact, they join together and break apart. They often have sex — the repeated sexual and scatological occurrences in these tales serve as a reminder of how non-Western cultures often had healthier relationships with their own human bodies than can historically be found in the frequently squeamish and repressed West.

The supernatural realm found in these stories of Kiviuq is enchanted, and more importantly, connected. Kiviuq wanders through it, marrying some animals that have taken human form, and being exploited by others who have done the same. There exists no clear divide between himself and the natural world as we see it in the West. Kiviuq’s success lies not in forcing such a divide into existence, but in melting into it all.

In the penultimate scene, he and the animals he has engaged with come together for a meal, where “For a full merry hour all the rivals feasted as friends.” Soon they are separated again, but in that brief moment the truth of their common origin and mutual fate places all of them on the same level.

Kiviuq ultimately returns to a home that has changed in his absence. He “had been gone a few minutes in song time / but years in a life” as Price renders it. He leaves again, but perhaps to return. “Have you seen Kiviuq? Is this just the start of his story?”

Perhaps he has turned to stone. Perhaps lichen has overtaken his face. We do not know. What we do know is that he has encountered the world and found that it will continue forming him. He’s at once both an individual and completely at the mercy of the forces of life. Some of them benign, others malign, but none escapable.

There’s a lesson here for our conflicts today. We cannot own the world, the world cannot own us. It’s all one. The key is in learning how we fit into it and accept it. The good and the bad. Such is the power of myth found in this wonderful and unexpectedly timely book.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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