Inuit religion

Inuit religion is the shared spiritual beliefs and practices of Inuit, an indigenous people from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Their religion shares many similarities with religions of other North Polar peoples. Traditional Inuit religious practices include animism and shamanism, in which spiritual healers mediate with spirits. [1]

Today many Inuit follow Christianity, but 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.[2]

Inuit cosmology provides a narrative about the world and the place of people within it. Rachel Attituq Qitsualik (Inuk) 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.[3]

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.[4]

First were unipkaaqs : myths, legends, and folktales which took place "back then" in the indefinite past (taimmani).[5]

Inuit dance near Nome 1900
Iñupiat dance near Nome, Alaska, 1900

Inuit cultural beliefs


Among the Canadian Inuit, a spiritual healer is known as an angakkuq (Inuktitut[6]) or Inuvialuk: ᐊᖓᑦᑯᖅ angatkuq.[7] The duties of an angakkuq includes helping the community when marine animals, kept by Takanaluk-arnaluk or Sea Woman in a pit in her house, become scarce, according to the Aua, an informant and friend of the anthropologist Rasmussen. Aua described the ability of an apprentice angakkuq to see himself as a skeleton,[8] naming each part using the specific shaman language.[9][8]

Inuit at Amitsoq Lake

The Inuit at Amitsoq Lake (a rich fishing ground) had seasonal and other prohibitions for sewing certain items. Boot soles, for example, could only be sewn far away from settlements in designated places.[10] Children at Amitsoq once had a game called tunangusartut in which they imitated the adults behavior 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."[11]

Netsilik Inuit

The homelands of the Netsilik Inuit (Netsilingmiut meaning "People of the Seal") have extremely long winters and stormy springs. Starvation was a common danger.[12]

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.[13] In one recorded instance, a young boy had 80 amulets, so many that he could hardly play.[14][12] One particular man had 17 names taken from his ancestors and intended to protect him.[12][15]

Tattooing among Netsilik women provided power and could affect which world they went to after their deaths.[16]

Nuliajuk, the Sea Woman, was described as "the lubricous one".[17] If the people breached certain taboos, she held marine animals in the tank of her lamp. 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.[18]

Moon Man, another cosmic being, is benevolent towards humans and their souls as they arrived in celestial places.[19][20] This belief differs from that of the Greenland Inuit, in which the Moon’s wrath could be invoked by breaking taboos.[19]

Sila, often associated with weather, is conceived of as a power contained within people.[21] Among the Netsilik, Sila was imagined as male. The Netsilik (and Copper Inuit) believed Sila was originally a giant baby whose parents died fighting giants.[22]

Caribou Inuit

Caribou Inuit is a collective name for several groups of inland Alaskan Natives (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.[23]

The Caribou have a dualistic concept of the soul. The soul associated with respiration is called umaffia (place of life)[24] 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.[25] This belief amounted to a form of reincarnation.[24][26]

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.[27]

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.[28][29]

Copper Inuit

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.[30] In many instances it refers "outer space", "intellect", "weather", "sky", "universe":[30][31][32][33][34] there may be some correspondence with the presocratic concept of logos.[31][35] In some other groups, this concept was more personified ([sɬam juɣwa] among Siberian Yupik).[36]

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.[37]


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 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.[38]


Some spirits have never been connected to physical bodies. These are called tuurngait (also tornait, tornat, tornrait, singular tuurngaq, torngak, tornrak, tarngek). Helpful spirits can be called upon in times of need. 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. He or she 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

Shamans ("anatquq" or "angakkuq" in the Inuit dialects of Northern Alaska and Northeastern Canada[39]) played an important role in the religion of Inuit peoples 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.[40] 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 peoples.

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.[40]

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 crisis often involve survival against the natural elements or disputes between people that could end in death.[41] 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.[42] The shaman is also able to bestow gifts and extraordinary abilities to people and to items such as tools.[43]

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.[44] 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.[45]

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. [46] 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 him or her.

The Christianization of the Inuit peoples 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.[47]


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 hurt boat flipping them 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 to hunt alone at night
  • Anguta: gatherer of the dead; he carries them into the underworld, where they must sleep for a year.
  • Igaluk: the moon god and brother to the sun, Malina. He chases her across the sky.
  • Malina: the sun goddess and sister to the moon, Igaluk.
  • Nanook: (Nanuq or Nanuk in the modern spelling) the master of polar bears
  • Pinga: the goddess of 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. Sedna (Sanna in modern Inuktitut spelling) is known under many names, including Nerrivik, Arnapkapfaaluk, Arnakuagsak, and Nuliajuk.
  • Sila: personification of the air
  • Tekkeitsertok: the master of caribou.

Creatures and spirits

  • Qalupalik is a myth/legend told by Inuit parents and elders to prevent children from wandering to the shore. Qalupalik are human-like creatures with long hair, green skin, and long finger nails that live in the sea. They wear amautiit, in which they carry away babies and children who disobey their parents or wander off alone. They take the children underwater, where they adopt them as their own. Qalupaliks have a distinctive humming sound, and the elders have said you can hear the Qalupaliks humming when they are near. Up to today the Qalupalik story is still being told in schools and books, and by parents who don’t want their children to wander off to the dangerous shore. The myth was adapted as a 2010 stop motion animation short, Qalupalik, by Ame Papatsie.[48]
  • Ahkiyyini is a skeleton spirit
  • Saumen kars or 'Tornits' are the Inuit version of the hairy man or yeti myth.
  • Tizheruk are snake-like monsters.
  • Qallupilluit are "troll-like" creature that come after misbehaving children.[49]


  1. ^ Texts of mythology Sacred Retrieved 26 January 2013.
  2. ^ Archived 2008-12-20 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Qitsualik, Rachel Attituq (24 September 1999). "Mr. Holman dreams: Part One of Two". Nunani. Nunatsiaq Online. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  4. ^ Kleivan and Sonne 1985: 32
  5. ^ Lowenstein 1992, p. xxxv
  6. ^ "angakkuq". Asuilaak Living Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
  7. ^ "angatkuq". Asuilaak Living Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
  8. ^ a b Merkur 1985:122
  9. ^ Rasmussen 1965:170
  10. ^ Rasmussen 1965:244
  11. ^ Rasmussen 1965:245
  12. ^ a b c Rasmussen 1965:262
  13. ^ Rasmussen 1965:268
  14. ^ Kleivan & Sonne:43
  15. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:15
  16. ^ Rasmussen 1965:256,279
  17. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:27
  18. ^ Rasmussen 1965:278
  19. ^ a b Kleivan & Sonne 1985:30
  20. ^ Rasmussen 1965:279
  21. ^ Rasmussen 1965:106
  22. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985:31
  23. ^ Gabus 1970:145
  24. ^ a b Kleivan & Sonne 1985:18
  25. ^ Gabus 1970:111
  26. ^ Gabus 1970:212
  27. ^ Kleivan &Sonne 1985:31, 36
  28. ^ Rasmussen 1965:108, Kleivan & Sonne 1985:26
  29. ^ Gabus 1970:227–228
  30. ^ a b Kleivan & Sonne 1986: 31
  31. ^ a b Mousalimas 1997: 23–26
  32. ^ Nuttall 1997: 75
  33. ^ Merkur 1985: 235–240
  34. ^ Gabus 1970: 230–234
  35. ^ Saladin d'Anglure 1990 Archived 2006-05-17 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 447
  37. ^ Merkur 1985: 230
  38. ^ Lowenstein 1992, p. xxxiii
  39. ^ Hall, Edwin (1975). The Eskimo Story-Teller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. p. 445.
  40. ^ a b Norman, Howard (1990). Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 173–177. ISBN 0394540603.
  41. ^ Hall, Edwin (1975). The Eskimo Story-Teller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. p. 450.
  42. ^ Hall, Edwin (1975). The Eskimo Story-Teller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. p. 401.
  43. ^ Hall, Edwin (1975). The Eskimo Story-Teller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. pp. 297–298.
  44. ^ Norman, Howard (1990). Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 189–191. ISBN 0394540603.
  45. ^ Norman, Howard (1990). Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 182. ISBN 0394540603.
  46. ^ Hall, Edwin (1975). The Eskimo Story-Teller: Tales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. p. 148.
  47. ^ Meyer, Lauren. "Sámi Noaidi and Inuit Angakoq: Traditional Shamanic Roles and Practices".
  48. ^ Papatsie, Ame. "Nunavut Animation Lab: Qalupalik" (Animated short). National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  49. ^ "Qallupilluit - from the Inuit tribes, a "troll-like" creature". Franz Boas (1888) The Central Eskimo. (p.212-213). Retrieved 18 February 2012.


  • 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.
  • 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.


Further reading

  • Asatchaq, and Tom Lowenstein. The Things That Were Said of Them Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikiġaq People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 0-520-06569-7
  • Brian Morris (2006). Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-85241-8.
  • Blake, Dale. Inuit Life Writings and Oral Traditions Inuit Myths. St. John's, Nfld: Educational Resource Development Co-operative, 2001. ISBN 0-9688806-0-6
  • Christopher, Neil, Louise Flaherty, and Larry MacDougall. Stories of the Amautalik Fantastic Beings from Inuit Myths and Legends. Iqaluit, Nunavut: Inhabit Media, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9782186-3-8
  • Fienup-Riordan, Ann. Boundaries and Passages Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. The Civilization of the American Indian series, v. 212. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8061-2604-3
  • Hall, Edwin S. The Eskimo Storyteller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.
  • Himmelheber, Hans, and Ann Fienup-Riordan. Where the Echo Began And Other Oral Traditions from Southwestern Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2000. ISBN 1-889963-03-8
  • Houston, James A. James Houston's Treasury of Inuit Legends. Orlando, Fla: Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 0-15-205924-5
  • MacDonald, John. The Arctic Sky Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum/Nunavut Research Institute, 1998. ISBN 0-88854-427-8
  • Millman, Lawrence, and Timothy White. A Kayak Full of Ghosts Eskimo Tales. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987. ISBN 0-88496-267-9
  • Norman, Howard A., Leo Dillon, and Diane Dillon. The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese, and Other Tales of the Far North. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997. ISBN 0-15-230979-9
  • Spalding, Alex. Eight Inuit Myths = Inuit Unipkaaqtuat Pingasuniarvinilit. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1979.
  • Wolfson, Evelyn. Inuit Mythology. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Pub, 2001. ISBN 0-7660-1559-9
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Pana, the term for a snow knife in Inuktitut

Pana language, a language spoken in the Central African Republic

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Pana language (Gur), a language spoken in Burkina Faso and Mali

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Northern and Western Greenlanders call themselves Inughuit and Kalaallit, respectively. About 80% to 88% of Greenland's population, or approximately 44,000 to 50,000 people identify as being Inuit.


In Greenlandic Inuit religion, a tupilaq (tupilak, tupilait, or ᑐᐱᓚᒃ) was an avenging monster fabricated by a practitioner of witchcraft or shamanism by using various objects such as animal parts (bone, skin, hair, sinew, etc.) and even parts taken from the corpses of children. The creature was given life by ritualistic chants. It was then placed into the sea to seek and destroy a specific enemy.

The use of a tupilaq was risky, however, because if it was sent to destroy someone who had greater magical powers than the one who had formed it, it could be sent back to kill its maker instead, although the maker of tupilaq could escape by public confession of her or his own deed.Because tupilaqs were made in secret, in isolated places and from perishable materials, none have been preserved. Early European visitors to Greenland, fascinated by the native legend, were eager to see what tupilaqs looked like so the Inuit began to carve representations of them out of sperm whale teeth.

Today, tupilaqs of many different shapes and sizes are carved from various materials such as narwhal and walrus tusk, wood and caribou antler. They are an important part of Greenlandic Inuit art and are highly prized as collectibles.

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