Planets in Inuit Astronomy
- John MacDonaldJohn MacDonaldSchool of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow
Inuit are an indigenous people traditionally inhabiting the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and parts of Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Across this vast region, Inuit society, while not entirely homogeneous either culturally or linguistically, nevertheless shares a fundamental cosmology, in part based on a common understanding of the sky and its contents. Traditionally, Inuit used prominent celestial objects—the sun, moon, and major circumpolar asterisms—as markers for estimating the passage of time, as wayfinding and directional aids, and, importantly, as the basis of several of the foundational myths and legends underpinning their society’s social order and mores.
Random inquiries on Inuit astronomy made by European visitors after initial contact through the mid-18th and early 20th centuries were characteristically haphazard and usually peripheral to some other line of ethnological enquiry, such as folklore or mythology. In addition, the early accounts of Inuit star lore were often prone to misrepresentation due to several factors, including European cultural bias, translation inadequacies, a deficiency of general astronomical knowledge on the part of most commentators, and, most significantly, a failure—sometimes due to lack of opportunity—to conduct systematic observations of the sky in the presence of Inuit knowledge holders. Early accounts therefore tended to diminish the cultural significance of Inuit astronomy, almost to the point of insignificance. Unfortunately, by the time systematic fieldwork began on the topic, in the mid-1980s, unalloyed information on Inuit astronomical knowledge was already elusive, more and more compromised by European acculturation and substitution and, notably, by light pollution—a consequence of the increasing urbanization of Inuit communities beginning in the late 1950s. For the residents of most Arctic settlements, street lights reflecting off the snow have virtually eliminated the evocative phenomenon of the “polar night.”
For several reasons, the role of planets in Inuit astronomy is difficult to determine, due, in part, to the characteristics of the planets themselves. Naked-eye differentiation between the major visible planets is by no means straightforward, and for observers living north of the Arctic Circle, the continuous or semicontinuous periods of daylight/twilight obtaining throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall effectively prevent year-round viewing of the night sky, making much planetary movement unobservable, far less an appreciation of the planets’ predictable synodic and sidereal periods. Mitigating against the significant use of planets in Inuit culture is also the principle that their applied astronomy, along with its cosmology and mythologies depend principally on—apart from the sun and the moon—the predictability of the “fixed stars.”
Inuit of course did see the major planets and took note of them when they moved through their familiar asterisms or appeared, irregularly, as markers of solstice, or harbingers of daylight after winter’s dark. Generally, however, planets seem to have been little regarded until after the introduction of Christianity, when, in parts of the Canadian eastern Arctic, Venus, in particular, became associated with Christmas. While there are anecdotal accounts that some of the planets, again especially Venus, may have had a place in Greenlandic mythology, this assertion is far from certain. Furthermore, reports from Alaska and Greenland suggesting that the appearance of Venus was a regular marker of the new year, or a predictor of sun’s return, need qualification, given the apparent irregularity of Venus’s appearances above the horizon.
A survey of relevant literature, including oral history, pertaining either directly or peripherally to Inuit astronomical traditions, reveals few bona fide mention of planets. References to planets in Inuit mythology and astronomy are usually speculative, typically lacking supportive or corroborative information. It can therefore be reasonably inferred that, with the qualified exception of Venus, planets played little part in Inuit astronomy and cosmology despite their being, on occasion, the brightest objects in the Northern celestial sphere. This being the case, there is a certain irony in NASA’s recently bestowing Inuit mythological names on a group of Saturn’s moons—Saturn being a planet the Inuit themselves, as far as can be determined, did not note or recognize.
The Arctic Sky
A basic appreciation of Inuit astronomy and star lore rests on an understanding of the relationship between geographical latitude and the visible portion of the sky: the higher the latitude, the less we see of the celestial sphere. Theoretically, at the Equator over the course of the year, all stars in both the North and South celestial spheres can be seen; an observer at the North Pole would see only half of them.1 While the closest Inuit community today is approximately 1500 km from the North Pole, the residents see proportionately less of the sky than populations living in more temperate regions. Tangible implications of this factor are perhaps borne out by comparing two versions of a well-known Inuit myth, “The Entrails Snatcher,” or Ulujijarnaat. In one version, from Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada (latitude 69°N) there is reference to the star Sirius; the other version, from Qaanaaq, Greenland (latitude 77°N) makes no mention of Sirius, understandably because from this latitude, Sirius, having a declination of almost −17°, cannot be seen (Holtved, 1951; MacDonald, 2000). The limiting effect of high latitude on celestial observation is seen dramatically in the sun’s behavior north of the Arctic Circle, a phenomenon commonly known as the “midnight sun.” At the latitude of Igloolik the sun is continuously below the horizon for 46 days between late November and mid-January, and is continuously above the horizon for 66 days between mid-May and the end of July—a period extended by continuous twilight from mid-April to around the end of August (MacDonald, 2000). Moreover, at that latitude, all stars having southerly declinations approaching or exceeding 20° are always below the horizon. The polar explorer Robert Peary attributed the “necessarily limited” astronomy of the Inuit of the Qaanaaq region, Greenland (approximately 77° N), to the fact that they could effectively observe the stars (including planets) for “only three months of the year” (Peary, 1891, Vol. I, p. 494).
Planets in Inuit Mythology
Etymologically, Inuit did not distinguish between planets and stars. In Canada’s central and eastern Arctic, planets were called Ulluriarjuat (pl.)—literally, “great stars.” The term in singular form (Ulluriarjuak) was used particularly for Venus, but probably also for Mars or Jupiter at times when they were especially visible. A similar word—Uvluiaqpak—was reputedly applied to Venus in Northern Alaska (Gubser, 1965) and, from this same area, John Simpson records the term Shu-ga-run applying to both Mars and Venus (Bockstoce, 1988). Also for North Alaska, Robert Spenser was probably referring to Venus when he used the terms “evening star” and “morning star”—common European synonyms for Venus in its evening and morning phases. He added that, in the native language (Iñpiat), the morning and evening “stars” have the “proper names” Sivollik and Aaguruk, respectively (Spenser, 1959, p. 258). This strongly suggests that Spenser’s informants were referring to the fixed stars Arcturus (in Boötes) and Altair and Tarazed (in Aquila), which typically have similar Inuit names across the region.2 Additionally, Spenser applied the Inuit name Kayktuq to the planet Mars, which in the Western Arctic is the name generally reserved for the star Sirius (MacDonald, 2000; Spenser, 1959). In Greenland, Venus was known variously by its legendary name Nalaarteq (Ostermann, 1938) or Nalaarseq (Robbe & Dorais, 1986). Other Greenlandic designations associate Venus with the movement of the sun: Qaasiut (Robbe & Dorais, 1986), implying the planet is a harbinger of light; and Seqernup maleruartâ, literally “the sun’s follower” (Schultz-Lorentzen, 1927).
Only in Greenland do we have mention of planets apparently playing a part in Inuit mythology. Rasmussen (1908) and Holtved (1951) each associated Venus with the legend of a great seal hunter named Nâlagssartoq (“he who stands and listens”). Paraphrased, the legend runs as follows: One day, Nâlagssartoq was seal hunting on the sea ice when he was disturbed by noisy children playing in the cleft of a cliff on the nearby shore. The children’s cries were frightening the seals, making them difficult to catch. Nâlagssartoq warned the children several times, but they ignored him. Furious, he called out “close, cleft, over those who frighten my catch away.” The cleft closed immediately, trapping the children. Despite the best efforts of nearby villagers to save the children, they all perished. The people then turned on Nâlagssartoq, intent on killing him, but he rose up to the sky and transformed into a “great star.”3
The dark, misanthropic narrative of Nâlagssartoq’s story underscores a recurring theme in Inuit, as well as in universal mythology, relating to the creation of stars: wrongdoers were transformed into luminous beings in the sky where they reside for eternity, their evil deeds recounted as a warning to successive generations.4 Virtually all celestial bodies given proper names by Inuit were once earthbound humans who “rose up to the sky” following some grave social transgression. The epitome of this motif is seen in the great Inuit foundational myth accounting for the creation of the sun and the moon, who were once sister and brother on Earth, but were transformed into celestial objects because of violence, avariciousness, incest, and murder (MacDonald, 2000).
Two other planet-related mythologies derive from Greenland. Cranz reported that in West Greenland, planets “in their conjunction” are “two females that visit or wrangle together” (Cranz, 1767, Vol. I, p. 230), while according to Holm, in East Greenland, Jupiter was said to be the sun’s mother, was considered dangerous, and so was to be avoided by shamans on their journeys to the moon (Thalbitzer, 1914). Neither Cranz’s nor Holm’s information is corroborated elsewhere in the literature. Holm, in fact, seems to be superimposing elements of Greco-Roman mythology on Inuit star lore.
Attempting to deduce astronomical facts from Inuit mythology, though fascinating, is at best highly speculative. In most cases, barring evidence to the contrary, we can assume that legends involving celestial objects were generally not recorded while the objects in question were being observed. European collectors of this genre of lore were principally interested in the narrative aspects of the legend, not its astronomical niceties. Thus, in telling the story, an Inuit narrator may have simply mentioned a particularly bright star appearing before dawn or after sunset that, without verification, conveniently becomes Venus in the collector’s transcription. Rasmussen titled his version of the Nâlagssartoq legend “Venus”—an apparent supposition because the text of the narrative states only that Nâlagssartoq “. . . shot up to the sky, and now he sits up there as a great star,” coincidentally implying a fixed star rather than an itinerant planet. In Holtved’s version, Venus is placed, perhaps speculatively, in parentheses. It is therefore not at all clear that references made to Venus in the above-cited legends are factual; in these accounts, any bright star would serve the narrative’s needs equally well. In Kroeber’s version of the Nâlagssartoq legend (which he called Naulaxssaqton), only a “star” is mentioned; there is no specific reference to Venus (Kroeber, 1899).
Venus as a Seasonal Marker
For locations as far apart as the Thule region of Greenland and the Brooks Range of northern Alaska—both situated well above the Arctic Circle—we have reports that Venus was used as a sign of the sun’s imminent return after winter’s darkness (Rasmussen, 1908, p. 177), or as a marker of the new year on its “first appearance . . . above the horizon shortly after the first of January” (Gubser, 1965, p. 191).
These claims mistakenly imply that Venus consistently appears at the same time and in the same position in the sky each year to mark the sun’s return. It does not, due to its synodic and sidereal periods.5 More to the point, perhaps, is that Inuit have their own fixed stars for this specific purpose: Altair and Tarazed, in the constellation Aquila. Across the Arctic, from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Ammassalik, East Greenland, these two stars constitute the Inuit asterism known as Aagjuuk, or some regional dialect variant of it. Aagjuuk, among the most ancient and essential of Inuit asterisms, was universally used as a seasonal marker of the period around winter solstice when, appearing for the first time in the year on the northeastern horizon, it proclaimed the return of sunlight. Thereafter, throughout the early months of the year, Aagjuuk was as an indicator of impending dawn (MacDonald, 2000).
On occasions when Venus and Aagjuuk shared the early morning sky, Venus could serve as Aagjuuk’s proxy in predicting the sun’s return. The following statement from Rachel Ujarasuk of Igloolik, Nunavut, confirms this point while coincidentally demonstrating how European acculturation altered Inuit perceptions of Venus:
Ulluriaqjuaq [in this instance, Venus] was used as a sign of the returning daylight. . . . But it was not always there. When I was a child . . . we would hear about Ulluriaqjuaq appearing on the horizon shortly after Christmas . . . so I would watch for Ulluriaqjuaq. It has always been like that . . . Sometimes it did not appear, but as a child I never noticed this. It was when I was an adult . . . that I first noticed Ulluriaqjuaq was missing. It frightened me when I did not see it any more. I thought it might be a sign that the world would end.(MacDonald, 2000, p. 93)
Practicality of the Fixed Stars in Inuit Mythology
A characteristic of Inuit celestial mythology is its reliance on fixed stars, which, by their specific groupings in the sky, together constitute the long-established asterisms of Inuit astronomy. Beyond its deeper cosmological significance, Inuit celestial mythology served a practical purpose: instilling “memory maps” of the sky whenever the myths were recounted. Stars became actors in vivid, dramatic stories that, once heard, were not easily forgotten. In addition to upholding the cultural mores of the society, these stories, passed from generation to generation, furnished Inuit with a practical knowledge of the Arctic’s night sky as seen at various times of the year, showing the major stars and their positions relative to each other, as related in the narrative of each myth.6 Traditionally, Inuit knowledge of specific stars and asterisms, acquired through mythology, was at times essential for wayfinding—particularly on moving sea ice—and for the reckoning of diurnal and seasonal time during the midwinter months. Noah Piugaattuk, an elder of Igloolik, Nunavut, is clear about the practical worth of Inuit celestial mythology: “stars have legends behind them to pinpoint their exact location” (MacDonald, 2000, pp. 167–168). By contrast, planets in their wanderings evade such “pinpointing” and thus have no enduring practical place in Inuit astronomical traditions, which depended principally on the predictability of the fixed stars.
Given the adverse impacts of urbanization and acculturation on present-day Inuit society, few opportunities remain to add to our meager understanding of Inuit astronomical traditions. Each passing year diminishes the small, extant cadre of Inuit knowledge-holders; no longer is Inuit star lore and its attendant myths and legends being transmitted to the younger Inuit generations in the seamless way it used to be prior to urbanization. The once essential, practical applications of Inuit star knowledge for wayfinding, time telling, and even weather prediction, are now supplanted by TV and radio forecasts, GPS navigation technology, Western calendars, and digital watches. Even names of some of their ancient asterisms are being usurped: Ursa Major, almost universally known to Inuit as Tukturjuit (“caribou”) is now in parts of Arctic Quebec called Qallutik, meaning “dipper.” Similarly, in West Greenland, the “big dipper” asterism in Ursa Major is sometimes called Kalîp Qamutai, meaning “Kale’s Sled.” This is clearly a borrowing from “Karl’s Wagon,” the common Scandinavian designation for Ursa Major, also known archaically in Britain as “Charles’s Wain” (MacDonald, 2000, p. 83).
Inuit cultural and political organizations, education authorities, and regional governments in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland would do well to systematically record any original astronomical knowledge still held in the memories of Inuit elders and, combining their findings with information previously collected, develop high-school level courses in comparative Inuit astronomy. In this way, an essential part of Inuit cultural heritage may be saved for future generations.
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1. For a graphic illustration of the relationship between an observer’s latitudinal position on Earth and the observable portion of the sky, see Aveni (2001, pp. 56–57).
2. In Igloolik, the star combinations Arcturus and Muphrid and Altair and Tarazed are asterisms respectively named Siullik and Aagjuuk.
3. See MacDonald (2000, pp. 281–282), for versions of the Nâlagssartoq legend collected by Rasmussen and Holtved.
4. For example, in common with the Inuit legend involving some of Orion’s stars, both Greek and Chinese mythologies relating to Orion in various degrees are founded on human transgressive behavior. See Ridpath (1988, pp. 97–98) and Ridpath (2017), Star tales—Orion the hunter, retrieved from http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/orion.htm.
5. For a concise, general explanation of synodic and sidereal periods see Faure and Mensing (2007, p. 95).
6. See, for example, the legend of Ullaktut, incorporating stars from the constellations of Orion and Taurus, and the legend of Iliarjugaarjuk, incorporating stars from the constellations of Lyra and Boötes (MacDonald, 2000, pp. 228–231).