Sedna, a good looking young woman, lived quietly with her father on the shore of the northern ocean, but the local youths who tried to win her heart could not penetrate her pride. One spring, fulmar, a pelagic bird, courted her. He described the wonderful land where he lived and convinced her that she should accompany him over the sea to his country.
When they got there, she quickly realized that fulmar had been lying. The home he promised her was, in fact, cold and foul rather than warm and soft, and the food consisted of miserable fish. The wretched girl had been deceived by fulmar, and she desperately wanted her father to come and rescue her.
The Sedna myth, according to Kimberley C. Patton, is told in Inuit communities across northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. It has many variations, but the most frequently told narrative continues in a dark vein. A year after Sedna flew off with fulmar, her father finally came to visit her and discovered the outrage that had been committed. He killed fulmar, took his daughter, and they fled in his boat toward home. When the other fulmars returned, they cried over the loss of their comrade, as they do to this day, and they vowed revenge. They pursued the boat with the fugitives.
They caught up with the people and stirred up a storm with huge waves that threatened to capsize the boat. Terrified, the father decided to save himself by throwing his daughter overboard to appease the fulmars. As she clung for dear life to the edge of the boat, the father chopped off the ends of her fingers with a knife. The fingers fell into the sea and became whales. She continued to hold on, so he cut off more of her fingers, which swam off as seals. When the father cut off the last bits of her fingers, they swam off as bearded seals.
The fulmars thought they had killed Sedna, so the storm subsided and she finally climbed into the boat with her father. When they got home, she took revenge on him by calling the dogs while he slept to chew off his feet and hands. When he awoke, he cursed them all, and the father, the daughter, and dogs all went to Adlivun, the land at the bottom of the sea where Sedna reigns.
The Sedna legend is particularly important to coastal Inuit, who perform rituals to cure polluting events that may have offended her. Inuit who hunt sea mammals must be extremely careful to not offend the animals they hunt, for they are all the offspring of Sedna. She must be placated whenever hunting successes wane.
The whales, walruses, and seals watch over human moral and ritual cleanliness, and react when they perceive violations. When such lapses in morality occur, the animals may withhold themselves from contact with humans, so the people have nothing to hunt. The people begin to starve. The solution used by many Inuit is for an angakoq, a shaman, to hold a trance. During his or her trance, the shaman travels over the sea and down to the realm of Sedna. He finds her in the middle of a large plain on the seafloor in her stone house, a building without a roof so she can observe the doings of the people above.
The shaman has to break down a stone wall in front of the house, overcome the guard dog, and get past the father. Sedna’s long black hair is filthy, encrusted with the evil deeds of the Inuit, her mouth and eyes filled with dirt. Much as Sedna originally violated taboos of her society against marrying an animal, she is once again a victim of human violations of ritual pollutions. And since she has no fingers, she is unable to clean herself. She cannot function as any other Inuit person would and care for herself or provide her own food.
The angakoq turns Sedna toward the light and cleans her hair. While working, the shaman presses the inua, or sea goddess, for information about the norms that have been violated. The shaman finally has the long hair of the goddess completely clean and braided, and has learned which ritual standards have to be restored. The angakoq, in many versions, also cleans out the filth in Sedna’s house. As the angakog appeases Sedna’s anger, she releases the mammals so they can swim freely in the seas near the humans. The crisis from the lack of food is nearly over. Promising the goddess that the people will correct their behavior, the shaman returns to the human community.
Patton, in a 2007 book about the sea and evil, devotes chapter 5 to an explanation of how Sedna symbolizes pollution, purification, and the ethical behavior of coastal dwellers. While the Inuit have accepted modern ways in many respects, the author argues that their cultures still accept the Sedna beliefs, if their artistic production is any gauge. Contemporary Inuit sculptures often depict her as half human and half animal, or with grotesque bodily distortions, or awful hair.
The Sedna myth is powerful. It emphasizes purity, both of the marine environment and of human society. The inua is dirty precisely because of human violations of moral values, and people suffer immediate consequences from their lax attention to the rules of behavior, just as she herself suffered from violating the prohibition against marrying animals.
Sedna is often capricious and ambiguous, but that is the way she was treated. The ocean environment can be like that. When all the rules are properly followed, the sea animals willingly yield themselves to be taken by hunters for food, but when they aren’t, the shaman has to intervene and restore the proper order. Ms. Patton provides an effective analysis of a fascinating legend.
Patton, Kimberley C. 2007. “‘The Great Woman Down There;’ Sedna and Ritual Pollution in Inuit Seascapes,” chapter 5 in her book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean, p.79-96. New York: Columbia University Press