TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic July 19, 2012 - 11:17 am

Taissumani, July 20

More Taboos After Childbirth


Last week’s column told about taboos that a woman among the Iglulik Inuit, in the days before Christianity, had to follow immediately after giving birth.

Here are some more of these rules:

The mother had to have a small skin bag hanging beside her lamp. Whenever she was about to eat, she had to cut off a small piece of meat, rub it on the child’s mouth, and place it in the bag before she started to eat.

This act, called minguliqtirijuq, protected the child against hunger and, if the child was a boy, made him skilful in hunting later, bringing an abundance of meat to his home. Another interpretation of that taboo was that it ensured that the soul of the deceased person after whom the child was named would have something to eat.

The young mother was not allowed to cut up meat herself for boiling. This must be done by young girls or older women. She could not take any meat from the pot and place it on her dish until it was cooked. She must take great care not to spill any. If a piece of meat should fall from her dish, it had to be picked up immediately and thrown on the right side of the lamp.

When the stay in the kiniqvik was over, the minguliqtirijuq requirement came to an end. If the child was a boy, the mother then had to take the skin bag which by now was filled with tiny fragments of meat, and carry it to the blowhole of a seal.

She had to throw all the scraps of meat, all of which had been the first meat to touch her son’s lips – symbolically being his first flesh food – into the hole. By throwing the meat back into the sea where it had come from, the pieces could become seals again, to be caught again by the boy when he grew up.

If the child were a girl, the scraps of meat were simply thrown out on the edge of the beach. The skin bag was flung out onto the ice.

While in the kiniqvik, the woman had to have the skin from the head of a seal spread over her lap as an apron while she ate. Afterwards, if the child was a boy, the apron was laid out on the ice beside a seal’s blowhole.

During this period, the woman was not allowed to eat the meat of animals killed by anyone other than her own husband.

But there was an exception. At certain times of year, three specially chosen men were sent out after walrus; meat caught by those men could be eaten freely.

Women during this period of abstinence could also not eat the meat of animals that were killed suddenly. The seals that they ate must, after being harpooned, have come to the surface at least once more to breathe.

If the child was a boy, the woman had to eat twice a day but she could never eat her fill. If the child was a girl, she had three meals a day. But if the child was a boy and she wanted him to be especially skilful in hunting – one cannot imagine why she would not want this - then she should eat three times a day but, again, she should never eat until she was full.

The reasoning behind this was that the mother’s hunger causes the child to be light and therefore swift in hunting; he would catch game while others were heavy and slow at their tasks.

All of these rules, bizarre though they may seem today, had to be observed for all of the period following the child’s birth, before the woman returned to her husband’s house.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.