Tupilaks may be grotesque, but tourists just can't get enough of these strangely seductive littl

Greenland's ugly icons


NUUK, GREENLAND – There are no soapstone carvings of dancing polar bears in the Anori Art store, nor are there sealskin okpiks on display, as you would find in Nunavut.

Instead, there are cabinets full of Greenland's iconic artifacts, the tiny, grotesque tupilak.

"Originally the tupilak was a creature composed of different materials from the natural world – animal, bird, or human remains – even parts taken from a child's corpse," explains The Culture of Greenland in Glimpses by Ole Jensen.

"The shaman, knowledgeable about witchcraft, would gather bits and pieces at a secret, isolated place, tie them together, chant magic spells over the tied up bundle, and then allow the tied up bits and pieces to draw sexual energy from the shaman's own genitalia.

"The tupilak was then ready to be put into the sea and sent off to kill an enemy. This way of getting rid of your enemies was, however, not entirely without risk because if the would-be victim had greater powers of wizardry than the initiator, his power could return the tupilak's strength and potency like a boomerang.

"In other words, it was a dangerous game – a Greenlandic version of Russian roulette."

Today, the tupilak is the most ubiquitous trinket sold to tourists in Greenland – a way to earn money, rather than whack your foes. They're most often made from reindeer antler, and stare from the Anori Art store's windows with frightening grimaces.

Wooden masks, which also sport disturbing expressions, are another trademark craft from Greenland that hang on the store's walls.

And Greenlanders love their sealskin, so inside the store you not only find sealskin mitts, jackets and boots – there are also sealskin gloves and high-top runners, and sealskin insoles to slip into your favourite shoes.

You can also buy finely-knit scarves, sweaters, mitts and toques made from qiviut, the soft underwool of muskox. It's softer than cashmere, eight times warmer than sheep's wool, and probably that much more expensive.

Mette Lynge started the store in 1996 after running the business from her home for two years.

She recalls growing up in a small community and being given traditional items by her father, a hunter, who did not see the value in keeping Inuit tools and crafts when modern, mass-produced items were readily available.

"‘Why keep old things,'" she recalls him asking. "‘It's strange to put them away.‘"

She did anyway, and she's been collecting Greenlandic art ever since. Her home is cluttered with more than 100 carvings that belong to her personal collection, which she hopes to one day display in her store, if she has a chance to expand the building.

"I'm also proud to show what we have in Greenland," she says.

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