Nunani: Baby thief (Part two)
There is nothing strange about worrying that one’s child might be kidnapped. It is almost certainly a fear that is as old as parenting itself, evidenced even in troupes of lower primates, such as baboons or chimpanzees.
Watch any such primates long enough, and you will notice that baby-stealing is all too common. Male primates steal suckling young for use as living shields against the aggression of other troupe members. Female primates steal the young of other females out of jealousy, wanting the social attention and importance attached to having an infant. Sometimes, the goal is simply to deprive a new mother of the same. Thus, through such fundamental deprivation, does one female punish another.
Unfortunately, humans are not much different in their essential primate behaviour. If they were, well, they would probably be able to leave their babies safely unattended in a mall for an hour. But such is not the case. Today, more than ever, an unattended child is in danger of being snatched up by a pedophile, perhaps even someone with ransom in mind. And it is not at all uncommon for a child to be stolen by a woman who cannot have children of her own.
Since pedophiles rely upon secrecy for their aberrations, they were not a common issue among traditional Inuit, who lived in close-knit encampments, with all eyes upon each other. Noted pedophiles were quickly rooted out, and dealt with harshly.
Baby-snatching, especially by women, was much harder to deal with. As stated before, Inuit used to live in distinct camps, collections of interrelated families. Families that left a given camp would often stumble across other encampments in their travels, those of strangers or little-known relations.
Since the women were constantly mingling with each other and the children, there was the very real danger of a strange woman – perhaps an old mad-woman or one who could not have children of her own – simply stealing a baby or young child. The proper way to deal with such a situation, today, would be to notify the police. The situation is a criminal justice issue.
But in pre-colonial times, there were no such institutions to depend upon. If a strange woman simply fled the camp with your baby, you had to make your own justice, or there was none at all. Too often, there was none at all.
Over the centuries, the very real threat of baby-theft found its way into numerous Inuit stories, and the female baby-thief became epitomized in a singular type of folkloric monster.
The Netsilingmiut people, having especially detailed and vividly textured monsters, called this creature amajursuk, or “one who carries in an amouti.” The amajursuk is a giant, ghastly hag, who snatches unattended children and steals them away in her exceptionally large amouti (a traditional female top, engineered for nursing, having an oversized hood for piggybacking infants).
Other Inuit peoples knew the creature as amoutalik, or “one with an amouti,” and it was generally implied that it was a sort of malevolent spirit.
But whether giant or spirit, all Inuit peoples seem to have agreed that this creature is female, hag-like, dangerous, and a baby-thief. It is also implied, in some versions of the tales about these beings, that the creature does not actually have an amouti, but rather a hollow, fleshy hump that resembles an amouti hood – an imaginative touch that nicely amplifies the thing’s horror factor.
As with most monsters of Inuit lore, it is unclear as to whether there is supposed to be one or many of the creatures. We have no way of knowing whether the tales refer to “The Amoutalik,” or to a supernatural species.
But since the amajursuk and amoutalik (I shall use the latter term, hereafter, to denote both) are most likely folkloric representations of the mad, baby-snatching crone in her most severe form, the creatures were probably thought of as many.
A clue to the idea that the amoutalik is inspired by true madness is that amoutalik stories all depict the creature as being easily befuddled, prone to confusion. Her victims do not escape through extreme cunning, as in most Inuit tales, but simply by confusing the amoutalik – often with magic. And if we take a look at an archetypal amoutalik story, despite its wild shamanistic content, we can spot the probable reality that inspired it.
(Concluded in part three.)