Nunani: Shape-shifter (Part two)
The Utku angakoq (shaman) tried to ignore the numerous eyes upon him, as onlookers waited for his response to the Netsilik angakoq’s transformation. He frowned, rubbing his hands together as his enemy paced before him, the great bear edging ever closer.
Suddenly, he stamped the ground with his foot. From the moment it touched down, that foot seemed to ripple and swell, rending boot and pant-leg asunder. His other foot followed, and his body. The fingers of his clenched fists seemed to melt together into twin, club-like extremities. He fell forward upon them, shaking away the last shreds of clothing to reveal an ever-growing, woolen form. Back and forth swept a head crowned with monstrous, curving horns.
He snorted violently, pawing at the ground. Just as his enemy had become a bear, so the Utku angakoq had taken on the form of his own animal — a muskox.
At the sight of the Utku angakoq’s transformation, the great bear seemed almost to hesitate. He stretched and crouched, gauging his enemy.
Like a typical muskox, the Utku angakoq stood his ground, horns lowered menacingly.
There was a scream from on-lookers as the bear bounded forward — a smooth, silent ghost — and the muskox stiffened, ready to slash. But the Netsilik angakoq/bear was clever, dancing away to one side. Speeding under the muskox’s flank, his powerful limbs embraced a rear leg, and he bit deeply into a haunch.
The muskox, more startled than hurt, nearly dislodged the bear with a kick. He wheeled with his horns. At the sight of them, the bear let go, tumbling away to safety.
So did the combat go for some time, neither angakoq able to gain any advantage against the other — until the pattern at last broke.
Some say that it was the Utku angakoq, the muskox, who gained the upper hand by charging forward with devastating sweeps of his horns. Others say that it was the Netsilik angakoq, the bear, who made a crucial mistake in trying to get over his enemy’s horns, to bite at the neck. One way or another, most agree that in a final, dire clash of the two, the Netsilik angakoq was caught exposed for a moment. Horns met flesh, and the muskox savagely gored the bear.
The fatigued Utku angakoq quickly became human again. He stood shivering for long moments, more from emotion than cold, watching the community gather around the fallen Netsilik angakoq. He too had shed his bear form, and now lay in a twisted, ruined heap. A ragged gash, streaming crimson, ran along one side.
Some kindly people gathered up the Netsilik angakoq, trying to nurse him back to health. It was of no use. He languished for days, before his life at last slipped away. The fight between the two shamans became legend, one of those stories that people tell in a hush, when it is time to speak of shamans and other dread things.
As I implied earlier, the folklore of animal-human transformation is the mark of an imaginative culture — to my thinking, a healthy one. It seems to me that one of the most tragic aspects of syncretism is that, in the past push to discourage traditional beliefs, the Inuit imagination has also been discouraged. And the Inuit cultural imagination has always been interwoven with its utter reliance upon all Arctic animals.
Think of the carvings Inuit used to make, the stories they used to tell, the cosmologies they used to invent! Inuit culture has only recently climbed out of a dark age of its creative spirit, a reticence to indulge traditional beliefs, brought on not only by past hardships, but by a distancing from the creatures that have shaped it.
Today, however, Inuit create art that is more skilled than ever before. They make films and write stories about traditional beliefs — free from fear of punitive theocrats. Elders break long silences, ever less shy about recording their old tales. And animals have, through some miracle, lost none of their importance to Inuit.
Ultimately, Inuit deserve to be proud. They exist in a state system, and have still maintained their connection to the land. Many cultures are not so lucky.
Like a final gift from traditional cosmology, Inuit culture has shifted its own shape, becoming some strange, wonderful, new animal of the world.
(P.S. Merry Christmas!)