Taissumani: History March 15, 2004 – Sedna in space



The discovery of Sedna was announced to the public on March 15, 2004. This may come as a surprise to Inuit who have always known the legend of the woman at the bottom of the sea, but this Sedna was different. The new Sedna was not in the sea but in the sky, far beyond the reach of the naked eye, past the limit of the spirit flights of even the most powerful shamans of the past. Identified the previous November by astronomers from the California Institute of Technology, Yale University and Hawaii’s Gemini Observatory, this object, named Sedna by the scientists, was the farthest — and coldest — object yet discovered in our solar system.

A planetoid, between 800 and 1,100 miles in diameter, Sedna is eight billion miles from the sun, with a surface temperature rarely above minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Its last complete orbit of the sun began when humankind was still living in the ice age, 10,500 years ago.

Astronomers disagree on the definition of a planet, so it is unclear if Sedna, so far called a planetoid, may yet become our solar system’s 10th planet, after Pluto.

So much for what it is. But why Sedna?

David L. Rabinowitz, an astronomer from Yale University and one of the discoverers of this tiny dot in space, explains the choice this way:

“The reason we chose the name Sedna is because the astronomical community has agreed that all the objects in the outer solar system should be named after characters from creation myths (or underworld figures if their orbits are coupled like Pluto’s to Neptune). We might have chosen Greek or Roman gods, but they have all been used. So we looked at Inuit mythology. The Inuit are naturally familiar with the cold appropriate for distant planets. Sedna’s association with the icy seas and sea creatures is also appropriate for the outer solar system since Uranus and Neptune are also associated with the ocean.”

Sedna is one of many names used to refer to a creature from legend, a woman who lives at the bottom of the sea and who sometimes holds back the bounty of the harvest from Inuit hunters. During times of famine, an angakkuq (a shaman) would find it necessary to make a dangerous trip to Sedna’s home to negotiate the release of animals so that hunters might have some success. Her legend is associated with the creation of sea mammals. Some of her names in various geographical areas are Nuliajuk, Taliilajuuq, Nerrivik, Uinigumasuittuq (“the one who did not want to marry”), and Takannaaluk arnaaluk (“the terrible woman down there”).

The name “Sedna” is used in southern Baffin Island, although “Sedna” is a mildly inaccurate spelling for it. In Cumberland Sound, the lady at the bottom of the sea, who controlled the success of the sea mammal harvest, was known as “Sanna”. The earliest written reference to this name is in the diary of Brother Matthias Warmow, a German Moravian missionary from Greenland who spent the winter of 1857-58 in Cumberland Sound and recorded the name as “Sanak” or “Sana.” Charles Francis Hall, who explored Frobisher Bay in the early 1860s and whose spelling of Inuit names was laughably inexact — Zebedee Nungak will be apoplectic at this one — called her “Sidne” and even “Sydney!”

The spelling that has become so popular, Sedna, is that of Franz Boas, the pioneer anthropologist who spent the winter of 1883-84 in Cumberland Sound and wrote the first major ethnological work on Canadian Inuit, “The Central Eskimo.” Boas wrote a great deal about Inuit belief in Sanna, which he spelled as Sedna. His spelling may not even be so far off the mark, for the name may once have been “Satna” — there has been a tendency in recent years in Baffin for the gemination of consonant clusters, and it is only in the past 30 years that Inuktitut spelling has been standardized in Roman orthography.

The name may, in fact, merely be a demonstrative pronoun used, as was often the case in Inuktitut, to avoid using a proper name, especially of one fearful or deserving of respect. The name used in Iglulik, “Takannaaluk arnaaluk” — “the terrible woman down there,” is built on this model, and the first word of it is derived from “kanna” — “the one down there.” Could not “Sanna” be simply a variant of this? (Schneider’s “Ulirnaisigutiit” records “sanna” as meaning “down there” on the Hudson’s Bay coast of Quebec.)

The word has survived into modern times and is used throughout southern Baffin Island. In a Pangnirtung oral history project in about 1986, Qattuuq Evic recounted the times when the Inuit worshipped “a false god who they called Sanah.” In Arctic College’s 1999 publication, “Transition to Christianity,” Victor Tungilik from Naujaat said: “She has been given different names. She has been called Sanna. In my dialect she is called Nuliajuk. Among the Iglulingmiut she is called Takannaaluk.”

Now the name, well-known to Inuit art collectors throughout the world, has transcended the bounds of earth, not to find a lonely haven in the depths of the sea but to trace an orbit through space at the bounds of our solar system. Inuit should be proud.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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