The Man In The Moon



Western peoples gaze upward on certain nights, and talk of the “man in the moon,” in reference to its series of craters that they tend to recognize as a face. And although not all cultures see it this way — with the Chinese thinking it resembles a hare — Inuit might seem to agree with Occidentals on this one.

In fact, if Inuit myth were true, the moon-man would be a distant ancestor to some of us.

One of the most common myths among Inuit cultures is that of the Moon-brother and Sun-sister. Generally, the story tells of a young woman who is mysteriously fondled.

In some versions, she has just given birth, and so has to remain alone for a time with the lights out, as a matter of taboo. In other versions, she and some others put the lights out in order to play games.

One way or another, she is fondled by a stranger, whom she discovers to be her brother, Tarqiq. (In the post-pregnancy version, she discovers his identity by marking his nose with soot.) Despairing and ashamed, she goes a bit crazy, chewing him out and running about the community with a lit piece of moss, shaming him before everyone else.

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In order to shut her up, the brother Tarqiq chases her about so doggedly that their pursuit takes them up into the sky, where they continue this chase as the Sun (she with her torch) and Moon (he glowering after her).

The story exists in some version or other across Inuit North America, and has always been the marvel of anthropologists and folklorists. Here’s the reason: Just as it is almost universal among humanity to assign gender roles to the sun and moon, it is almost as universal that the sun is male (being bright and hot, as is typical of testosterone-poisoning), while the moon is female (being subtle and temperate). The Inuit sun and moon model defies this tradition by making the moon male and the sun female.

Now, it is important to remember that myths do not spring solely from the imagination — they are always inspired by something humanity observes or values. Such is the case with all sun and moon models from culture to culture.

In non-Arctic cultures (the majority of humanity), the sun is a giver of life, since it, in tandem with moisture, allows plants to grow. This, of course, is of vital importance to agriculture, making the sun invaluable. As well, the sun is the largest object in the sky, constant throughout the year. With its great importance and pervasiveness, a patriarchal agrarian culture is naturally going to consider the sun to be male, with the moon as his wife or mistress.

This means nothing to Inuit. Farming is impossible in the Arctic, so Inuit have never been agrarian. What is there for the sun to give life to? It is obviously pleasant, since it offers warmth (maybe this is why the underdog in the story is the Sun), but it is not especially necessary for life. In fact, the sun is more or less absent throughout a third of the year.

This means that the moon is as pervasive as the sun in the Arctic, being bright enough to act as a substitute for the sun during winter hunts. In the cold of the winter, when the sun abandons the land, the ambient moon is a welcome friend. It allows people to feed themselves as well as under any agrarian sun by illuminating the hunter’s way.

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This is perhaps why, of all supernatural beings in Inuit cosmology, the moon is considered the friendliest, a fact that Rasmussen and other explorers quickly noted.

Unlike the vengeful Nuliajuk and ferocious Narssuk (of Netsilik myth), Tarqiq (the Moon) is thought to like people — although he is excessively frisky. Tarqiq was thought to overcome barrenness by impregnating any woman who slept outside.

In fact, women were advised by their families not to sleep outside, barren or not, since Tarqiq would leave them with child. Personally, I would worry more about the polar bears.

So you can see what I mean about the man in the moon, although to Inuit he was always much more than a face. To some, he may even be an ancestor.


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