I was thinking, the other day, of how Inuit used to fear the wrath of
Nuliajuk (known to southern art collectors as "Sedna"), the fingerless,
lice-ridden hag beneath the sea - mistress of marine mammals. I was also
thinking of the dreaded amayersuk, the cannibalistic crone who kidnaps
Inuit children, tossing them into the great hole in her humped back. I was
thinking about all the many wrathful, crone-like monsters and ghosts that
ever seek to steal or harm children in Inuit folklore.
Generally, I find myself writing about the differences between Inuit and
other cultures. This time, however, there was no escaping the horrible
fact: Inuit hold just as much dread of the monstrous hag creature as any
Japan is rife with them. There is the knife-wielding adachigahara, who
treasures the blood of children. Variations include the horned hannya, the
tongue-flicking nure onna, or the yamauba, whose hair transforms into
serpents which pull victims into the opening atop her head.
Malaysians have the langsuir, the vicious ghost of a woman who died in
childbirth, whose long hair barely conceals the hollow in her back. South
Americans have the azeman, an obsessive hag that drains the life-force of
The British Isles are worse than Japan. There resides the banshee, a crone
whose keening foretells an impending death. There are the adh sidhe of
Ireland, sharp-toothed hags that rend living flesh. There is the black
annis of Scotland, a monstrous hag who snatches children from their beds.
Russia has Baba Yaga, an ogress who devours children with her stone teeth.
Germany's Berchta cuts holes in the young, sewing them with iron chains.
The nocnitsa, of Eastern Europe, prowls for village children each night.
The word "hag" comes from the Old English hagge or hoegtesse, a witch. The
specific European monster known as a hag or nightmare is a hellish crone
that visits sleeping victims, riding their backs throughout their dreams.
When the victim awakens looking disheveled the next day, he is said to be
"hag-ridden." The "mare" of the word "nightmare" pertains not to a female
horse, but instead to the Old English mare, a demonic hag. So the word
"nightmare" actually stems from the visitations of such monsters.
What is happening here? Are old women really all that scary? I would love
to say, in some politically correct way, that Inuit folklore is entirely
free of such fear, but that would be a lie.
The simple reality is that the old possess knowledge, which is power, and
power is terrifying. Add to this the fact that the extremely old are rare
and little understood, and one can spot the recipe for trouble.
An old male is not complex (or so they tell me). A male goes through one
major transition in his physical life: puberty. The boy disappears. The man
- husband, hunter, warrior, father - replaces him. But an old man is very
similar to a young one, generally having a consistent role in society.
Like a male, the female passes through puberty, marked by her first
menstruation, and accompanied by no small amount of ritual across the
world. Like the male, this time marks her ability to have children, until
lately perceived as the major contribution of every single individual to
their society - the defining factor in being human.
With age, however, the female diverges from the male, in that she
eventually undergoes menopause. Menopause, the cessation of natural
procreative ability, is the second major phase in a woman's physical life.
Now, it is important to remember that, although we today know a lot about
the human body in extreme age, much was unknown before now. One used to be
considered old past 35 years. It always seemed to humanity that men
underwent no major changes other than puberty. Long-lived women, however,
underwent a sort of procreative reversion to pre-adolescence (menopause).
Think, for a moment, of how this comparatively rare phenomenon (remember,
most women didn't live long enough to reach menopause) must have been
perceived by early peoples. Not only does an aged woman become haggard,
grey, wrinkly, but she also loses the ability of procreation. At the same
time, however, her very age makes her a wellspring of knowledge from which
the community of the young can draw. But beware: Don't get on her bad side.
The hag may assist her allies, but she is wily enough to undo her enemies
in an instant.
Under these circumstances, the hag easily takes on a supernatural mystique,
exaggerated in fancy to mythic proportions. In the real world, it can be
this very tendency to mythologize an old woman that drives her to live at
the edge of her community, perhaps even forsaking it altogether, further
compounding her folkloric image as the monster in the wilderness.
Is it any wonder that folkloric hag-monsters, such as the Inuit amayersuk,
are the bane of youth? Often, they possess a hollow in their bodies, into
which they may abduct the young, or by which they may be identified. Such
hollows are like an inverse womb, a trait that represents the idea that,
while young women may bring life forth from the depths of their bodies, the
hag possesses a hollow that instead only consumes it.
Thus is fear (as usual) our failure to accept that which is strange to us.
Perhaps all peoples, including Inuit, would do well to realize why they
fear the hag so greatly. Perhaps in this modern age of lengthening
life-spans, where the old equal or even outnumber the young, traditional
fears must be examined. It does not do to honor an elder, while at once
fearing that elder's monstrous mirror image.
It is perhaps more important than ever that youth spend time around elders,
lest elders become strange to them, and more easily feared. Let us not come
to see the aged woman - whose womb has become a lifeless hollow - as the
hag to be feared, lest we leave her with a true hollow only in her heart.
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25
years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern
world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.