Vanished: (Part three - Conclusion)

The European style of "vanishing community" story is similar to the Inuit in that both involve the threat to a lone traveller of becoming ensnared during his stay in an unknown community. The implication is that a traveller who indulges in the hospitality of a strange people for too long takes on something of their essence or nature (thus the threat in the European tales of eating faerie food, ingesting something of the faerie nature). Once the traveller's nature is altered, the process is irreversible, and he can never again return to the lands of normal humanity. The Inuit version - especially the version involving cannibalism - is simply a reverse-style of the European, in that the strange people are trying to actually consume the traveller himself, instead of trying to trick the traveller into consuming food from their world.

My own feeling is that, when we view the Inuit vanishing community tale, we are viewing something that might eventually have evolved into the European style of tale. The European tale derives from the Occidental fear of being overtaken by a hostile, foreign people. This was a genuine Occidental concern, since much of the distribution of nations we know today from the "Old World" is a result of tribal peoples becoming displaced by larger, more aggressive cultures (such as Rome, or the Huns), in turn displacing others in their path. In England alone, we can view a history involving many waves of displacements that formed the ethnic fabric of the nation - invading Picts, Celts, Britons, Saxons, Danes and Normans. In light of such history, it is only natural that European (especially UK) folklore would touch upon anxieties over the usually unpleasant encounters between alien cultures.

Inuit were also possessed of such anxiety, although not nearly to the degree that other cultures were. The primary "monstrous" people, to Inuit, were Indian peoples, who were largely thought of as cannibals who launched raids from the tree line. The truth, however, seems to be that Inuit and Indians pretty much raided each other at will, and many Inuit tales tell of various raids, massacres and revenge killings (sometimes even of the adoption of Indian orphans by Inuit).

The Inuit vanishing community tale is something different, however. Such tales never involve a traveller stumbling across an Indian community. The community is, strangely, always Inuit. They are interesting in that they are not actually monsters, but simply an exceptionally treacherous people. So we have to ask ourselves: is this incidental, or is there an underlying meaning here?

I lean toward the latter opinion. It is very important to have the strange community as being Inuit. It is the very fact that the murderous strangers are Inuit that makes the tale a didactic one, shifting the emphasis of the tale away from a simple story cautioning listeners to "be wary of monsters out on the Land," and moving it closer to a statement concerning social behaviour and proper living. In other words: the stories are not really about lost travellers, but about human communities themselves.

The key to the lesson is the actual vanishing itself. We must remember that there is no stated reason for an entire community to vanish into thin air (as has happened, in such tales, whenever a party of people returns to investigate the murderous community). Vanishing is the ability of certain specific supernatural creatures, but obviously not of Inuit. Similarly, traditional Inuit had no belief in an avenging spirit - such as the Old Testament Jehovah - to safeguard morality, punishing communities of the wicked. The closest thing might be Nuliajuk, who could withdraw her sea mammals if taboos were broken, but there are no tales of her swallowing up whole communities of wicked people.

This tells us that the vanishing community story is neither a tale of judgement, nor a tale of ethnic anxiety. In light of the fact that traditional Inuit were so socially aware, my belief is that this story is a lifestyle statement. It is a way by which the teller implies to the listeners the fate of a community whose structure is breaking down, a community wherein man preys upon his fellow man. To a people such as Inuit, whose very existence once depended upon mutual respect and social harmony, the ultimate fate of a predatory community is, inevitably, extinction.


(That is all I have to say on the subject.)