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Vanishing: An Inuit story-telling theme

The hunter was still sleep-addled, and could hardly believe what the iliaq boy was telling him. His hosts had been kind. How could it be that they wanted to murder him? But the boy shook him violently, saying,

"Go! Go or they'll kill you!"

So the hunter crept from the igluvigaq. As he did so, he paused, hearing voices in the distance. His hosts were arguing about the size of stone with which to crush his head.

Creeping over to their sleds, he sabotaged them, cutting all their dog leads so that they would have difficulty following him. Then he raced away on his own kamotik, leaving them behind.

The hunter eventually found his way home, whereupon he told his family and friends about the strange community he had escaped. There were many nods, for they had heard of such evil peoples, and they were enraged to hear that such a group had tried to murder one of their own.

A number of men - including the hunter himself - wanted to seek revenge. They wanted to make sure this monstrous community never had a chance to kill anyone else. Many days later, they eventually summoned up enough courage to attack this strange people. It took some searching around, but the hunter finally led some men back to it. They were armed with bows and man-killing, barbed arrows.

They used all of their stealth to creep in upon the edges of the community, but not one of them could spot any people. There were no dogs, either. Closer and closer they crept, until they finally entered the community itself, stalking from igluvigaq to igluvigaq.

They were awe-struck to the point where they could think of nothing to say to one another. The murderers had entirely vanished. The camp was still there - just no people. They searched in and out of every igluvigaq. Over here, there still lay an unfinished needle someone had been carving. Over there lay a boot, only partly sewn. A child's toy lay on the floor, as though suddenly dropped. But the lamps were all dead and cold. There was no blood, nor any sign of conflict. Every living creature in the camp had simply disappeared.

The stomachs of the men were churning with dread. They touched nothing in that camp, not even the food that lay uneaten.

With little other than fearful nods to each other, the men went home. And they travelled in silence all the way back. And they each told their wives and families of what they had seen, in voices laced with fear. But they never spoke of these happenings again, until many years later, in whispered tales as the flames burned low, when their children's children were gathered 'round to hear of things forbidden and dreadful.

There are numerous versions of this tale. In many, the mystery people are cannibals. In some, they are simply deformed. Many versions simply have the hunter passing through the community, in which the people are only a bit shifty, only to have him return at a later time and find them gone.

Across the world, we can find many instances of the "punished community" - cultures that have been blasted away for their sins before the gods, or before God. But the Inuit vanishing stories are differ in that no particular force (except perhaps a moral force) punishes the vanished people; they simply disappear without further explanation.

The non-Inuit folk-tales perhaps most reminiscent of the Inuit vanishing story are European (especially UK) tales of faerie communities - generally involving the so-called "Seelie Court". In some of these tales, a lone traveller stumbles across a party or a kind of meeting of strange beings, who may at first seem like wealthy, hospitable humans, but over time exhibit bizarre tastes or inhuman abilities. Generally, they aren't out to kill their guest, but he will be unable to escape if he accepts their gifts or eats their food. Sometimes, the guest is warned by a kinder faerie (reminiscent of the iliaq in the Inuit tale), or he may be canny all on his own. He finds clever ways to refuse the faerie hospitality without offending them and eventually escapes. But if he looks back, or leads others back, he finds that the faeries have vanished without a trace.

(To be concluded in Part Three)