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i u a pi pu pa ti tu ta ki ku ka gi gu ga mi mu ma ni nu na si su sa li lu la ji ju ja vi vu va ri ru ra qi qu qa ngi ngu nga lhi lhu lha

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Tupilaks by Paul H. Maurer

The Tupilak plays a most important part in the weird array of figures appearing in ivory nakedness on the vast ice stage of the Greenlandic Arctic. Created by Eskimo shamans, working in secret, the tupilak emerges today in all its primitive beauty as an object prized above all other northern sculpture. The original intent of the shama (ilisitsuk) and that of the evil-working magician (ilisitsoq) was a creation designed to destroy or render ineffective the person against whom it was sent. Greenlandic Eskimo carvers fashioned these odd figures in many ways. Built from bones of animals tied together to form a skeleton with peat moss as muscles and flesh and dressed up in small remnants of an old skin blanket or produced from driftwood, the tupilak, assisted by incantations from the shaman, emerged to wreak vengeance or bring good fortune. 

Many Shamans - of a superior order-Angakok - were ably assisted in their tupilak sculpture by Private Spirits devoted only to the Angakok. They acted as spies and reported the good and evil of the community to their Angakok. They appear as objects, part animal and part human. In some instances the Angakok was not the only person with a retinue of Private Spirits. To guard against tupilaks bent on evil, many hunters took their own Guardian Spirits with them on their seal, walrus and polar bear hunts. These were good tupilaks.

In his study of history man has spent innumerable hours in research and exploration. Expeditions have carred [sic] him through eons of mystery. One area of the globe has remained relatively obscure until recent years. A vast world of ice and sub-zero weather, formerly traversed by only the hardiest explorers, has emerged into the limelight of recent decades, the Arctic of Eastern Greenland. Here, archeologists, scientists, anthropologists have discovered a frigid storehouse of myth and superstition. Here the tupilak was discovered and a remarkable rebirth of a lost art is in evidence. The art forms are the same as those turned out many centuries ago. Thanks to men like Jrgen Meldgaard, W. Thalbitzer; Erik Holtveg; all of Denmark, this remote eastern coast of Greenland, often shrouded in fog and hard bound by pack ice, has opened its stone-age doors to the scrutiny of modern eyes. Here the Angmassalik, the Kulusuk and the Kangamiut folk are engaged in an arctic renaissance. Here carvers, never attending an art school, are producing the tupilaks. They still use the most primitive of tools - bone knives tipped with iron, and bow drills as they labor over these curious little statues. Sometimes six months elapse ere the artist completes his handiwork and another month to put a high gloss on his tupilak of whale tooth or walrus tusk. 

The carvers of Kulusuk (Kap Dan) are among the best. They have been in touch with, not only the Danes, but also the Americans manning the Distant Early Warning Line radar station on the eastern shores of their gigantic island. Among the tupilaks of Kulusuk, an increasing archeological factor reveals itself; the presence of both American and European influence. The tupilak is gradually losing its evil intent. Only in rare instances will a Greenlander use his tupilak to bring disaster or misfortune to his neighbor. Today the artist is under the spell of goodness, of laughter, humor and kindness and not under the demonic control of the diabolic shaman. He creates what he has visioned in his dreams, from what others have told him and from his own experiences with his fellow men. They still assume “unnatural forms” as did the original tupilaks. 

Tupilaks are found in many Greenlandic homes. Natives and visitors carry the symmetry of tiny tupilaks in their parkas, hunting clothes, purses and pockets. Some of the old fear and superstition still lurks in the minds of the oldsters. Who knows to what use they are put as the old timers are reticent when queried about their tupilaks? However one feels they are only used to bring the visitor good luck and with a desire to return to the warmth and hospitality of the smiling and cheerful Eskimo and his modest home. 

There is no definite or single theme behind the tupilak. Some are funny bone ticklers, some are droll, some sad and tragic figures, some show various traits, discovered among the neighbors by the carver. Some reveal an age old superstition. Others catch a weird monster of the imagination, human and animal living on the ice cap, on the glaciers, in the somber fjords or on the bottom of the sea. Some depict the drummer, lampooning in his drumming some offender and making his adversary look as foolish as possible. They appear as fetishes, totemic figures, fertility designs in various seemingly pornographic stances. However, this was not so intended by the shaman or the artist. Pornography plays no part int he life of the moral Eskimo. Many tupilaks were fashioned as good-luck charms for the hunt. Others ache with stomach disorders, headaches, muscular pains, genito-urinary ailments. Sexual overtones appear from time to time. To the “western mind” these may be offensive, to the prude they are obnoxious and sensual. But bear in mind some maiden approached the shaman and desired strong and healthy progeny. He then presented her with a tupilak vivid in its portrayal of the strong bear, the huge walrus, the brainy fox, the agile seal, the graceful fish and lovely bird, the husky human male. 

Some tupilaks appear as half human and half animal. Every animal has an “inua”, an owner. This is always a human owner. Animals are thought to be part human and they will shed their outer skin or pelt or scales when they feel no human is present and then appear in their human owner’s skeleton or form. Some Eskimo maintain they have seen this happen while they were hunting in some far away lonely spot. 

Tupilaks are made all along the southeastern coast of Greenland. Some appear on the western shores but these are stylized and “modern” and not to be confused with the primitive beauty of the Kulusuk and Angmassalik carvers. Only in these will one visualize the dream work of these natives. Only here will one find an object to prize and cherish above those of other regions. Only here will one discover a long and almost forgotten art form in all its fantastic grotesquerie, the product of a fertile East Greenlandic imagination born of the dreams of a native who has linked the Stone Age with the present. These tupilak will bring you a keener appreciation of the rebirth of the culture of a seemingly “uncultured” folk, a people, the happy and trustworthy Eskimo.

May it contribute to your happiness and bring you “Good Luck”. For such is the intent of the carvers of tupilaks with whom I have spoken, sojourned and hunted on the wild coasts of East Greenland.  

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