Tangling With Tupilaks

Tangling With Tupilaks

A kayaker friend who’d just returned from East Greenland told me a very strange story. He said that a tupilak had recently emerged from the sea and attacked the village of Igatek, causing it to be evacuated.

Made by an angakok (shaman), a tupilak is a carving that typically boasts gaping mouthparts, grasping appendages, skulls adorned with bird beaks, and various other grotesque body parts. Upon being placed against the angakok’s breast, it comes alive and goes into attack mode. There’s only one given if you’re the victim of a tupilak attack: your entrails will be eaten. Or at least some of your entrails. A subspecies of tupilak called a natigateq is only interested in your intestines, which it’ll meticulously pull from your body and eat.

The search commences

Usually, a tupilak only targets individuals, not entire villages, so when I heard my friend’s story I flew to East Greenland to investigate it. Specifically, I took a helicopter to Tasiilak, the nearest village to Ikatek, and began looking up people I’d known from my previous visits as an ethnographer.

Georg Uparsima, probably the last full-fledged angakok in East Greenland, had died, so I talked with a cousin of his named Hendrik. “Many years ago, a tupilak shaped like a walrus and wearing women’s breeches came ashore in Sermiligaq, but I’ve never heard of one in Ikatek,” Hendrik said.

“It was bad hunting that caused the people to leave Ikatek,” another Greenlander told me.

Ole Jensen, a Dane and former Director of the Tasiilak Museum, hadn’t heard the story about Ikatek being attacked, either. But he did tell me that there was a plastic bag containing the apparent remains of a tupilak in the Museum’s basement or possibly in its attic. I rummaged around among old beams and boards in the basement, but didn’t find the plastic bag in question. I didn’t locate the bag in the attic, either.

Nor did I observe any tupilaks assuming their initial pose of standing at the edge of the sea and waiting to do their carver’s bidding.

Becoming an angakok ain’t easy

But I did find tupilaks, dozens of them, at a workshop which had the Danish name of “Stunk.” Here they were being carved by local craftsmen with power tools. The air in the shop smelled (stunk?) of burnt reindeer antler, the raw material for most tupilaks nowadays. Unfinished carvings with elongated skulls, exposed ribcages, and oversized talons rested on tables next to cellphones and mugs of coffee.

“If someone stole your wife or girlfriend, would you send one of your tupilaks after him?” I asked one of the carvers.
“Nagga,” he said. “I’d just beat up the guy.”

This was definitely the quicker solution. For if you want to send a tupilak after someone, you’d need to be an angakok, and to be an angakok, you have to be eaten by an enormous underground polar bear called a Timek, digested and then shat out. Once you’ve been shat out, you would somehow have to find a way to rejoin your skeleton. If you succeed in that dicey manoeuvre, then lo! you’re an angakok. Myself, I would rather engage in fisticuffs with a wife stealer than undergo such an unpleasant apprenticeship.

The qiviktok vanishes

An Italian living in Tasiilak, Robert Peroni, hadn’t heard the Ikatek story, but he did tell me about a qiviktok that had attacked a house just down the road from him. A qiviktok is a mountain hermit whose solitude gives him supernatural powers. For example, a qiviktok can fly, and in the case of the one that attacked the nearby house, it simply flew in through the window. So great was the fear associated with its visit that no one lived in the house for ten years.

“Is the qiviktok still hanging out in the house?” I asked expectantly.

“No. It went back to the mountains. They can’t stand human company.”

I was getting nowhere with my tupilak investigation. At one point, I googled “Ikatek” to find out if there might be any online information about its abandonment. One of the first hits I got was for the prayer times in Ikatek for Moslems. Interesting, but not really relevant.

“Video games”

At last I decided to visit Ikatek, so I hired a boat to take me there. The village did in fact look abandoned, with most of the houses collapsed or boarded up. Iconic Greenlandic litter such as Carlsberg lager cans were notably absent, as was the toilet tissue that decorates the ground throughout the Arctic.

Soon I was searching around for the telltale signs of a tupilak attack, maybe big claw marks on the side of a house, maybe the remnant of someone’s yanked off arm. Occasionally, I’d look up to make sure that a monstrous creature, possibly one shaped like a walrus and wearing women’s breeches, wasn’t advancing toward me.

A Greenlander came out of one of the houses and asked me what I was looking for.

“Signs of a tupilak attack,” I said.

The man laughed. “The only place you’ll find tupilak attacks now is in video games,” he said.

I asked him about all the empty houses.

“Ikatek died because it was too close to Tasiilak,” he replied. “Everyone wanted to live in ‘the big city'” (note: “The big city” has a population of fewer than two thousand people).

“But you didn’t move there.”

“I’m from Tasiilak. This is my summer home.”

Back in Tasiilak, I went into the gift shop at the Hotel Angmagssalik and bought the most gruesome tupilak I could find. It had a huge grinning skull propped up on bandy little legs, and there was a drill-like beak sticking out of its occiput. Perhaps I could bring it alive and cause the abandonment of a row of McMansions not far from where I lived?

Once I got home, I put the bad luck charm against my right breast and waited. Nothing happened. Then I put it against my left breast, but the tupilak again remained a carving made from the antler of a reindeer. And I suspect it will always remain simply a carving, unless, of course, I somehow manage to get myself eaten by a giant underground polar bear.

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