In the myth of Sedna, the goddess of the seas in the Innuit world, there is a message not only for the peoples of the Arctic areas. It is a story full of repulsive violence, which in its mythological layer points to the subarctic origins of Europeans, and also asks what human violence against the sea, here personified by the goddess Sedna, leads to. Our civilization can see through this ancient myth as if in an aquatic mirror.
Goddess of many names
Ancient water goddesses are encountered in various cultural circles. In Greek mythology, in addition to the well-known Neptune, we have a primordial goddess, a personification of the sea named Thalassa (according to Hesiod, she was the mother of Aphrodite, who emerged from the sea waves). In much earlier Sumerian mythology, one can find Nammu, the goddess of the primordial salt waters, and Nansha, the goddess of the seas and fishing. In Assyrian-Babylonian myth, attention is drawn to the goddess Tiamat, the murdered personification of the ocean, from whose eyes flowed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Egyptian mythology, on the other hand, features Naunet, a primordial deity personifying the waters of the primeval ocean surrounding the Earth. Chinese fairy tale history tells of Mazu, the daughter of a fisherman, who was the goddess of the sea and the patron saint of sailors.
However, aquatic goddesses did not always have a protective aspect to them. The Norse Ran, goddess of the sea sink, was the epitome of unpredictability for the Vikings. She craved gold and human sacrifices. She had fun pulling ships into underwater whirlpools and sailors into nets. This goddess was close to mermaids or mermaids, which, it is worth remembering, have little in common with the innocence of Disney’s Ariel. As far back as Greek and Roman mythology, they were dangerous half women, half fish, femme fatales kidnapping men. In Polish cultural circles, however, the most famous is the Warsaw Mermaid, symbolizing freedom and the uniqueness of her chosen location for a settlement on the Vistula River. Although she was imprisoned by a fisherman, she experienced help from people and was freed. The fate of Sedna, an Innuit half woman, half fish, turned out differently.
A bloody biography of a goddess
Sedna, according to myth, was a maiden of extraordinary beauty who could not choose a husband for a long time. Ultimately, her chosen one was Polar Dog. This decision was not supported by the girl’s father, Agnut, because his grandchildren, in addition to human beings, were also puppies. So he killed his son-in-law. The girl, in order to protect her offspring, sent the human children north – they gave rise to the Inuit, and she ordered the puppies to go overseas, and that’s how Europeans got their start from Greenlandic dogs. Sedna, however, did not lose hope of happiness and remarried. This time for the King of the Seagulls and out of love she set off with him on a long journey to his headquarters (and away from her father).
Unfortunately, she was deceived and imprisoned. The father had no contact with Sedna for a year. After that, he began searching for his daughter. Having found her, he first killed the Gull King and then took his child home. It would seem that the father’s intention – despite his highly controversial actions – was to protect his daughter. The continuation of the myth shows that not necessarily.
On the way back, they were accosted by enraged seagulls eager to avenge the death of their king, and then a storm broke loose. Sedna and Agnut’s lives were in danger. The father had no qualms and threw his daughter overboard to make the boat lighter and therefore safer for him. And at this point the mythological thriller moves into its climactic phase. Sedna is fighting for life, with her hands desperately clinging to the boat. Then the father cuts off her fingers, and in some versions of the myth even her entire hands, and with the end of the paddle he cuts the woman’s eyes. Severed fragments of Sedna’s body fall into the sea and turn into marine animals: seals, walruses, whales. Seeing this mysterious transformation, the father backs down from his intention to drown his daughter, thus recognizing her revealing nature as the Goddess of the Sea.
In the final act of this bloody tale, Sedna takes revenge on her father. Her dogs bite off all his limbs. Moments later, a mythical rift opens under the heroes and they fall into the undersea land of Advilun, where – despite the family horror – they share a palace. He welcomes dead people to his doorstep; she, on the other hand, becomes half woman, half fish and takes care of all sea creatures, thus ensuring the well-being of the Inuit. She becomes their protector, guardian and feeder. Mother of their Sea.
Defenders (Mother) of the Sea
From an ancient animistic perspective, in which every animal, plant and thing has a soul, the sea also had spiritual depth, imaged in the form of a deity. When we dive into the symbolism of Innuit myth, we see that Sedna herself personifies the seas. Fragments of her body have become sea animals, she is the one who gives birth to the resources of the sea, and therefore she is the sea.
At the same time, the myth of Sedna is a family tragedy. Ultimately, the girl has no one to protect her. One by one, she loses those to whom she entrusted her heart, and her natural protector, her father, becomes the enemy. On the symbolic layer, the parent contemporarily brings to mind the international system of authoritarian and ill-considered water management solutions: it wants to protect the sea, but with violence, while in the face of a radical threat it only looks out for its own interests. However, another character appears in the end of the myth, and it is a man who contacts Sedna on behalf of humanity. Who is he?
The answer can be found in the modern city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, where a statue of Sedna, the Goddess of the Sea, has been incorporated into the seascape in a bay not far from the mainland. Depending on the water level, sea animals hide or emerge around her: porpoise, polar bear, seals, fish, as well as the Shaman who pays homage to her. While the mythological father devastated and disfigured Sedna’s body, the healer, as a gesture of gratitude, combed her long hair.
It is a symbol of caring for the goddess, worship and humility, as well as a gesture of bringing order in response to her specific need. Her long hair reflects her wisdom and experience from the passage of time. Gently combing them from top to bottom, the shaman acknowledges the order of nature and the divine nature of the sea.
The modern equivalents of the shaman are not magicians or priests, but people who see and appreciate the need to heal nature and want to take responsibility for marine life. Today they will be the ones to symbolically comb the tangled hair of the Goddess of the Sea, thanks to their conscious actions for the seas and oceans. Then the disfigured Sedna will once again become a beautiful, abundant and generous woman with long, untangled hair reflecting the natural order of the world of the deep sea.
Mythology eternally alive
In his book Biography of Water, Philip Ball writes that discovering the cultural meanings of water “is a journey that is not just about water, but about our entire conception of the material world.” This is especially true with regard to areas of culture that are still stirring the collective imagination. And so it is with the Sedna myth.
Northern Alaska still celebrates the Nalukataq festival every year, associated with the end of the whaling season and marking the beginning of the Arctic spring. Indigenous people of the region express gratitude through dance, and ask Sedna for generosity for the coming year.
The real socio-political significance of this myth is indicated by the fact that in 2019. at the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa stood a sculpture chiseled by Innuit artist Bart Hann, depicting just Sedna. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the legal territory of Nunavut, a political area of central-northern Canada about 85% inhabited by Innuit.
Moreover, Sedna’s modern recognition definitely extends beyond North America. Its growing popularity is evidenced by an international, online marketplace of stores that offer Sedna-themed paintings, bags, dresses or necklaces. Their authors deviate from the indigenous image of the Goddess, beautiful in its abundance, and most often depict her as an Arctic Siren, emerging from the azure blue a slender beauty with long hair. She is surrounded by smiling fish and seals (and therefore still in the vein of Disney inspiration). Such a truncated version of the marine Innuit – according to descriptions of specific products on such popular portals as. Etsy or AliExpress – is to bring support to buyers and reinforce in them positive values: courage, loyalty to oneself and inner peace.
The Sedna myth has also begun to be updated by the art communities involved. In 2012. At the Liverpool Biennale, Greenlandic artist Jessie Kleemann showed the animation Sassum aArnaa – Mother of the Deep (still available on Vimeo today), in which she reminded us that each of us can be a shaman from the Sedna myth, because, as the caption at the end of the film says: “Now it’s our turn. We all need to learn to listen.” In turn, in 2020. Sedna received more attention at the Berlin Biennale, and already in the specific context of marine and ocean conservation.
Artists such as Shuvinai Ashoona and Shary Boyle have evoked mythological layers of Innuit imagination in their ecologically engaged art. It can be said that their goal was to move the hearts of Sedna’s European children to start actively caring about water.
So the Goddess of the Sea is increasingly making a comeback in contemporary space. It draws attention to itself and, on a mythological level, reminds us of the wrongs done to the seas and the oceans. He has the right to admonish us, for he is the personification of the sea and the deep, which is a coherent and important part of the ecosystem of our entire planet. That’s why the Sedna myth is gaining – as it should – more and more importance.
In the article, I used, among others. From the works:
Arctic Mermaid Sea Goddess: https://www.etsy.com/pl/listing/289646233/sedna-arctic-mermaid-sea-goddess-art
Ball P., Biography of Water, 1999.
Boetzkes A., Contemporary Art Under the Sign of Sedna – Features – Metropolis M (2022).
CBS News: Nunavut artist’s work unveiled on Parliament Hill (2019).
Goddess Of The Sea | Water Element: https://www.awareboutique.com/meditation/sedna
Native Canadian Art: ‘Sedna’ by Geetaloo Akulukjuk – Inuit Art | Native Canadian Arts .
“Norden Bladet” Greenland: The Legend of the Mother of the Sea – The story of Sedna | NordenBladet.com (2021).
Reet E. H., Greenland: The Legend of the Mother of the Sea – The story of Sedna.
Sedna | Goddess of the Sea | Water Element – aware | boutique (awareboutique.com).