Inuit Cosmology and Conception of Time

The importance that the Inuit placed on the present is also reflected in their folk tales. They are not searching for a primordial cause or an explanation of order and destiny, but instead are attempting to define their present which "the Eskimo never thinks much beyond" (Freuchen, 188). (Gubser, 190). This is illustrated in a Greenland Inuit creation myth in which three friends are curious about the size and shape of the earth. They go exploring and end up walking through the never-ending passages of a huge ice house for years and years. The sole friend who survives finally returns to his people and says, "The earth is simply a very big ice house," and then dies ((Howard and Norman, 83). This story illustrates the Inuit view of the world as their own small society and the view of that society as the world. It also teaches a sort of a lesson--that in trying to understand the ways of the world and the structure of what surrounds us, we always end up where we started--with ourselves and the people with whom we are familiar. For the Inuit, the world is made up only of the most basic, tangible, and presently occuring things. It seems that when the Inuit consider fundamental questions of their existence, they are more concerned with their relationships to other people and to themselves than with their place in the order of the universe.

The Inuits realize that they cannot predict the future and at the same time they do not place importance on the past (Gubser, 191). In believing this, they have created a comfort level with the present that many modern, industrialized societies do not have. It is not that the Inuits do not have creation stories--it is that they place more importance on the events of the present than on the tales of the past. The life that they lead is very dangerous- -it is a constant struggle for food, shelter, and life--and it is controlled by unreliable supernatural forces (Balikci, 212). The Inuit explanation of afterlife, therefore, is used to define that place so that the people do not worry or even wonder about it. Death is not a place to fear but rather only a transition into something new (Freuchen, 193). Agelermiut and Agneriartarfik are two of the three worlds in the afterlife. While one is high in the sky and the other is very deep under the tundra, both are reserved for good hunters and women who have endured the pain of getting a tattoo. The third world, Noqumiut, is an underworld located just below the crust of the earth where everyone else goes to be perpetually hungry and lazy (Balikci, 213).

The Inuit also give structure to the relations of the earth, sun, and moon. They think that the earth is flat and that beyond its edges is a great abyss. The sun, the stars, and the moon rotate around the earth, and their positions have an effect on hunting, weather, and navigation (Gubser, 193). But again, the Inuit do not define these places so that they can dream or worry about them. They are explained so that they can be understood and then set aside. The inability of the threats of past and future to control this culture are created and made possible by the Inuits' unusual and isolating way of life.

Above all, the lives of the Inuits were controlled by their surroundings. Their harsh and isolating environment directly affected their social and political structures. This environment, while producing a unique culture, simultaneously created difficulties in determining the Inuits' origins. Like the environment that surrounds them, the surface of Inuit society appears very simple, but underneath both exist rich and complex structures.

From Rachel Baar's, Kimi Hata's, and Arthur Wendel's ID1 paper.