The story behind the Greenlandic tupilak
You might be surprised to know that in Greenland you are the odd one out if you don’t believe in spirits and monsters. For thousands of years the long arctic nights and the harsh nature has brought different creatures to life, fueling the cultural history with tales of mythical monsters. A traditional tupilak, however, was a completely different sort of spirit being.
When you visit Greenland, you will most likely come to know the word tupilak. From the beginning, a traditional tupilak was made up of parts from animals and people and was used to take revenge. It could look very different depending on the parts from which it was made of and could have many different abilities.
Parts of animals and people
To make a tupilak you gathered different parts of animals and people (bone, skin, hair etc.). The parts were then placed by a river and covered with moss after which spells were said over them. As soon as the tupilak started to come alive, it had to suckle its maker’s (a practitioner of witchcraft or shamanism) genitals or the breasts of a female so it could grow and become dangerous. Once it was big enough its maker would return it to the river and tell it who it to attack. Unfortunately for the maker, the tupilak could also be turned against him if his intended victim’s magical abilities trumped his.
The first Greenlandic merchandise
When explorers first started coming to Greenland, they heard about the terrifying spirit-avangers and were intrigued to find out more about them. So, the locals made a visual representation by carving out the creatures of bone and wood. The explorers were eager to purchase the carvings which led to an actual production of the first Greenlandic merchandise.
Today, when the word ‘tupilak’ is mentioned, the majority of people think of the well-known small figures carved in tooth, bone or stone. They are not considered dangerous. On the contrary, they can be seen as protectors of a house and are sold in all tourist offices and souvenir shops.
Photo: Peter Lindstrom - Visit Greenland
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