Stellar Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy – Pt. 3, John MacDonald


DOUG HERMAN: Aloha everyone and
welcome back to “Stellar Connections”. Our next speaker is
John MacDonald. Now retired, John MacDonald spent most of his working
life in the Canadian Arctic. He for 25 years coordinated the Igloolik
Research Center, located in the Inuit community of Igloolik in Nunavut’s
north Baffin Island region and I can’t believe I got that out of my
mouth without blowing it. Throughout his time in Igloolik he
collaborated closely with local Inuit elders to record and document the
oral history and traditional knowledge of the region. Part of
this work included a major study of Inuit astronomy and cosmology leading
to the publication of his wonderful book The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy,
Star Lore, and Legend. Long interested in contact history between
Europeans and the Inuit, John is currently editing and annotating an
unpublished journal documenting early encounters between the Inuit of the
Igloolik area and members of an 1820s British naval expedition seeking a
Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
John’s presentation is entitled after his book “The Arctic Sky: Inuit
Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend”. Please welcome John MacDonald.
[applause] JOHN MACDONALD: Thank you Doug. Boy
these lights are bright. It’s like the midnight sun. Again, and also
thank you for plugging the book. It’s available on Amazon by the way.
But I should point out that the proceeds go to two things; the – –
Museum and also to support an oral history project in the community in
which I lived all these years. I’m also grateful to be invited here.
It’s many years since I’ve been to Washington, and the last time I was
simply passing through. I’m going to be here for approximately a week, so
because I was brought here so to speak by the Smithsonian I’m going to
hang on and go through the museums as much as I can, so thanks very much.
It’s probably very clear to us all now that cultural astronomies are
about particular people in particular places. So first a few words about
Inuit and their Arctic homelands. Inuit, and I name this and I use the
name to include the Upic in the Western part of the Arctic. Inuit
live mainly in the Arctic regions of North America, Greenland, and even
have a toll hold in parts of Alaska. Excuse me, a toll hold in parts of
Northeastern Siberia. The blue areas on the map indicate approximately
their traditional homelands. They’re predominately coastal
dwellers, although a few groups live within the margins of the treeline,
notably in parts of Alaska, Northern Quebec, and Labrador. Coastal Inuit
traditionally lived on marine mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales;
while those living inland relied almost exclusively on caribou. Diet
was augmented seasonally by fish, migratory birds such as geese, ducks,
and also ptarmigan, and minimally by foraged roots and berries in the
summer. Over the past 60 years or so, Inuit have become more urbanized
and moving from their camps in the land into crowded settlements
established by national governments across the Arctic.
This afternoon we’ll be looking mainly at the astronomy of the Inuit
of Igloolik. They’re also known by their own name as the Igloolingmut
who live on a small island in Canada’s Nunavut territory.
Igloolingmut star knowledge is shared by other Inuit communities in North
Baffin Island, but at a general level its cosmological foundations are
applicable across the entire Inuit range from the Bering Sea, across
Arctic America, to the West and East Coasts of Greenland. Igloolik and
the Igloolik Island is shown inset on the map in the screen is just below
17° North, placing it 320 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. The winters
here are long and dark and the sun is gone each year from the end of
November until the middle of January. And the summers while they’re short
and blessed with the midnight sun, are invariably short. The ice-free
season even in these times of climate change lasts around three months from
late July until the end of October. In fact, Igloolik as I speak is
experiencing freeze-up, not like here.
Igloolik was established as a settlement by the Canadian government
in the early 1960s and is now a growing town of around 1,900 people,
mostly Inuit. Before moving into the settlement Inuit of the area lived in
small seasonal camps on the coastal inlets of nearby Baffin Island.
Locations chosen for the predictability of the marine animals
on which they depended. As you can see, the terrain around
Igloolik tends to be rather flat and featureless compared to most other
locations in the Eastern Arctic. There are no mountains to obscure the
horizon, and so a large and rather inviting sky is the hallmark of
Igloolik scenery, which is very good for anyone that’s interested in
stars. Igloolike Island has an extremely
rich archeological heritage. The numerous remains of ancient dwellings
scattered throughout the island have found their way into Inuit cosmology.
Inuit tradition views these sites as having been occupied at a single time
in the very distant past by the island’s first people. This was at a
time when there was no winter and no death. Life it was said was easy and
food plentiful, but the island eventually became impossibly
overcrowded, the countless archaeological sites prove this, and
people were literally being pushed into the sea. Legends tell that this
desperate situation was eased only by people calling for death and winter.
So death and winter came, social order was established, and the growth
of the community checked. A version of this legend ends with
the words “with death came the sun, the moon, and the stars. For when
people die, they go up to the heavens and become luminous”.
Archaeologists with a very different cosmology view the island sites as
having been occupied by various Arctic hunting peoples over the last
4,500 years as the island gradually rebounded from the seas following the
last Ice Age. My interest in Inuit astronomy came
about perhaps inevitably as a result of a long-term resident in Igloolike.
I was there with my family for almost 25 years. And it was also aided and
abetted by my dabbling in the very esoteric practice of celestial
navigation. During my observation sessions on clear winter nights, and
I’d be usually fumbling with a frozen sextant or a frozen artificial
horizon, older, curious Inuit would often happen by point out a few of
their stars, gently implying or so I thought that an understanding of the
sky and the employment of its contents could be had without the use
of my cumbersome gadgets. I took the hint and so began in 1985 a series of
interviews with Inuit elders about their astronomy lasting
intermittently over some 20 years. All this was part of a major oral
history project sponsored by the Igloolik elder society.
About 30 elders, three of the main contributors shown here, [foreign
language] participated in the program. When interviewed about
their astronomy, most insisted that the information they possessed was
meager compared to that of their parents or grandparents.
Nevertheless it was clear that these elders were virtually the last
keepers of a more or less detailed knowledge of their astronomical
traditions. The rapid dilution of Inuit star
knowledge is not surprising. The semi-urban life most Inuit now live
hinders the transmission of traditional knowledge. Conditions
readily conducive to learning about the celestial sphere have ceased to
exist. In the old days for example, slow-paced, dog team journeys across
the open tundra gave excellent opportunity to learn about the sky.
Nowadays however with their snowmobile travel leaves very, very
little inclination or enthusiasm for star gazing. Significantly elders
pointed out that they no longer noticed the stars because of the
glare of the community street lights. Unfortunately light pollution, the
anthema of urban dwelling sky watchers everywhere now pervades the
Canadian Arctic. Inuit cosmology was based on
shamanistic belief and observance and offered a view of the sky and its
contents well suited to their spiritual and pragmatic needs. Their
astronomy, particularly for those groups living above the Arctic Circle
reflects the unique appearance of the celestial sphere at higher latitudes,
perhaps demonstrated most dramatically by the sun’s absence
from the sky during the mid-winter months.
The illustration on the screen is by [foreign language], a well-known
artist from Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. [Foreign language] image
beautifully captures the Inuit perspective of the intimate
relationship between the sky, its contents, and the earth. Unlike our
view, which seems increasingly to expand the limits of space, [foreign
language] sky is actually contained by the earth. You’ll notice too that
her drawing is also about time, place, and activity. In effect it’s
a calendar delineating the Arctic year, including the freezing and
melting of sea ice, as well as the key activities associated with each
of the seasons. Notice too that the sun’s annual cycle is represented
along the fringe of high mountains bordering the earth. And you can see
the sun’s annual cycle is represented around the edge of the drawing.
Across the Arctic, the notion of a flat earth was widely held. In
Alaska for instance, lost hunters were said to have fallen off the edge
of the world, while in Labrador such accidents were prevented by high
cliffs, keeping anything from living going to the region beyond. The
carving by [foreign language] on the left of the screen nicely illustrates
the world’s mountainous perimeter. The image on the right shows the
legendary mesana [phonetic], at the end of the world staring triumphantly
into space holding a string of brilliant beads, proof that he has
reached the earth’s extremities; a widespread Inuit legend, known from
areas as far apart as Alaska and Northern Quebec, tells us that such
beads are found only at the world’s end.
Earth and sky are analogous in the
Inuit view, each in winter having a similar snow-clad topography. In the
sky, the sun and moon live in adjoining igloos, regular traffic
took place between the two realms. Shima’s for instance, on their spirit
flights would visit the moon and the moon man protector of abused orphans,
would come to the earth to enforce taboos and to confer fertility on
childless women. It was believed that taboo breaking was often
responsible for the creation of celestial objects and virtually all
stars with human personifications were created following the commission
of some grave social transgression. Murder and incest as we shall see are
at the root of the epic Inuit legend recounting the creation of the sun
and the moon. Because of Igloolik’s high northern
latitude, around 70° north, the visible portion of the celestial
sphere is notably less from what we see in the more temperate latitudes.
In practical terms for example, this means that the brightest star,
Sirius, such an obvious feature of the late night sky in Washington just
now is barely seen at Igloolik. It literally creeps along the horizon.
In contrast, the twin stars Castor and Pollux, which rise and set at
Washington’s latitude, are circumpolar, meaning that they’re
always above the horizon and can be seen any time during the hours of
darkness in Igloolik, obviously if there’s no cloud cover.
Inuit names for stars and star groupings fall into several
categories. As I’m going through this you can look at the names as
they give various constellations on the table there. The two principle
ones are first human and animal personifications. The second
intrinsic designations derived from some feature of the star in question,
including for instance, its spatial relationship to other stars, whether
the star is leading or trailing, and in the case of the North Star, it’s
apparently fixed position in the sky. Some have anatomical designation; the
breastbone of which is what they call the Ploidies, and also the collar
bones. Normally only single stars are used
by Inuit for personification of humans and animals. This practice is
consistent with the widespread that such stars were once animate beings
on earth, possessed of single souls, which in transformation logically
retain their individual identities. The image on the screen shows a view
of the sky as perceived by Igloolik Inuit. Almost all their major stars
and constellations are represented here, including most obviously Ursa
Major. I mentioned the collar bones, these are four stars that comprise
our stars Capella and Colleen and Castor and Pollux; Cassiopeia has
actually two designations. The three brightest stars in Cassiopeia are
considered lamp stands for a soap stone lamp. I’ve mentioned the
Ploidies before, that’s the breastbone. We’ll hear more about
Alderbarn, which is the polar bear and the surrounding stars, the star
cluster, the Hiodies. Sirius here is represented as an old woman cleaning
her igloo window. She also has a lamp, which apparently flickers each
time people go between the moon and earth. Now if any of you have seen
the star Sirius at lower latitudes it’s extremely brilliant. Some
people have likened it to a cut diamond. It is full of prismatic
figures changing all the time, and Inuit feel that the draft of these
passerby’s cause the lamp to flicker thus.
Myths and legends can serve a variety of purposes from the Archean and
quoting of cultural values and expectations to explicit cautionary
tales aimed at dissuading wayward behavior. Celestial legends share
these same characteristics, but in addition, are a practical device for
making sense of the sky and its contents. Indeed Igloolik elders say
that one of the purposes of star stories is to help us remember the
exact location of important stars used in time telling and in
navigation or way finding. And incidentally once Inuit do tell you
their stories about stars, they do tend to stick with you. They’re less
complex than some of the projections that we tend to make on the sky.
And the legend of Uluctut [phonetic] stars, and these are the stars in
Orion; Uluctut means the runners and it illustrates the point I’ve just
made very well. The story involves the three main stars in Orion’s belt
and the prominent star Aldebaren in the constellation Taurus and finally
a number of stars in the Hiodies cluster.
This legend relates that on a bright moonlit night three brothers and
their dogs come across a polar bear; they begin to hunt it. However
they’re unaware that they have been seen by a woman who has recently
given birth and is thus under various taboo restrictions, one of which
prohibits her from looking at hunters. Breaking this taboo causes
the three hunters, their dogs, and the polar bear to rise up to the sky
where they’re all conformed into stars. The three hunters become
Orion’s belt stars, ahead of them is the polar bear, the star we know as
Aldebaran, surrounded by the Hiodies star cluster, which are now the
hunter’s dogs. There’s a lovely embellishment of
this story and that’s the great nebula in Orion is sometimes said to
be the children and they’re usually cousins of the hunters that are
carrying fur clothing to their fathers that are pursuing the polar
bear. Now, those of you that have observed the great nebula in Orion
will recognize that it’s quite fuzzy and stands in very well for fur
clothing. Legends can also be seen as akin to
hypothesis, offering an explanation for the way things are or seem to be.
The sun/moon legend provides an example. In its entirety, this
legend is one of the most widespread and complex of all Inuit traditions.
It is often abbreviated to relate how two siblings, a brother—a sister and
her incestuous brother rise up to the sky to become the sun and the moon.
In its fullest sense this story is much more than this. It addresses
universal concerns about creation, social and cosmic order, nourishment,
retribution and renewal. The concluding part of the narrative in
which the sun and the moon are actually created goes like this; long
ago before the sun, moon, and stars, when all was dark, a young woman
alone in her igloo was repeatedly visited by a man who took advantage
of her. Wishing to find out who this man was, she decided that the next
time he visited she would mark his face with soot from her extinguished
lamp. On his next visit she did just this, smudging his face with her
sooty fingers. When he left she followed him to a large igloo where
people were celebrating. And there in the light of the oil lamps she
discovered to her horror that her visitor that had been none other than
her own brother. Distraught, she lit a torch of moss and rushed around the
igloo. Her brother also lit a torch and followed her. Outside they ran
round and round the igloo in a clockwise direction. The sister
leading, the brother following, until at last they ascended into the sky.
Her torch grew brighter and brighter, but her brother’s torch merely
smoldered. She in her brilliance became the sun, and he the pale moon.
Across the Arctic, key elements of this legend have been used by Inuit
to explain a number of observed phenomenon. For instance, their
apparent motion of the sun across the sky from east to west is established
in the clockwise direction of the chase around the igloo. The sister’s
brightly burning torch compared to that of her brother’s smoldering one
accounts for the difference in luminosity between the sun and the
moon. The moon’s dark patches are the smudge marks on the brother’s
face, and this illustration shows them as does this, the dark patches
on the moon are soot. Solar eclipses results when the moon in his
continuing pursuit of the sun periodically catches up with his
sister and embraces her again. Even the moon phases are explained;
the sister full of disgust at her brother’s incest stops giving him
food. He gradually wastes away, her pity evoked, she begins to feed her
brother again, thereby restoring him to his former size. This cycle of
revolution and pity continues endlessly, hence the monthly waxing
and waning of the moons. Inuit have no word for time, not at
least in the abstract sense, commonly understood in our industrial society.
This does not mean of course that they somehow lacked any comprehension
of the links between time and so- called economic activity, a view too
often attributed to cultures with perceptions of time do not coincide
with those of the Western world. Expressions dear to us like saving
time, losing time, over time, time is money, create all kinds of
difficulties for Inuit translators. Once at a conference that was dealing
with Inuit co-ops, a government advisor was trying to explain to
Inuit that time costs money. The translator was really baffled and
gave it his best shot, which was a watch costs a lot. And if I go on
much longer I’ll be timed out by Doug here.
I’ll mention that with the introduction of Christianity, Inuit
were introduced to that rather unusual concept or division of time
called a week. And on the right of the screen we have an early calendar
that was made by Inuit hunter. Again, you can see the preoccupation
that Inuit have with the product of the hunt. This is basically a tally
of animals he’s caught up to a certain date. The markings around
the edge of the calendar are days of the week, obviously the crosses are
Sundays. The ones that are sort of scored off are days that have already
passed, but that gives you some idea of the introduction of our time, the
beginning of Inuit accepting industrial time as it were.
For Inuit, the changing seasons determine not only their day-to-day
activities, but also their diet, dwelling locations, and family
groupings as they moved about their local area in response to the
migrations of the animals on which they depended. The annual cycle was
reckoned usually by 13 moon months, beginning with the first new moon
coinciding with the sun’s return. The designation of each moon was
based on recurring events in the natural world, such as the birth of
seal pups, the nesting of birds, the thickening of caribou pelts, and the
freezing of the sea ice. Significantly moon months and the
depth of winter were marked by the appearance of certain stars, and in a
moment we’ll look at some of these particular months.
You can see here how the names of the moon months pick up things that are
going on in the environment. This one was important; caribou hair
sheds, it was a moon when it was good to go caribou hunting to catch
caribou for winter clothing. The one down here, [foreign language] meaning
hearing, perhaps its meaning isn’t immediately obvious, but this
happened round about early November when the ice was thick enough to
allow dog team travel and remote camps could then visit each other by
dog team because in these days of course there were no communications
like we have today. The moon of [foreign language]
literally meaning great darkness, spanned the sunless period straddling
the winter solstice. This was a period of relative inactivity and
resources at this time were often scarce. But to the extent permitted
by available moonlight or twilight, Inuit would still try to hunt on the
sea ice, but it was often unproductive. Storytelling and
indoor games help pass the time. String figures or cats cradles as
they’re sometimes known were especially popular and were played
almost obsessively. I’ll just mention that elders would tell me
that various camps had different kinds of string figures and people
would be sent on long journeys actually to get someone’s new
invention of a string figure. It was only during the sunless period
that these games were permitted because it was widely believed that
string figures would entangle the sun as soon as she appeared on the
horizon. The appearance of two stars, which we call Alter and
Tatazed [phonetic], but which the Inuit call [foreign language] in the
Northeastern quadrant of the sky around mid-December was taken as a
sign of winter solstice as well as a promise of the sun’s return.
The next one is [foreign language]; this literally means that the sun is
possible. And obviously it was a month of the returning sun, and for
Inuit marked the beginning of a new year. Until the introduction of
Christianity to the Igloolik area in the 1920s and ‘30s, the sun’s annual
return was an occasion for celebration of renewal, symbolized by
the extinguishing and then relighting of the soapstone lamps with a new
flame. This ceremony was also said to strengthen the land. The ceremony
usually involved children extinguishing the lamps and I think
the involvement of children themselves, a symbol of renewal, was
used particularly for that purpose. The lamps among the igloos of each
community would be relit from a single flame, a new flame from tinder
that was kept especially for that purpose. And you can imagine that
temperatures, let’s say 40 Celsius below or 30 as it could easily be
then, caused—didn’t really invite people to extinguish their only
source of heat, but the sun’s return was so significant to them that these
observances were made without any complaint.
In recent years this celebration has been reestablished and is now a major
community event. This image on the screen shows a soapstone lamp used in
the ceremony just after it has been relit. Note the parallel imagery
between the lamp flame and the inset picture of the sun peaking just above
the horizon. When the sun comes back it’s literally on the horizon for a
few minutes before disappearing again.
Traditionally the return of the sun was an anxious time for Inuit due to
the effects of atmospheric refraction, the sun often appeared
reluctant to return, sometimes hesitating and behaving erratically
on the horizon. And on a number of occasions in Igloolik when I’ve
witnessed the return of the sun, the day it would always be back earlier
than the prescribed date astronomically because of this
phenomena that we know as refraction. But you would see just the tip of it
some days and then remarkably the next day you wouldn’t see it again;
there would be a glow, but no sun. And then the next day it would be
above. And this bouncing around the horizon was very typical of the sun’s
return, and I think it really led to Inuit uncertainty about the sun’s
actual return, which was never taken for granted and taboos at this time
were carefully observed; one of which was to destroy the cords of the
string figures and as I’ve already mentioned there was fear that these
string figures, even symbolically would prevent the sun from rising.
With the sun now back on the horizon, string games were replaced by a game
called [foreign language]; and this is a cup and ball game where the
player tried to impale a caribou vertebrae usually on a bone spike and
the action of tossing up the vertebrae was said to encourage the
sun to rise. In fact some songs that go with the game of [foreign
language] include references to the sun rising higher and higher.
The next month, and this is the last month that involves the actual sun’s
return, was called [foreign language] and that literally means that the sun
is increasingly rising. Its elevation was carefully observed, and
I think this all goes back to the uncertainty that the Inuit had about
the sun really coming back. So in Igloolik at least they would actually
measure the sun and its return by in successive days seeing if the sun
would first fit between the extended thumb, mid-thumb or harpoon thumb
first, harpoon first, then the thumb of a mitt, and then finally with the
mitt appearing to fit between the sun’s lower limb and the horizon at
noon. When it had reached this point it was called [foreign language] and
[foreign language] literally means mitted, the sun has been mitted.
This stage was called [foreign language] and occurred a few weeks
before spring equinox. And it really marked the end of the winter’s dark
period, Inuit were now confident that the sun was back, light levels were
rising increasingly, and the seals and walrus in which they depended
were beginning to become more accessible. The worst of the winter
was behind them, and although temperatures remained low, the warmer
days of spring were in the offing. And around this time which was a time
of promise, they would note the two stars that they called [foreign
language], but which are known to us as – – appearing on the horizon,
fairly above the Southern horizon just after sunset when the sky was
still bright to the west. And there’s a song still well-known in
the Igloolik area which celebrates the sighting of the [foreign
language] stars. And in translation the last verse goes [foreign
language] appear, yonder the daylight. It is a joyous feeling
that again in the broad daylight will I sleep. Thank you.
[applause] MR. HERMAN: Thank you John.

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