INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF NORTH AMERICA:
GODDESS OF THE ARCTIC SEAS --
OUR TENTH PLANET
© Susan Boulet
16-17 March 2004
When I got back from running errands tonight I found an e-mail from astrologer Melissa Stratton asking me what I thought of the newly discovered tenth planet, tentatively named Sedna. She wondered what I knew of Sedna other than that she's a goddess of the seas. I keep up on the news but I had heard nothing about this new planet!
At first I thought she meant a planet in one of the lovely galaxies recently discovered by the Hubble telescope (slated for premature destruction by Bush). Then it slowly dawned on me that Melissa meant a planet in our solar system!
I was amazed. The name of the "new"planet was also a surprise. Sedna is an Inuit sea-goddess which makes naming the tenth planet after her triply remarkable: 1) she's Inuit, not Graeco-Roman -- thus, New World, not Old; 2) she's female -- like Venus and Earth -- all the others are male; 3) she's a child-goddess -- all the others are adults.
The first time I ever heard her story was the summer of 1995 when a visiting professor from Canada, Dr. Maureen Korp, a specialist on the arts and cultures of Canada's First Peoples, shared Sedna's poignant story at a graduate institute where I was teaching........
Sedna was an abused child in an Inuit village. Her father wished to marry her off but she was a strong-willed child, did not understand why she should be given as property to another, and refused to obey. After repeated refusals, her furious father decided her life was forfeit. He ordered her into his small fishing boat and rowed out into the cold Arctic ocean. There he shoved her overboard. When the terrified child struggled and fought to grab hold of the edge of the boat, her father took out a sharp knife and sliced off her fingertips. Screaming, she flailed about and again clutched frantically at the boat. Her father hacked off another joint from each finger. With the remaining stumps, the desperate child made one last effort to hold on even as her father was chopping off the last vestiges of her fingers. Only then did she abandon hope and sink into the icy seas.
Miraculously, her broken fingers turned into seals, walruses and whales. These sea-creatures, recognizing her as their mother, bore her safely to the bottom of the sea. The journey transformed her. This abused Inuit child, disempowered by a father who considered her his property, survived to become the powerful goddess of the Arctic sea and mother of the precious animals who were formed out of her agony. She whose ten fingers were hacked away by a selfish father-figure, has now been named our tenth planet. The "rightness" of this is astonishing.
Consider the other planets: Mercury is the messenger god of speed, communication, business, tricksters; Mars is the god of war; Venus is the goddess of love; Jupiter is the king of heaven; Neptune is the god of the seas; Saturn is the god of time and formal structure; Uranus is the god of the unexpected; Pluto is the rapist of Persephone and the ruler of the underworld kingdom of death.
Into this mixture of adult gods reigning over adult domains now comes Sedna, a child -- the only child among them but also a full-fledged goddess of death far out beyond Pluto's realm. Pluto raped another child, Persephone, forcing her to be his wife. Sedna escaped marriage only to be murdered by her own father. Ruling in solitary grandeur, she is surrounded by her sea creatures. It is she alone who now determines which hunter will be allowed to kill her creatures for food. She bases her decision upon which hunters most respect her realm. Those who ignore her or would abuse her creatures will starve to death.
We live in an age in which the seas are increasingly polluted and toxic. Sea-creatures are being hunted to extinction. An American government is determined to use sonar regardless of its lethal effects upon sea-mammals. The great icebergs are melting because of global warming, a result long foreseen but ridiculed by world leaders with the power to prevent it in time (see Walter Cronkite's views). Thus, it is profoundly moving to know that a suddenly discovered tenth planet has been named after this goddess of the far northern oceans. She now has her own agendas which are quite different from those of the world's greedy fathers.
This goddess is an angry, ancient child, wise beyond the games of adults, and -- just possibly -- strong enough to tilt the balance in favor of sanity in her desire to put an end to the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. She has an orbit of 10,500 years, which means astrologically that she deals in vast millennia as well as individual lives. Right now, and for the next 72 years, she is growing closer and brighter than she's been since the last ice age (see NASA site below).
If one considers history, the rise of patriarchy began as she moved further from the sun on her last orbit -- 10,000 years ago is an approximate date for the first stirrings of agriculture in the Near East and Mediterranean basin. That Sedna is now being made known to our collective consciousness at the beginning of the 21st century suggests that the threshold period of the next 72 years will witness a re-focusing on the rights of women, their children, and the environment. Such a resurgence is cause for much hope, for it may finally bring us to a time of true balance between genders, races, and species.
Well, one might say, that's a very tiny planet -- it may not even be a planet -- and it's been doing its "thing" for millions of years. Why make all these claims about it? -- they sound exaggerated and inflated.
The answer involves the enormous power of archetypes and mythologies. The skies are an ancient repository of science encoded in mythology. It is true that the object originally identified as "2003 VB12," and now as "Sedna," has been out there a long time, totally unseen by anyone on earth until recently. It played no role in anyone's mythology because no one had ever seen it.
But now it has surfaced out of the cold depths of space -- and it has been named. With that name, it now enters the collective consciousness, much as stunning new insights might suddenly erupt out of a dream and reach one's individual consciousness. In naming the unnamed, it has been given presence, a story, a context, rich nuances. It has joined the powerful archetypes with which human myths have always populated the heavens. It will now "work" upon the collective consciousness in ways we cannot yet foresee. We can invite this tenth planet to dance in the interconnected webs of our other stories and it in turn can take us places we would not have known otherwise. So, although this planet may indeed be tiny in size, she is now large in story and promise.
Her discovers named her wisely.
of the TENTH PLANET
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/releases/2004/85.cfm"In this artist's visualization, the newly discovered planet-like object, dubbed "Sedna," is shown where it resides at the outer edges of the known solar system. The object is so far away that the Sun appears as an extremely bright star instead of a large, warm disc observed from Earth. All that is known about Sedna's appearance is that it has a reddish hue, almost as red and reflective as the planet Mars. In the distance is a hypothetical small moon, which scientists believe may be orbiting this distant body."
From NASA:http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~mbrown/sedna/...It is estimated Sedna is approximately three-fourths the size of Pluto. Sedna is likely the largest object found in the solar system since Pluto was discovered in 1930....
...Sedna is extremely far from the Sun, in the coldest know region of our solar system, where temperatures never rise above minus 240 degrees Celsius (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit). The planetoid is usually even colder, because it approaches the Sun only briefly during its 10,500-year solar orbit. At its most distant, Sedna is 130 billion kilometers (84 billion miles) from the Sun, which is 900 times Earth's solar distance....
...Sedna will become closer and brighter over the next 72 years, before it begins its 10,500-year trip to the far reaches of the solar system. "The last time Sedna was this close to the Sun, Earth was just coming out of the last ice age. The next time it comes back, the world might again be a completely different place," Brown [Michael Brown, one of Sedna's discoverers] said.
This is a marvelous, accessible page written by Michael Brown, one of the discovers of Sedna. He explains everything with clarity and has great graphics for people like me who need to see pictures. At the end, he explains why they chose the name Sedna:http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/Media/releases/ssc2004-05/ssc2004-05d.shtmlWhy is it called Sedna?
2003 VB12 is the official temporary designation of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center, based on the year (2003) and date (14 Nov = the 22nd 2-week period of the year thus V=the 22nd letter of the alphabet. after that it is sequential based on the discovery announcement) of discovery. Once the orbit of 2003 VB12 is known well enough (probably 1 year), we will reccomend to the IAU Committee on Small Body Nomenclature -- which is responsible for solar system names -- that it be permanently called Sedna. Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the solar system, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid arctic ocean. We will furthermore suggest to the IAU that newly discoverd objects in this inner Oort cloud all be named after entities in arctic mythologies.
If you'd like to explore our solar system's planetary orbits, comparing and contrasting them, this is a fine page, clearly written and illustrated. It also has links to more graphics.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3511678.stm
From the BBC:http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20040315/planet.htmlIt was first seen by astronomers using California's Mount Palomar Observatory, and has been given the name "Sedna" after the Inuit goddess of the ocean. Observations show it measures about 1,180-2,360km (730-1,470 miles) across, making it similar in size to Pluto. Astronomers now say they have evidence that Sedna has its own moon, although this needs to be confirmed, and is also very red in colour.Personally, I hope the name stands. Mythologically, what could possibly exist out beyond the furthest reaches of Pluto's realm of death? Only a death-realm belonging to an inverted image -- i.e., a New World goddess.
There is likely to be some debate about whether it qualifies as a true planet, but some scientists are already saying it re-defines our Solar System....
...The new discovery will reignite the debate about what constitutes a planet. One group of astronomers believe that Pluto is not a true planet but merely one of the largest of a vast number of minor objects in the outer Solar System. The alternative standpoint is that Pluto is a planet and those who believe that will have to classify Sedna as the 10th planet.
The name Sedna has been provided by its discoverers. However, if its planetary status is confirmed, it may be that astronomy's governing body, the International Astronomical Union, will want to reconsider this, to make it more consistent with the mythological names of other planets.
From Discovery News:http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/3/15/0514/53796...So distant is Sedna that if you were standing on the surface of Sedna today...you could hold up a pin at arm's length and cover the sun with it. Sedna is now about eight billion miles from the sun and travels as far as 84 billion miles out during its elongated 10,500-year orbit.
To put that into perspective, Pluto is less than half as far and orbits once in every 248 years. The last time Sedna was this close mastodons roamed the Earth and humans were just inventing farming.
Other Sedna facts: its surface temperature is estimated at about -400 Fahrenheit at its warmest, dropping to just a few degrees above absolute zero when it's further from the sun; Sedna might have a moon; and Sedna appears to be the reddest object in the solar system, except for Mars....
Catalyzed by the discovery of Sedna, this site offers an interesting and lengthy discussion on "What is a Planet?" It begins with this observation, assuming Sedna is declared a planet:...Pluto's title as the outermost planet could be in jeopardy, with the discovery of a large object orbiting the Sun far further out than any other....Participants cover a wide range of interests and sophistication. Good links to other scientific sites are provided.
Sedna, her hair in braids, carrying a Dog-Child
Carved by Manasie Akpaliapik, Arctic Bay, 1988
[Source unknown: I scanned this from an illustration included with a student paper, summer 1995.]
[NEW -- added 13 April 2004]: This is astrologer Kim Falconer's page from Australia -- if you scroll down and click on "Forum," you'll find a discussion on what Sedna may mean astrologically. Kim's own experiences are fascinating and I have contributed more of my own thoughts as well.http://www-personal.une.edu.au/~jrelke/sedna.htm
This is "Sedna -- Inuit goddess of the sea and fertility," a page composed by Joan Relke, an artist who shares two powerful views of a bronze sculpture she's done of Sedna. She had no awareness of Sedna's myth until after she sculpted her work, which makes her art all the more remarkable. It was only later that she explored the myth in a variant very close to the one I have described in my introduction. Here is how she begins:http://www.hvgb.net/~sedna/story.htmlThe North American Inuit people have often been described as a matriarchal culture, but the myth of Sedna, the goddess of the sea and fertility, displays a darker suggestion.
The angry father
Once a father tried to marry his daughter against her will. She disobeyed him again and again, after repeated suitors visited her. Thinking she is a useless and shameful daughter, he takes her to sea and throws her over the side of the boat. Sedna holds on to the gunwale, desperate to be rescued. Her father cuts off her fingers with a sharp hunting knife and she falls into the sea....
This is a variant of Sedna's myth by "Sedna," a Labrador Inuit woman who loves this goddess. Her variant is well written and lively but its initial emphasis on Sedna's alleged "vanity" and "pride" betrays a patriarchal taint. In this version, the "vain" Sedna is forced by her father to marry a prosperous looking suitor:http://www.liamodonnell.com/NPInuitMyth.html...Under great protest, Sedna was placed aboard of the hunters kayak and journeyed to her new home. Soon they arrived at an island. Sedna looked around. She could see nothing. No sod hut, no tent, just bare rocks and a cliff. The hunter stood before Sedna and as he pulled down his hood, he let out and evil laugh. Sedna's husband was not a man as she had thought but a raven in disguise. She screamed and tried to run, but the bird dragged her to a clearing on the cliff. Sedna's new home was a few tufts of animal hair and feathers strewn about on the hard, cold rock. The only food she had to eat was fish. Her husband, the raven, brought raw fish to her after a day of flying off in search of food....Feeling guilty, the father returns and rescues his unhappy daughter. But as they escape in his boat, the raven-husband follows and the frightened father tries to drown his daughter. In this version, he only pounds at her fingers with a paddle -- being frozen, they drop off under the blows. This mutes other versions in which Sedna's fingers are hacked off with a knife.
The conclusion is quite moving and relevant:...Sedna, tourmented and raging with anger for what had happened to her, did not perish. She became, and still is today, the goddess of the sea. Sedna's companions are the seals, and the whales that sit with her at the bottom on the ocean. Her anger and fury against man is what drums up the violent seas and storms. Hunters have a great respect for her. Legend has it that they must treat her with respect. Shamans from the world above must swim down to her to comb her long black tangled hair. This calms Sedna down. Once this is done, she releases her mammals to allow the Inuit to eat from the bounty of the sea. It is for this reason in the north that after a hunter catches a seal he drops water into the mouth of the mammal, a gesture to thank Sedna for her kindness in allowing him to feed his family....
This is another site that looks at the raven-husband aspect. The data is good despite several jarring and trivializing comments. Here is the well-told conclusion as the father flees with Sedna from the avenging raven:...Sedna's father, who only wanted to free himself, threw his daughter overboard into the frigid water but she clung onto the sides of the boat refusing to let go. Her panicked father took out his hunting knife and sliced off the young sea spirit's fingers, one by one. As she sank to the icy depths, her fingers floated away with the current and something fantastic happened. The tips of her fingers became small seals, her middle joints turned into the larger bearded seal and the base of her fingers transformed into the mighty walrus. Sedna finally came to rest at the bottom of the ocean, where the Inuit believe she now rules the land of the dead and controls her sea creatures, the seals and the walruses, sending them out to be hunted for food.
Inuit hunters know that it is important to keep Sedna happy, or else she will force the seals and walruses away, leaving the Inuit to starve. So, they have certain rules regarding their hunt, including one ceremony where they throw the bladders of each of their killed animals back into the sea. This way Sedna knows how important her creatures are to the Inuit and she will continue to keep them nearby to be hunted....
This intriguing essay is an excerpt from a book published in the early 1970's, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!, by Edmund Carpenter. It is literate and insightful. His variant, like the poreceding two, provides Sedna with a husband, this time a "cruel dog" in human form instead of a raven, although the dog is transformed into a "bird" for the attack scene. The level of violence is a bit higher than on the two preceding sites and the author literalizes the results of that violence, assuming that even as a goddess she will appear mutilated. About Eskimo stone art depicting Sedna, for example, he comments:http://www.earthbow.com/native/eskimo/sedna.htm...neither carvers nor buyers can be much concerned with accuracy, for these carvings always show a girl with two eyes, fingers & braided hair, whereas Sedna was one-eyed, fingerless & unkempt....After describing how she was killed, I like the way he handles the aftermath:...From the bottom of the sea, she ruled all creatures. Their floating bodies nearly filled her house. Periodically she sent animals forth to be taken by hunters, but only by hunters who showed respect for slain animals. Other hunters returned empty-handed. That is, Sedna withheld life from them, for they could not survive without the food, clothing & fuel that came from her subjects.Here is his useful survey of the myth's variants, which leads into an eloquent discussion of Inuit ("Eskimo") culture:...She was the most feared of all spirits, the one who, more than any other, controlled the destinies of men. In the various versions of this myth, Sedna was sometimes an unwanted daughter cast into the sea by her father, or a girl who has rejected all eligible men, or an orphan nobody wanted; in one version she was already a mother, abandoned by her own children. In each, she was someone the family abandoned for its own safety.Carpenter concludes with an episode of Sedna's myth in which a shaman aproaches her to ask for the life of an innocent. It's quite powerful and has a surprising twist, for Sedna remains deaf to his pleas and ignores his claim that she took a life without cause.
Abandonment of people was not purely mythical. The Eskimo did, in fact, abandon old people. Killing new-born girls was common. And the position of orphans was precarious: one's own family always took precedence. These were normal experiences in Eskimo life - cruel necessities forced on them by scarcity.
The Sedna myth represented this dilemma as the Eskimo saw it. They never asked that the universe be this way. But -- ayornamut ("it cannot be otherwise") -- they accepted life on its own terms. They did more than accept: they took upon themselves the responsibility for the fact that life was the way it was. They gave Sedna the power of life & death over man. Those who were forced to abandon her now placed themselves in her power, dependent upon her good will, her respect for life....... He begged for pity, but she laughed contemptuously. In anger, he twisted her arm & struck her with a walrus penis bone. But she was not afraid. Then he appealed to her vanity, combing out her tangled hair. But she was still unrelenting. Finally, ignoring her altogether, he stepped back and, with drum held high, sang of life.
Sedna was sometimes so touched by his song, so moved by his singing, she released the soul of the dead person, and the angakok [shaman] returned with it to the land of the living.In a life where neither reason nor strength prevailed, where cunning counted for little & pity least of all, the Eskimo sang of life, for only that availed, and even that, not always.It is an eerie and moving conclusion, true to the spirit of the Inuit -- those familiar with the Navajo Night Chant will recognize parallels in attitude.
This is "Sedna, Mistress of the Underworld," a detailed re-telling of the raven-husband variant from anthropologist F. Boas' early material in Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, vi, 583. The sequence on what happens to the fingers is especially clear, even to its mention of what happens to her fingernails:http://www.spiralgoddess.com/Sedna.html...In this mortal peril the father determined to offer Sedna to the birds and flung her overboard. She clung to the edge of the boat with a death grip. The cruel father then took a knife and cut off the first joints of her fingers. Falling into the sea they were transformed into whales, the nails turning into whalebone. Sedna holding on to the boat more tightly, the second finger joints fell under the sharp knife and swam away as seals; when the father cut off the stumps of the fingers they became ground seals....
From a pagan site comes another re-telling of the raven-husband variant. It's attractively presented but offers nothing new except that it includes a section on the lovely Northern Lights, reminding us that they too are part of Sedna's world. Good links are provided as well.http://www.inuitgallery.com/sedna.shtml
A Winnipeg Gallery featuring Inuit art offers a very "literary" retelling, more literature than myth, for it gathers up all loose ends and a little too tidily straightens things out. It even provides for the redemption of the father. It's well presented, however, and many will enjoy reading it.
Finally, from my friend Patricia Monaghan's book, Goddesses and Heroines, comes this brief but marvelously written piece on Sedna. Here's a passage on Sedna's laws:...She was willing to provide for the people if they accepted her rules: for three days after their death, the souls of her animals would remain with their bodies, watching for violation of Sedna's demands. Then they returned to the goddess, bearing information about the conduct of her people. Should her laws be broken, Sedna's hand would begin to ache, and she would punish humans with sickness, starvation, and storms. Only if a shaman traveled to her country, Adlivun, and assuaged her pains would the sea mammals return to the hunters, which, if the people acted righteously, they did willingly....There is a concluding wealth of detail on her undersea kingdom that's missing in other reports -- don't miss this one.
To North America:portal page
Myth*ing Links Home Page
Note: to report broken links or if you have comments or suggestions,
my e-mail address is at the bottom of my Home Page.
This page created with Netscape Gold 4.7
Text and Design:
Copyright 2004 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
Designed and written 16-17 March 2004, c-9pm-4:30am.
Launched: 18 March 2004.
24 March 2004: Added Sandra's Sedna;
13 April 2004: added Kim Falconer's link & corrected a point in my essay.