Guest Post from Ken Altabef: Designing a Fantasy World Around Inuit Myth

Book cover of Alaana's Way by Ken Altabef

An insatiable fever demon…
A restless Wind spirit…
A treacherous shaman…
A golden walrus…
And one courageous young girl.

Unlike the more familiar Greco-Roman or Norse pantheons which feature vivid characters and well-defined myth cycles, the Inuit myths tend to ramble, skipping madly about with the rapid scene changes of a disjointed dream and likely to end abruptly with a stoic, ‘”Here ends this story.”

The mythology is peppered with impressive spirits with interesting names. But aside from a name and a job description there’s little else to go on. So when I decided to write ALAANA’S WAY, an epic fantasy series about the first female shaman in an arctic world based on Inuit myth, I had my hands full. As shaman it’s Alaana’s duty to negotiate with the great spirits, and they all became colorful characters in the story. Their appearance and personalities were entirely up to me.

Another problem. A nomadic lifestyle, the vagaries of a mostly oral tradition and a fractured tribal system leave little agreement between different versions of the same story. Even the most established figure, Sedna, Mistress of the Sea, owns multiple conflicting origin stories. One version claims she was the daughter of two giants with such an uncontrollable urge for flesh that she tried to devour her parents in their sleep. Another tribe insists she was a young beauty forced to marry an elderly neighbor who turned out to be a monstrous carrion bird, leaving her no route of escape except a plunge into the salty depths. Or perhaps she was a poor orphan girl mistreated and cast into the sea by the other children; her fingers, chopped off as she clung desperately to the side of the kayak, fell into the water to become the walruses and seal. I had to tread carefully here. I decided, in a flash of Solomon-like insight, that all of them were true. I supposed that in the Beforetime, where dreams were reality, she was all those things, lived all those lives. But here and now she is simply Sedna, the Sea Mother who controls all the animals in the ocean.

wind and demon maskAnother established figure is Tulukkaruq, the Raven, who always represents a mischievous spirit in Native American folklore. The Inuit Raven is impressive indeed, having been credited with creating human beings and bestowng the gift of fire on us as well. But really, this one was easy. I gave him the personality of the Dark Knight’s Joker and urged him to plague both my shamanic heroine and her villainous nemesis in equal measure.

But what about the rest? Interpreting an entire pantheon is a daunting task, but I never flinched. I’m a fantasist. This is what I live for.

Tornarssuk

Tornarssuk

Consider Tornarssuk the guardian spirit of the polar bears. The name spoke to me. I pictured an enormous shimmering white bear with starry eyes. He would be fierce and deadly but also benevolent and wise, with a soft spot for human beings as well. Tekkeitsertok is the guardian of the caribou, so a tawny-furred man with cloven hooves and an impressive rack of antlers. I figured he was an old and docile spirit, more interested in sleeping than fighting, but he does get into at least one good brawl before the series’ end. The Whale-Man may appear as a gigantic black bowhead or a Poseidon-like man, and let’s make him the estranged lover of Sedna for good measure. I wrote a scene in book four where the two have a torrential undersea battle, her sharks on one side vs his whales on the other.

What about Erlaveersinioq, the Skeleton Who Walks, a terrifying spirit who loves murder and death above all things? I guess we can chalk him up in the villain’s column. Sila, spirit of the Wild Wind, was a wild card but in the southern tribes he is also the spirit of justice. Let’s put him with the heroes, but leave some question as to whether he’ll really show up to help. As for the snowy owl who leads the souls of the dead across the great divide, she should be petite and cute, with a light as bright as sunlight on fresh snow. Narssuk, who controls the weather, is an insane sky baby who lets down his caribou skin diaper to issue a stormy blast of thunder and snow.

Raven

Raven

Somewhere along the line I found mention of the Tunrit, a race of people who lived in the arctic before the Raven created human beings. A race of prehistoric supermen. I could find nothing more about them except for the name of the tribe, but that was enough. I had found my villain. A promethean figure among the first men, who had wrestled sabre-toothed tigers and brought the sun from the other side of the sky, and who turned to sorcery to atone for that terrible mistake.

So are my versions of these mythological figures accurate? Probably not, since they came mostly out of my own imagination. But they might be. And that’s an important point. In dealing with a cultural belief system, albeit an archaic and disfavored one, I felt a duty to be respectful. My books sit proudly on the shelves of the Toronto Public Library and in a home for wayward Inuit boys in Nunavut, Alaska. In correspondence I’ve received from Inuit people reaction varies from praise for giving these mythological figures new life, to a stoic acknowledgement of the fact that at least I didn’t contradict anything.

That last is not entirely true. A pivotal figure in the series is the Moon-Man. Many Inuit tribes posit the familiar Native American myth that the lecherous Moon-Man chases his sister the Sun across the sky each day in hopes of an incestuous liaison. This didn’t fit in with my elderly, romantic Moon-Man nor my version of the Sun as an extraterrestrial spirit. What to do? I decided to have my shamanic heroine Alaana ask the Moon-Man, on one her soul-flights to his realm, if the story was true. “Oh no,” he says, “that’s just a story people tell.” So at least the contradiction comes right out of the mouth of the Moon-Man himself. Who could argue with that?

Moon Mask

Moon Mask

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Enjoy this writing advice and want more content like it? Check out the classes Cat gives via the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers both on-demand and live online writing classes for fantasy and science fiction writers from Cat and other authors, including Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and other talents! All classes include three free slots.

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About Cat Rambo

I am a science fiction and fantasy writer and editor. My three collections of short stories are THE SURGEON'S TALE AND OTHER STORIES (with Jeff VanderMeer), EYES LIKE SKY AND COAL AND MOONLIGHT, and NEAR + FAR (forthcoming this September).
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