In Inuit folklore, there’s a tale about an evil woman who kept her daughter well fed but starved her blind son. The mother and daughter feasted in secret on the meat of a polar bear the son had shot with a bow and arrow. The son didn’t know he’d killed it, what with him being blind, and his mother insisted it had fled. (For the record, his sister helped him get the shot. In some versions of the tale, she’s sympathetic to his cause.)
Eventually, the son’s sight returned and he found the bear’s skin outside their hut. One day, there was a pod of white whales which the mother intended to harvest, but the son had other ideas. He lashed a rope attached to a harpoon around his mother’s middle and harpooned a whale. The whale dragged the boy’s mother from the ice floe she was standing on and out into the sea. Her transformation into a narwhal began when she twisted her long hair into what we know as the narwhal’s distinctive spiraling tusk.
There Are None In Captivity
The last narwhal in captivity was in 1969/1970. It was an orphaned calf that had been caught at Grise Fiord in Canada (one of the coldest inhabited places on earth) and was airlifted to the New York aquarium. A month later and it was dead. At around the same time, the Vancouver aquarium captured six narwhals. Unable to handle the stress of captivity, they all died within months.
They Change Colour With Age
Newborn narwhals are mottled -blue-grey, juveniles are blue-black, adults are spotted grey and old narwhals are almost completely white. James Mead, the curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History says the speckles complexion of the narwhal is ‘weird’ as whales are usually a more uniform colour.
It’s Tusk Is Actually A Tooth
The narwhal’s tusk is actually an exaggerated front left tooth. (Its right tooth is smaller and remains inside its mouth.) While most teeth, humans included, have a hard exterior and a sort interior, it’s the opposite in the case of the narwhal. Covered in thousands of nerve endings, this tooth can grow up to ten feet long and is able to bend about a foot before breaking off.
Narwhal Tastes Nutty…To Some
Muktuk is the name for the Inuit staple of whale skin and blubber. Apparently, when it’s eaten raw, muktuk becomes quite chewy and tastes nutty. However, ‘nutty’ isn’t how one writer describes it. When Abigail Tucker when to Greenland she sampled some muktuk and this is her experience: “With the tips of my fingers I seized a tiny, half-frozen piece of raw blubber, dunked it soy sauce and put it in my mouth. That first bite was exactly like chomping down on a thick vein of gristle in a great aunt’s holiday roast. It was tough as rubber, with a taste like congealed gravy.”
My life changed when I first encountered the work of Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson, through his profound and powerful first book Faces Of The North over ten years ago.
When I was studying Axelsson’s black and white photography, documenting the vanishing ways of life of the hunters, farmers, and fishermen in Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands I noticed my heart had started beating to a different rhythm.
As much as the north has always been a part of my existence, Axelsson’s imagery made me crave it. Crave it in such a way that learning and writing about these far northerly places – and visiting some whenever I could – became as much a part of my life as breathing, as eating, as sleeping.
As I sit here at my little desk, in a little room, in little England looking at an Axelsson postcard I sent to my parents from Iceland several years ago, I find myself feeling distressed that I’m not as far north as I need to be. However, while I can’t magic myself to Greenland or Iceland or the Faroe Islands right now, I do have Axelsson’s photography to take me there.
If this is the first time you’ve seen Axelsson’s work, I believe, I really believe you’ll come away changed and the north will have a new and deeper significance for you.
The Inuit Have Many Different Names For The Polar Bear
The Inuit have many, many names for Nanuq. In this instance, I’ll take examples from The Netsilik Inuit of Canada. (Interestingly, they were among the last of the northern indigenous peoples to be preyed upon by Southern missionaries.) The adult male is anguraq, the adult female without cubs is tattaq, the pregnant female is arnaluk, the newborn is hagliaqtuq and the teenage polar bear who’s almost the same size as his mother is namiaq.
In Inuit Mythology, The Polar Bear Is Said To Have Been One Of Sedna’s Finger Joints
In Inuit culture, the origin of the polar bear is somewhat blurred. However, in some stories, the polar bear started life at the same time as all other Arctic marine creatures – when Sedna had her hands hacked off with an axe wielded by her own father. It’s said that the sea goddess’s fingers became seals and fish, whereas the rest of her hands became the whales and polar bears.
Nanuq Was Always Honoured By The Inuit After The Hunt
When hunting, the Inuit always maintained the highest level of respect for the great wanderer. And this continued after death. In northwestern Alaska for example, a ritual would be observed called the Polar Bear Dance. It would celebrate both the hunter and the hunted.
It was believed the bear’s spirit would attend the ceremony, so great care was taken to honour the spirit so it would move on its way. The bear’s skull would be placed on a bench so it was able to ‘watch’ the dancing and feasting. This would go on for four or five days, after which the hunter who had killed the bear would then take the skull out onto the sea ice. When the hunter would hear the sea ice make a noise, he would know the spirit had left.
The Mother Of All Polar Bears Was Found In Ireland
When I think of all the places the polar bear could have originated from, Ireland isn’t the first destination on the list. However, it appears the mother of all polar bears descended from a brown bear which lived 20,000 – 50,000 years ago in the present-day Emerald Isle. DNA taken from polar bears from Russia, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Alaska showed that each individual bear’s ancestry could be traced back to the Emerald Isle dweller.
Suicide by Polar Bear Has Happened More Than Once
Remember that tragic event in 2009 when Mandy K, a school teacher from Berlin attempted to commit suicide by entering the polar bear enclosure at Berlin Zoo? Well, I’ve recently discovered that she’s not the only person to have entered a polar bear enclosure with the intention of killing themselves.
Back in 1891, a woman by the name of Karoline Wolfe climbed down a rope into the Frankfurt Zoo’s bear pit with the aim of ‘being eaten alive by a white bear.’ Unlike Mandy K, Karoline didn’t leave the pit alive. In 1903 when the bear who had ‘shredded her flesh’ passed away, a number of Frankfurt businessmen has some postcards printed on which was the bear’s obituary. In the obituary, the bear was described as Wolf’s ‘ravenous lover,’ who was ‘so infatuated with her that he ‘gobbled her up.’
Roald Amundsen Considered Using Polar Bears To Pull His Sledges
Poor Captain Scott has been mocked relentlessly for his idea to use ponies to pull his sleds in Antarctica. But Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen also had a bizarre plan for his North Pole expedition – to use polar bears instead of dogs. Apparently, the thought first crossed his mind when he first saw trained polar bears in a zoological garden in Hamburg.
In an interview, Amundsen said: “These bears, when properly trained, are as tractable as oxen. They are at home in the cold of the Arctic and can be easily cared for and fed with seal meat.” But taming a bear isn’t an easy feat. The idea didn’t take off in the end – Amundsen wasn’t prepared to try and handle his fury convoy on his own – though over a decade after proposing the idea, he was still up for it, despite having been mauled by a bear in the meantime.
Polar Bears Get Hot Extremely Fast
You would think that, on occasion, a polar bear might get a bit cold. But they actually have the opposite problem – they overheat extremely easily. It’s much more likely for a polar bear to die from the heat than it is for them to die from the cold. With their two layers of fur and a solid layer of fat (which can measure up to 4.5 inches thick), their metabolic rate is steady, even in the most frigid of temperatures. While they can sprint up to 30 miles an hour if they need to, they can’t spend much time running as their temperature can rise to dangerous levels if they move too fast.
Polar Bears Don’t Hibernate
Unlike grizzlies and black bears that spend each winter in hibernation, polar bears don’t need to, and instead spend all winter being active. The reason being that there’s plenty of food available to hunt. The exception though is when a female bear is pregnant. Then, she digs herself a den and is sealed inside, surviving off her fat stores, until her cubs are large enough to brave the outdoors.
Doors Are Kept Unlocked In Churchill On Halloween
On the shores of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, lies the town of Churchill. During Autumn, hundreds of bears pass through on their way to the hunting grounds. During this time, many of the locals don’t lock their doors so that if someone is running from a polar bear, they can duck inside. Halloween happens smack bang in the middle of polar bear season and, unsurprisingly, kids aren’t allowed to wear anything white for the festivities.
Superstition Surrounds Man Proposes, God Disposes
The painting Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) by Edwin Henry Landseer, was inspired by the search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition and features two polar bears among the grizzly remains of the expedition wreckage. The painting, which hangs in the study hall of Royal Holloway, University London was, for a long time, covered up with a Union Jack during exams, for it was said students who sat in front of it were doomed to fail. One urban legend claims that in the 1920s a student looked at the painting and stabbed themselves in the eye with a pencil, after writing on their exam paper ‘the bears made me do it.’
I’m back with Eyes On The Arctic, a weekly post where I collect all the need-to-read arctic related things that I’ve found over the past several days, and put them here in a handy bundle of links for you to pick, click and read.
Summer in Sweden ground to a sudden halt the other day and Autumn took it’s chance and snuck in. The past few years, it’s been more of a gradual transition, but this time around it was Summer when I woke up one day, and Autumn before lunchtime.
Oh, and have you noticed the thing with fungi? Like, one moment you can’t find even the smallest little cap, and then BOOM! They’re everywhere you look, thrusting skywards.
While it’s nice having summery days (not the relentless scorchers we’ve been having though) summer isn’t a season that I find myself feeling comfortable in. If I had a choice, the season would run like this: Winter, Winter, Autumn, Winter.
The days are getting colder, and much of nature is winding down for its season of rest. But with the coming cold, I find myself getting stronger, more joyful and full of life, love and optimism here in the North.
I thought it would be best for the #climatechangeartchallenge to go on indefinitely…if you want to take part, just make art whenever you have a free moment and share, share, share using #climatechangeartchallenge
This piece – along with nearly all the other art pieces – going up for sale as a print, tote bag, phone case, etc, in the MostNorthern shop.
Now, just in case you’re interested, on Patreon I have shared the text from my first children’s picture book which I was inspired to write following the catastrophic wildfires that have been burning in and around the Arctic Circle this summer.
If you’d like to read the story before anyone else, and follow the behind the scenes of the creation, hop over to Patreon where you can become a supporter of my work for just $1 a month.
One of the benefits of being a Patreon is that I will send you a copy of everything I publish. This week I’ll be sending out copies of my newest collection of poems My Father The Wendigo. You will also have a code to use in my shops to get money off any art piece you want to buy.