Friday, November 12, 2010

Musk ox Myth and Legend

Cave Drawing of a Musk ox
"Although there is nothing in the appearance or in the life of the musk-ox to suggest romance, yet the Indians and the Eskimo surround it with much mystery. They say it is not like other animals, that it is cunning and plays tricks on them, that it is not safe to approach, that it understands what is said. The Indians among whom I travelled have a tradition that long years ago a woman wandered into the Barren Grounds, was lost, and finally turned into a musk-ox by the "enemy." Perhaps this accounts for the occasional habit these Indians have when pursuing musk-oxen of talking to them, instructing them as to the direction of their flight, etc. Several authors maintain that these Indians, when hunting, do not talk to other animals; but I have heard them jabbering while hunting caribou after the same manner they do when running after musk-oxen."

This exert was taken from American author, editor, and explorer Caspar Whitney's book, Musk oxen, Bison, Sheep and Goats. A special part of the century-old cultural heritage of the Inuit are their myths and legends, which had been passed exclusively by word of mouth, because the Inuit had no written language and consequently had no literary tradition.  The oral recital of passed-on knowledge gave Inuit families particularly a feeling of immediate togetherness. At the same time, narrating made a connection between past and present, because the essential statements had been passed from generation to generation and accepted as the truth, without reservations. Among the Inuit, there are even nowadays no authors in the strict sense, so finding any such myths or legends on musk oxen was a bit of a hopeless cause despite my determination. Although it was very difficult -- nearly impossible -- for me to find any written Indian or Inuit legends of musk oxen I was able to find strong evidence from several sources that this type of folklore did exist quite commonly throughout the history of mankind such as the expert from Caspar Whitney's book that was written in the 1900s. Another article I came across talked about a completly different Inuit legend about musk oxen and their interactions with the native peoples:

"People and muskoxen have a long tradition of coexistence. From prehistoric times to the present, this shaggy mammal has provided the Inuit with meat, warm sleeping robes, and horn used in the manufacture of weapons and implements. The muskox also gave spiritual gifts to the Inuit. The people of western Hudson Bay have an old story of how two muskoxen provided the hunters with a song. These muskoxen had taken off their skins and were standing rubbing the skins to soften them and singing praises of their country. They sang of how beautiful the land was and how in summer they could always see the sun. While they were singing they heard a pack of dogs. Quickly they put on their skins and went up a hill where they thought they could defend themselves. Soon after they reached the top, the hunters came and killed both animals and took the song for their own (2)."

I wish I had more complete versions of all the legends that the Inuits had of the musk oxen, but sadly these resources are just not found on the internet, they are traditions passed down through word of mouth generation to generation -- many may have even been lost through the years. However the important point that I am trying to illustrate is that musk oxen have been significant to the human race sense these two species first crossed paths.  The lessons that these wise and ancient arctic creatures have to teach us are not unknown to man kind, rather they are forgotten.
Here are some examples of Inuit artwork -- carvings of musk oxen. These small relics demonstrate the importance that these animals held to these people, "The image of the muskox is commonly used in Inuit art as a symbol of strength and survival (3)." 
Wooden Inuit carving

Soapstone Carving


1 comment:

  1. Wow what amazing pictures of Musk Oxen! Its amazing that they played such an important part in Native American life. I would really love to get my hands on some Musk Oxen carvings!! Keep it coming with the Musk Oxen emails I am enraptured!