Mythic animals

The Unalit and other Eskimo of this region believe in the existence of various fabulous monsters, some of the most important of which are described below. It will be noted that the majority of these beasts are apparently derived from traditional accounts of existing animals or their remains, some of which have already been treated in the chapter relating to masks.

It is said that there are sometimes born, among other1 beings, monstrous children which begin to devour their mother's breasts as soon as they are made to nurse. One was described to me as having; been born at Pikmiktalik many years ago; it devoured its mother's breast, and when the people ran into the house in response to her cries the child escaped through the smoke hole in the roof. When they followed it outside, it was seen sitting between the horns of a reindeer, riding toward the mountains, where it disappeared.

Other curious beings are believed by the people of the lower Yukon to exist in the moon, but are said sometimes to be found on the earth. These are man-like creatures without head or neck, but having a broad mouth, armed with sharp teeth, across the chest. A wooden image of one of these was obtained by me, but it has since been lost.

The a-mi'-kuk is said to be a large, slimy, leathery-skin sea animal with four long arms; it is very fierce and seizes a hunter in his kaiak at sea, dragging both under the water. When it pursues a man it is useless for him to try to escape, for if he gets upon the ice the beast will swim below and burst up under his feet; should he reach the shore the creature will swim through the earth in pursuit as easily as through the water.

Near St Michael the people believe that these creatures swim from the sea up through the land to some land-locked lakes in the craters of extinct volcanoes and to similar inland places. Several dry lake-beds were shown to me in that vicinity as having been drained by these animals when they swam out to the sea, leaving a channel made by their passage through the earth. It is said that if the a-mi'-kuk returns the water follows from the sea and again fills the lake. The idea of this creature may have had its origin in the octopus.

Wi'-lu-gho-yuk is the sea shrew-mouse a small animal, exactly like the common shrew-mouse in size and appearance, but it possesses certain supernatural powers. It lives on the ice at sea, and the moment it observes a man it darts at him with incredible swiftness, piercing the toe of his boot and crawling all over his body in a moment. If he remains perfectly quiet it disappears by the hole through which it entered without doing him any injury and, after this, he becomes a very successful hunter. If a man stir ever so little, however, while the animal is on him, it instantly burrows into his flesh, going straight to the heart and killing him. Hunters are very much afraid of this animal, and if they chance to come across a shrew-mouse on the ice at sea they stand motionless until the creature goes away. In one case, of which I chanced to hear at St Michael, a hunter who was out on the sea ice in that vicinity during winter stood in one spot for hours, while a shrew-mouse remained near him, and the villagers all agreed that he had a narrow escape.

Az'-i-wu-gum ki-mukh'-ti, the walrus dog. This animal is believed to be found in company with large herds of walrus, and is very fierce toward men. It is a long, slender animal, covered with black scales which are tough but may be pierced by a good spear. It has a head, teeth somewhat like those of a dog, and four legs; its tail is long, rounded, and scaly, and a stroke from it will kill a man. The people of the islands in Bering strait told me that sometimes they see these walrus dogs, and that their walrus hunters are very much afraid of them; they also informed me that on one occasion a walrus dog attacked an umiak full of people and killed them all.

The bones of the mammoth which are found on the coast country of Bering sea and in the adjacent interior are said to belong to an animal known as the ki-lug'-u-wuk (ko-gukh'-puk of the Yukon). The creature is claimed to live under ground, where it burrows from place to place, and when by accident one of them comes to the surface, so that even the tip of its nose appears above ground and breathes the air, it dies at once. This explains the fact that the bones of these animals are nearly always found partly buried in the earth. The Eskimo say that these animals belong to the underworld and for that reason the air of the outer world is fatal to them.

Ko'-gat are the tunghat of lonely lakes; they are semihuman in form and kill or steal the shade of any person found near their haunts. They have a loud, wailing cry and are much feared.

The yu-a are the shades of inanimate things and the elements and, according to the beliefs of these people, usually have curiously distorted, grotesque faces.

The nun'-wum yu-a is the essence or mystery which is believed to be present in or near a lake and when it goes away the lake dries up. These yu-it are believed to have the forms of men or women, and when visiting remote lakes people make food offerings to them so that they may be propitiated.

Ti'-sikh-puk, the great worm. This animal, which figures in numerous tales, was shaped like an enormous worm or caterpillar. It lived in the days when animals were supposed to have the power of changing their form at will to that of human beings, and in the tales it is indifferently a worm or a man. Among the carvings in ivory representing this creature were several having the body shaped like a worm with a human face on the head.

I-mukh'-pi-mi a-klan'-kun, the sea weasel. The Norton sound people described this as a long, weasel-shape animal found in the sea. They say it has black fur like the shrew-mouse with a white patch between its forelegs. This animal is also known among people living on the islands of Bering strait. There is no question that this myth has its origin in the sea otter, although the latter has been unknown in this region for a long period. Owing to its absence it has been invested with various supernatural traits, among which it is said to bring harm to lonely hunters when it finds them at sea. To this same animal may be ascribed also the i-mum' tsni'-kak or i-mum' pikh-tukh'-chi, a rare animal said to be like a land otter, but which lives in the sea and is taken by only the best hunters.

I-mum' ka-bvi-a-ga, sea fox. This is described as being similar in appearance to the red fox, but it is said to live far out at sea and is very fierce, often attacking and killing hunters.

Kak-whan'-u-ghat kig-u-lu'-nik. The killer whale (akh'-lut) is undoubtedly the original of this mythic creature. It is described as being similar in form to the killer whale and is credited with the power of changing at will to a wolf; after roaming about over the land it may return to the sea and again become a whale. While in the wolf form it is known by the above name, and the Eskimo say they know that this change takes place as they have seen wolf tracks leading to the edge of the sea ice and ending at the water, or beginning at the edge of the water and leading to the shore. This of course results from the breaking away of a portion of the ice on which the wolf tracks had been. These animals are said to be very fierce and to kill men. The same power of changing its form is sometimes credited to the white whale, which interchanges form with the reindeer [...] This belief is prevalent among all the Eskimo along the shore of Bering sea.

A strange, crocodile-like animal, known as pal-rai-yuk, is painted on the sides of umiaks and on the inside of wooden dishes by natives along lower Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. A mask from the tundra south of the Yukon mouth has this animal drawn down each side of the face. According to the traditions of the people in this district the climate in ancient times was very much warmer than at present and the winters were shorter. In those days the mythic animals referred to were abundant in the swampy country between the two rivers, being more common near the Kuskokwim, where the climate was more temperate than on the Yukon.

In those days the waterfowl and other birds came back from the south in February and the snow melted during that month and the water ran into the passages of houses as it does now in April. At that time the pal-rai-yuk lived in lakes, creeks, and marshes, where it killed men and animals for food. Several of the lower Yukon Eskimo recounted the killing of the last one by a hunter whose wife the beast bad caught and devoured while she was getting water from the lake. In the tale of the creation by the Raven, as the latter and the First Man were traveling in the Skyland, the Raven cautioned his companion not to drink from the lakes which were passed, because in them were animals he had made that would seize and destroy any one who ventured near. These were the pal-rai-yuk.

In the drawings of this animal on umiaks, at intervals along the body are open spaces, inside which are represented parts of a human body, showing the belief in its having eaten such food. It was said to live in the water, where it lay hidden among the grass, whence it suddenly rushed to seize a person on the bank or to attack kaiaks when crossing its haunts.

The curious likeness of these animals to the alligator, as shown in the accounts of its habits and in drawings representing it, is very remarkable. Nearly all of the umiaks in the country of the, lower Yukon and to the southward have a picture of this animal drawn along the entire length on each side of the boat, with the head near the bow, and the figure is common also on wooden dishes in that region. It appears to be a local myth, and can scarcely have been brought to these people since the advent of the whites. The country where this myth is most prevalent is one of the least visited of any along the coast of Bering sea.

In one of the Raven tales a large beast is described as having been seen haunting a dry lake bed overgrown with tall grass while Raven and First Man were journeying in the sky land. It is said to have rested by lying down on the tips of the growing grass, without bending the stems. When this animal was killed by the Sky people it was necessary for them first to place logs under it, for when dead it became so heavy that it would sink into the ground as will a lean seal in water. It is described as having a long head and six legs, the hind legs unusually large and the fore ones short, with the small middle pair hanging from the belly. A line, thick fur, like that on the shrew-mouse, is said to grow all over its body, and is thickest about the feet. On the back of the head are a pair of thick, short horns, which extend forward and outward and then curve back at the points. The animal has small eyes and is very dark colored. This undoubtedly refers to the muskox, which has been extinct for ages in the region where these people live.

Tin-mi-uk'-puk, the great eagle (Thunderbird). This is described as an enormous eagle which varies in its habits according to locality. The people of Bering strait said that it preys upon right whales. On a spear-rest used ill the bow of an umiak are etched four of these birds, two upon each side. On one side the birds are represented as having their claws in the backs of the whales, which they are carrying away; on the other side the birds are represented as not yet having seized their prey.

On the shore of Norton sound the tin-mi-uk'-puk is said to catch either whales or reindeer, and along the lower Yukon it was reported to prey upon people and reindeer. Among the tales herein recorded is one from the lower Yukon describing the last pair of these birds which were believed to have lived there. In that district the top of a mountain below Ikogmut was pointed out as one on which these birds were said to have nested.

Small fragments of quartz crystal are said to be the centers of masses of ice that have frozen harder than usual, so that the cores have turned to stone. These are prized as amulets.

I was told by a fur trader who was familiar with the Nunivak islanders that the latter claim descent from a dog.

In the Raven tale are described reindeer which came from the sky and which had teeth like dogs. These are said still to exist, but are invisible except to shamans, who see them on the plains and describe them as having a large hole through the body, back of the shoulders. People supposed to be gifted with clairvoyant powers sometimes see and shoot at them, believing them to be like other deer, but no ordinary weapon can kill them. Carvings of these animals were seen among the people south of the Yukon mouth.

In the far north there are said to be men having tails and two faces one in front and one behind.