A Tupilaq is an avenging monster that can be made by
someone against an enemy. They were made of natural
materials such as hair, bone, plant leaves etc. in secret isolated
places and then after suitable chanting was cast into the sea
to seek and attack the enemy with an intent to kill them.
As avenging monsters go however there was a degree of egalitarianism
involved in that if the enemy was more powerful (in a magical
way) than the aggressor, then he/she could turn the tupilaq back
against the maker, so you had to be pretty confident.
There are no original tupilaqs left at all as they were
made of natural perishable materials and cast into the sea,
they were also not intended to be seen by any other person.
When Europeans went to Greenland, they
were curious about what tupilaqs looked like, so some Inuit
carved figures using materials such as whale tooth and bone,
reindeer antler or narwhal tusk which the tourists would buy.
Some of course would sell better than others and so designs
became more fanciful and grotesque.
Tupilaq carving became a highly skilled activity after
a start where they were quite stereotyped.
are also somewhat curious in that they are probably quite different
to what they were originally, now being finely detailed carvings
in hard materials instead of being made of hair, skin, feathers
etc. that would have presumably been significantly simpler and
probably quite different as each person making one wouldn't
have seen many or any others.
Despite their "made for the tourists" origin, modern
tupilaqs are individually hand made with very high degrees of artistic skill and
These are pictures
from a cruise to the High Arctic in August 2010, from Resolute
Bay Canada to Kangerlussuaq in Greenland.
Pictures copyright Paul Ward.
Pentax digital equipment.