All cultures have stories explaining the origins of the world and of themselves. The Biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is perhaps the most familiar. Memorable and influential, it is only one of many ways in which people have turned the fundamental question of human origins into story. This story was collected from the indigenous people of Smith Sound region in the early 20th century by Knud Rasmussen.
Born in Greenland to Danish parents, Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933) became a noted explorer and anthropologist. His knowledge of Inuit language and custom allowed him to live and work with Greenlanders. In a number of expeditions between 1902 and 1933 he collected a vast amount of traditional information as part of a scientific attempt to discover the origins of the Inuit people (then known as ‘Eskimo’). This story tells of the earth’s beginning, as well as the coming of humanity and death.
Our forefathers have told us much of the coming of earth, and of men, and it was a long, long while ago. Those who lived long before our day, they did not know how to store their words in little black marks, as you do; they could only tell stories. And they told of many things, and therefore we are not without knowledge of these things, which we have heard told many and many a time, since we were little children. Old women do not waste their words idly, and we believe what they say. Old age does not lie.
A long, long time ago, when the earth was to be made, it fell down from the sky. Earth, hills and stones, all fell down from the sky, and thus the earth was made.
And then, when the earth was made, came men.
It is said that they came forth out of the earth. Little children came out of the earth. They came forth from among the willow bushes, all covered with willow leaves. And there they lay among the little bushes: lay and kicked, for they could not even crawl. And they got their food from the earth.
Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them? It is not clearly known. When did they find each other, and when had they grown up? I do not know. But the woman sewed, and made children’s clothes, and wandered forth. And she found little children, and dressed them in the clothes, and brought them home.
And in this way men grew to be many.
And being now so many, they desired to have dogs. So a man went out with a dog leash in his hand, and began to stamp on the ground, crying ” Hok — hok — hok! ” Then the dogs came hurrying out from the hummocks, and shook themselves violently, for their coats were full of sand. Thus men found dogs.
But then children began to be born, and men grew to be very many on the earth. They knew nothing of death in those days, a long, long time ago, and grew to be very old. At last they could not walk, but went blind, and could not lie down.
Neither did they know the sun, but lived in the dark. No day ever dawned. Only inside their houses was there ever light, and they burned water in their lamps, for in those days water would burn.
But these men who did not know how to die, they grew to be too many, and crowded the earth. And then there came a mighty flood from the sea. Many were drowned, and men grew fewer. We can still see marks of that great flood, on the high hill-tops, where mussel shells may often be found.
And now that men had begun to be fewer, two old women began to speak thus:
“Better to be without day, if thus we may be without death,” said the one.
“No; let us have both light and death,” said the other.
And when the old woman had spoken these words, it was as she had wished. Light came, and death.
It is said, that when the first man died, others covered up the body with stones. But the body came back again, not knowing rightly how to die. It stuck out its head from the bench, and tried to get up. But an old woman thrust it back, and sai :
“We have much to carry, and our sledges are small.”
For they were about to set out on a hunting journey. And so the dead one was forced to go back to the mound of stones.
And now, after men had got light on their earth, they were able to go on journeys, and to hunt, and no longer needed to eat of the earth. And with death came also the sun, moon and stars.
For when men die, they go up into the sky and become brightly shining things there. [i]
[i] Knud Rasmussen (coll), Eskimo Folk-Tales, edited and rendered into English by W Worster. Gyldendal, London, 1921, pp. 17-18. See also Noel K McDermott, ‘Unikkaaqtuat: Traditional Inuit Stories’, PhD thesis, Queen’s University, 2015 at https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/handle/1974/12806/McDermott_Noel_K_20154_PhD.pdf.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y, accessed May 2017.