It’s never a good idea to play alone near the edge of the ice. Danger lurks in the waters below, where stories tell of a scaly sort, creatures with a pouch on their back. Tap, tap, tap, you might hear them tease from underneath the ice—beings that catch lone hunters and lost children. The qallupilluit. Tales of the ocean dwellers, dressed in eider feathers and reeking of sulfur, are known well in the eastern Arctic where communities are settled near the sea. Communities like Clyde River, where Louise Flaherty is from.
“We would often go along the shoreline and fish along the cracks,” she says, recalling memories from her childhood home on the northeast coast of Baffin Island. “But our parents would warn us about the qallupilluit, (saying), ‘Don’t wander off because they will snatch you.’”
Inuit stories are rich with tales of terrible monsters—of giants and demons, shapeshifters, shamans, and sea beasts. Many are pegged as part of a larger mythology, a cultural heritage of the North. Lots are called cautionary tales, spun to scare children out of harm’s way. Flaherty, a writer, editor, longtime educator, and co-founder of the Nunavut publishing company Inhabit Media, has been documenting those northern stories for almost 20 years.
“Mythical beings happen to be the thing I find most interesting in all of our traditional stories,” she says. “These are like great movies, the way the storyteller tells them.”
In her youth, Flaherty would spend summers on the land outside Clyde River—just herself, her grandparents, and their dog. It’s there she remembers learning the story of the mangittatuarjuk.
“That was one of the creepiest stories I ever heard,” says Flaherty, who authored a graphic novel two years ago about the head-eating ogress, titled, The Gnawer of Rocks. A huge and terrible old hag, mangittatuarjuk lives in a lair beneath the ground, where she lures children and locks them away from the light. She is said to have organs made of steel and gravel, and to feed on the rotting matter that runs from the nostrils of her victims’ severed heads. She tricks children by leaving a trail of small carvings and coloured stones that are beautiful to follow.
“I would always wander off and play. It was exposure to the story that prevented me from wandering too far,” Flaherty says. “We have polar bears and wolves that can easily devour a child that wanders off. There were so many stories that kept us straight.”
Most folklore is rooted in reality, and many a recounting of these Arctic frights come from a place of earnest concern. “A lot of them are cautionary stories, but to us, we still believe in them,” says Flaherty. “Whether there is truth to them, that’s up to you.”
Orally told, the stories change from region to region, and so do the monsters. “They look different depending on who told you the story,” says Babah Kalluk, who has been drawing pictures of mythical northern monsters since his teens. “There’s always a description of the character in the myth and from there your imagination takes over.”
Influenced by comic book styles, Kalluk’s creatures come out as ominous villains brought to life by his scratchy black-and-white art. It’s the scary side of Inuit folklore that most fascinates him.
“They are stories that had been passed down to me when I was a kid, verbally,” he says “I always thought it had that magical feel to it. You hear these stories when you’re a kid and you absolutely believe that they are true.”
It was Kalluk’s drawing that spurred on the work Inhabit Media does today through Flaherty and the small publisher’s other co-founders; brothers Neil and Danny Christopher. Distracted one day during a high school class in his home community of Resolute Bay, Kalluk was sketching out mahaha, the tickler—a demonic and long-fingered trickster that tickles people to death.
“You hear a slight little laugh in the background and it starts tickling you and you can’t help but laugh and you die laughing,” Kalluk says. You can tell someone has died at the hands of the mahaha when their cold, dead faces wear a miserable, grimacing smile of both horror and hysteria.
Neil Christopher, then Kalluk’s teacher, caught sight of the drawing and was hooked. “The students up there were influenced and inspired by the mythology they had been exposed to,” he says, in part thanks to the Inuktitut teachers who used the mythology in their curriculum.
Over the coming years, Christopher would spend his spare hours travelling throughout Nunavut, interviewing elders and gathering archival research on the mythology of the North. With Kalluk’s help, Christopher published a series of scary northern stories under the title Taiksumani through the Nunavut Bilingual Education Society, in the hopes of inspiring reluctant readers to crack open a book. That was in 2004. At that time, books of northern legends were scarce, especially books written by northerners. There were some, like Mark Kalluak, an Arviat elder who pioneered the publishing of Inuit legends in the mid ’70s with his book titled How Kabloonat Became and Other Inuit Legends. It’s that kind of work Inhabit Media is continuing now. If you visit the library in Iqaluit today, both the children and adult sections have ample shelf space for books on northern lore, and horror. Which is good because those stories were at risk of being lost.
“Everything was passed down orally, nothing was written. I want to document them before they disappear,” Flaherty says.
“Of all imaginative expressions, the story is the form most treasured by Inuit,” writes Inhabit author Rachel Qitsualik in the forward of her book, The Shadows Rush Past.
Both Qitsualik and Christopher tell stories of the amautalik, another ogress who haunts the dreams of northern children. In his book, Stories of the Amautalik, Christopher opens with this passage from his notes attributed to the Inuit of Igloolik: “The amautalik is an ogress, hated and feared beyond all the other earth spirits. The naughtiest children can be made to stop crying at the mere mention of her name. She is the most feared of all the soul stealers and only the greatest shamans dare to set out against her.”
In some regions, the woman who looks as old as time itself wears an amauti made of walrus hide where she stows away her prey. In others, she wears on her hunched back a basket fashioned of antlers and driftwood, and stuffed with rotting seaweed—a cavernous pack, rife with huge lice and maggots.
While fearsome, the amautalik can be herself frightened or tricked away. In Christopher’s telling, a girl is saved by the amulet of her shaman grandfather when it turns into a snow bunting. The little bird loosens the ties the ogress has used to trap three children. The bunting then flies around the amautalik’s face until she goes mad with frustration and gives up on her meal of children.
But are these tales merely a function of precaution? Had the crazed children who escaped the amautalik imagined the encounter, and would a child really find the mangittatuarjuk if they followed a row of shiny rocks? Was the kukilingaittiaq—a monstrous claw that catches child thieves and clutches them until they are found out—simply a ploy to discourage stealing?
Probably. But Christopher has spent too much time talking with people who say they’ve had first-hand experiences sighting or meeting a creature to dismiss every tale as fancy.
“People will say the qallupaluit was a story made up to keep the kids away from the ice. That may be how people use it now,”
but in studying past transcripts, and in interviewing elders directly he says, “They never spoke of it as a cautionary tale. They spoke of it as an actual being.”
Perhaps someone saw a giant, or a sea person, or a caribou shift forms.
“Strange things happened out on the land,” he says. “If these beings existed— they’re scary, but they’re also magical, and it makes the world a richer place...It’s not too hard to believe monsters exist when you’re living in the high Arctic.”