• Feature

Your Guide to the Monsters in Inuit Art

Creature Feature

Feb 15, 2021
by IAQ


Long-standing stories of sometimes humorous and often terrifying creatures populate the rich oral histories of all four regions of Inuit Nunangat, contributing to the structure of Inuit societal and spiritual systems. In the following Portfolio, we provide insight into a host of spirits inhabiting the Arctic landscape through the artists who continue to tell their stories.


Jessie Oonark
Kudloopudlooaluk/Sea Monster (1970) Stencil 55.9 x 76.2 cm
courtesy walker’s auctions


Tim Pitsiulak
Qalupalik Maqgoo (2012) Coloured pencil 146 x 50 cm
reproduced with permission dorset fine arts courtesy national gallery of canada © the artist


Annie Killabuk
Qalupilak (1997) Stencil 59 x 36 cm
courtesy davic gallery


Venturing near the floe edge in spring, as the pack ice drifts, can be a dangerous endeavor, complicated even further by what lies beneath. Clad in eider down or a duck skin amauti (women’s parka), the malevolent, humanoid qallupilluk are said to live under the ice, waiting with sinuous tendrils and sinister claws to carry away children who play too close to the fringe of the northern sea. Rarely seen but often heard, they whisk their prey away on their backs to caves deep in the Arctic waters. In some tellings, particularly for inland communities like Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, qallupilluk also dwell in the depths of certain lakes. In others, the creatures are said to take the form of various Arctic animals to trick victims into approaching the boundary between land and sea. Yet, in each instance of the cautionary tale, used to warn children of the dangers inherent in the northern landscape, an echoing knock on the breaking sheets of ice signals both the natural and supernatural threat waiting below.


Lucassie Echalook
Giant and the Fisherman (n.d.) Stone 27.5 x 23 x 19 cm
courtesy gallerie d’art vincent


Thomassie Echalook
The Tuniks (Giants) Who Lived Before Us Were More Able To Get Food (1974) Serigraph 72.3 x 55.3 cm 


Two Men Killing Giant (1961) Stonecut 36 x 48.8 cm
reproduced with permission dorset fine arts © the artist


Giants known as inukpasugjuit that tower above humans have travelled and left their mark across the Arctic, their footprints still visible on the land. Some malevolent, others kind, giants have been the subject of many stories told and artworks made by Inuit. There are stories of giants who were so large they would mistake polar bears for foxes and bowhead whales for seal. A famous giant was said to be able to walk across mountains in one step and later adopted a human son to help him pick lice as big as lemmings from his head. Some say that giants sleep for hundreds of years and that if you see a mountain on an otherwise featureless terrain, it may be a giant deep in slumber. 


John Terriak
Torngats (n.d.) Stone
courtesy canadian arctic producers photo erin yunes


Jonasie Quarqortoq (Faber)
All-seeing Tornaq (n.d.) Serpentinite 25 x 14 x 9.8 cm
courtesy galerie d’art vincent


Mayoreak Ashoona
Tornaq (1977) Lithograph 51.3 x 67.4 cm
reproduced with permission dorset fine arts © the artist

Tuurngait are rarely seen, but are responsible for much activity, both malignant and benevolent. While they are known to invite naïve people into their cave-dwellings in mountains and cliffs to trap and eat them, these beings can also be helpful when summoned by powerful angakkuit (shamans) in times of need. The turngait are shapeshifters of sorts and can take on a multitude of forms. Some are only visible to the angakkuq who summoned them, while others take on an almost demonic look, with bared teeth, horns and long talons, still others are unassuming and appear harmless, a tactic that helps lure people back to their homes. The Torngat Mountains in Nunavik and Nunatsiavut are given their name because they are said to be home to these spirits. 


Davidialuk Alasua Amittu
Legend (1963) Stonecut 29.8 x 42.5
courtesy walker’s auctions


Davidialuk Alasua Amittu
Untitled (n.d.) Steatite 9 x 18 x 8.5 cm
© Avataq cultural institute


Aisa Amittu
Katjutaiyuk Walking (1988-1989) Linocut 76 x 56.5 cm


A knocking heard on the ice walls of an igloo is cause for alarm, for it is believed that those who behold the ominous visitor will soon after fall ill. Lurking outside is the kajutajuq, a head with no body and no arms, just feet. In place of cheeks, she bares breasts and on her chin, a vulva. A similar creature, the tunituaruk, takes the same form, but also wears Tunniit (facial tattoos). These creatures linger in the igloos abandoned by migrating camps, surprising people who enter looking for a place to stay. The figure of kajutajuq was an ongoing source of inspiration for Davidialuk Alasua Amittu (1910–1976) who depicted her in countless sculptures and nearly a dozen prints. Amittu imagines the kajutajuq with a family and shows her giving birth and singing atop an igloo. Despite these sometimes joyous depictions, the artist calls her evil. His sons Aisa and Johnny Amittu have also dedicated a significant part of their practices to representing these figures who haunt the Ungava Peninsula. 


Osuitok Ipeelee
Giant Spirit With Claws (c. 1964) Stone and antler 56.4 x 28 x 17.1 cm
courtesy walker’s auctions photo dieter hessel


John Nutarariaq
Mahaha (2018) Stone and ivory 45.7 x 40.6 x 27.9 cm
courtesy carvings nunavut inc.


If you hear a haunting giggle carried by the Arctic wind, it may mean that the terrifying mahahaa is near. With a menacing smirk, horrific teeth and immense razor-sharp talons, this being wears a twisted smile while it stalks lone travellers during the winter months, impervious to the cold. Also known as qungalukkakkiit, the relatively small creature is routinely depicted wearing little clothing and almost always barefoot, with icy blue eyes that peer out from beneath a long, tangled mane. Perhaps most notable are its elongated fingers and similarly prolonged nails that it uses to tickle victims to death—all while grinning from ear to ear. However, this cruel figure is easily fooled. Elders suggest tricking the mahahaa into sharing one last drink by the water’s edge where soon-to-be victims can push the creature into the rushing current to escape.


Theresa Totalik
Mermaid Packing Doll (c. 1990) Wool duffel and thread 42 x 22 x 15 cm
anne lambert clothing and textiles collection university of alberta photo anna bissonnette


Anirnik Oshuitoq
Sea Spirit (1970) Stencil 49.5 x 61 cm
reproduced with permission dorset fine arts © the artist


Jacoposie Tiglik
Taliillajuuq: Goddess With Many Names (2003) Linocut 64 x 47 cm
courtesy davic gallery


Irene Avaalaaqiaq Tiktaalaaq
Untitled (n.d.) Wool duffel, felt, thread and embroidery floss 134.6 x 210.8 cm
courtesy waddingtons


Daniel Shimout
Sea Spirit (c.2010) Stone
courtesy canadian arctic producers


Sea Spirits

Though Nuliajuk, also known as takannaaluk or Sedna, may be the most synonymous being to inhabit the frozen seas, she is not alone in the depths of the Arctic waters. Accompanying the goddess of the sea are a plethora of figures that appear to straddle both the human and animal worlds. These beings are most often portrayed with human faces, both male and female, and occasionally upper bodies clad in a parka or amauti (women’s parka), with their lower extremities resembling those of a sh as well as other northern fauna, such as a whale, walrus or seal. In many depictions in both carving and printmaking, these lively spirits appear helpful—aiding both Inuit and Arctic animals alike—while majestically swimming and playing games with one another. More sinister sea spirits inhabit the waters of Nunavik, such as the iikutajuiit, who attack hunters in their kayaks and are said to be responsible for driving the ancient Tuniit from the land.


Martha Tickie
Amautalik (c.1980) Stone 39.4 x 21.6 cm
courtesy walker’s auctions


Nelson Takkiruq
Amayuqyuq Abducting a Child (c.1980s) Stone, bone and ivory 58.4 x 36.1 x 25.4 cm
courtesy waddingtons


A blind woman is minding a crying infant while its parents drum dance, or so one version of the story goes. Nothing she does will calm the child down, so she calls for someone to come and look after it. A figure enters and offers to take the child. The blind woman places it in the amaut (hood) of the recently arrived guest, who then disappears into the night with the child. The mysterious visitor is the amautalik, a female spirit and kidnapper who carries her victims off in her amauti (woman’s parka), preying on lost travellers or children who stray from home, as well as crying infants. Other versions of the story call her a giant or an ogress, and some have her carrying victims away in a basket made of bones, driftwood and seaweed carried on her back. She is feared by those who wander, and the threat of her has often kept people close to home. 


Qavavau Manumie
Lucky Man (2013) Stonecut and stencil 41 x 62 cm
reproduced with permission dorset fine arts © the artist


Qavavau Manumie
Untitled (1985) (2008) Coloured pencil and ink 50.8 x 66.4 cm
reproduced with permission dorset fine arts courtesy marion scott gallery © the artist


A figure grasping the heel of a vibrant magenta shoe; a man pulling enormous bundles of kelp while balancing a knife almost four times his size on his back; a jolly being peering out in satisfaction from behind a television, with the power cord in hand; two minute sher-men frantically holding their line as an Arctic char pulls them both through the water. These scenes of diminutive parka-clad people, known as inugarulligaarjuit, are based on childhood stories told to artist and printmaker Qavavau Manumie by his father while growing up in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. Said to live unnoticed by the other inhabitants of the Arctic, this race of humanlike spirits has fascinated the artist, who has for over a decade continued to imagine their frequently comical encounters with the northern landscape. From carrying an over-sized bundle of hundred-dollar bills to a group wrestling with a caribou, one can only imagine where these beings will appear next.

This Feature first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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