I first learnt of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea and marine animals, from a calendar I had of paintings by Susan Seddon Boulet. That calendar was also the first time I’d come across the magical paintings of Ms Boulet, who sadly died in 1997, aged only 55.
Sedna is also known as the Mother or Mistress of the Sea. There are differing versions of her story, but the end is always the same, showing her as a vengeful goddess whom hunters must pray to before she will release the sea animals for them to hunt.
In the calendar, Ms Boulet had given each of the goddesses a small snippet of a story … I’ve basically taken the bones of her version of the Sedna legend, and fashioned my own account around it. My purpose in doing so is not to cause offence, but if it does, I do sincerely apologise.
A long time ago, in the land of the white bear, there lived a beautiful maiden. Her skin was as pale as the moon, her hair black as the starless night, her eyes were deep pools of dark water, and her lips as red as blood. Her name was Sedna, and she lived with her father. She cared well for her only parent, and her father believed himself blessed to have so good a daughter. But, if there was only one complaint he could make, it was his daughter’s stubborn pride in refusing to take a husband.
Many a young suitor found his way to the humble abode of Sedna’s father. And, though she was faultless as a hostess, she would barely look at them or speak to them. Afterwards, she would simply shake her head at her father’s hopeful question.
It happened one day that, while Sedna was quietly going about her work, a fulmar landed close by. At first, she paid it no heed and, eventually, it flew away. However, when it returned the following day and the day after that, Sedna began to watch the sky, awaiting its arrival. She was growing fond of her feathered companion, and would spend time talking to it while she completed her work. When her father would try to chase it away, she would beg him to leave the creature for she was growing to love it.
One day, her fulmar came as it always did, but this time it landed on the ground in front of Sedna. It seemed then as if a mist descended to hide the bird from her. She rubbed her eyes and when she opened them, she fell back with a cry. Standing before her was not her dear fulmar, but a man, wearing a cloak of feathers. He was pleasing to the eye, and Sedna lowered her gaze before the intensity of his stare.
“Sedna,” he said, “If you will consent to be my wife, I will take you to my home across the waters where you will have nothing but luxury.”
“And your love?”
He nodded. “And my love, as I believe I will have yours.”
She nodded. Then the fulmar went to speak with Sedna’s father who gladly gave his blessing. And so Sedna became the fulmar’s wife, and left for her new home, though it grieved her to leave her father alone.
The fulmar’s home, across the vast waters, was indeed as luxurious as he’d said, and Sedna wanted for nothing. But her happiness was not to last. The fulmar’s people would not accept her for she was not one of them. They shunned her and, before long, even her husband began to turn from her. Her fine robes were taken from her, and she was given scraps to eat. Thus ill-treated, but forbidden to leave, she stole to the water’s edge and there begged the fish to take word to her father to fetch her home.
Each day, Sedna would creep down to the water, and each day she would return, more desolate than before. Until, at last, the day came when she spied her father’s boat, and hope filled her heart.
Neither said a word as Sedna's father helped her into the boat. He then rowed away. Looking back at what had been her home, Sedna grew fearful once more. A flock of fulmars was flying towards them. When they reached the boat, the screaming birds beat their wings angrily. Black clouds gathered and a huge storm arose, churning the water into wild waves, and the boat was flung about.
“It is you they want,” cried Sedna’s father, fear turning his face ugly. “You must return or we will surely die.”
“No! I cannot live that life. I would rather die.”
“Then die so I may live.” Grabbing his daughter, he threw her into the ocean.
But Sedna clung to the boat, begging her father to help her.
Still the storm raged around them.
Unable to loosen his daughter's grip on the boat, Sedna’s father reached for his axe and chopped her fingers off.
Sedna's screams were drowned in the howling of the storm. Falling back, she floated on the water, now stained red with her blood, and the storm began to die down. Of the fulmars, there was no sign. Sedna turned her anguished gaze to her father. “You are a false father,” she said before the water slowly closed over her. But there was movement in the now-calm water. Sedna’s severed fingers had turned into whales, seals, and all the mammals of the sea.
Sedna’s father, wild-eyed with the horror of his deed, returned to his home. But the memory of his daughter’s gaze, and her final words would haunt him the rest of his days.
But Sedna did not die. Instead she descended to Adlivun, to the underworld. In time, when it became known who was responsible for the bountiful gifts the hunters sometimes enjoyed, shamans would descend to placate this new goddess, this sometimes vengeful goddess who might deny them the new prey. To ensure that she would not withhold her gifts, the shamans would comb her hair, and massage her mutilated hands.
Despite her vengeful nature, Sedna reminds us that nourishing gifts can be found in the dark, cold places that we most fear.
These past few months has been a real struggle trying to find my writing ‘mojo’, but, to my delight, I wrote that in an afternoon. And now it feels like I’m back in touch with my muse again, and itching to get on with writing another story :)