Sedna, Goddess of The Sea

A very long time ago, a young girl named Sedna lived with her widowed father in a small sealskin tent along the coast of Baffin Island. Sedna, who was beautiful, smart, independent, and willful, wanted a husband who was her equal.

In fact, she was so particular that she turned down every suitor who came to visit. Sedna’s father, Kinuk, did not mind that his daughter was so fussy because he loved her dearly and did not want to lose her.

One day, a long, sleek kayak carrying a handsome young man pulled up along the shore. Sedna asked her father if he recognized the style of the young man’s clothing. “I have never seen an anorak with such beautiful black-and-white stripes,” she said to her father.

“It is most unusual,” he agreed. “And look at the stranger’s spear. It is made of ivory.” Although Sedna and her father were very curious about the young man, they remained hidden from view inside their little tent.

But the stranger cried out to Sedna: “Come to me. You will never be hungry, and you will live in a tent made of the most beautiful skins. You will rest on soft bearskins. Your lamp will always be filled with oil, your pot with meat.”

Sedna pushed aside the thick caribou hide that covered the front entrance of her tent and peeked out. “Oh,” she gasped. “He is indeed handsome.” But Sedna had a reputation to protect, and she could not run to the shore and join the handsome young man while the people of her village looked on. So she closed the tent flap and stood quietly.

The young man stepped out of his kayak, and, using the tip of his ivory spear, drew a picture in the sand. “This is the land to which I will take you,” he said as he scratched a scene of rolling hills, fat animals, and large comfortable houses. “I have many furs to give you,” he shouted. “And I will place necklaces of ivory around your neck.”

Sedna stepped out from the door of the tent and in a shy voice asked, “Am I the only girl in the territory without a husband? Are there no other women to pursue than one who does not wish to marry?” The young man’s smiled broadened. “There are many women for such a rich man as myself. But I want only you.”

Sedna was charmed. She had known handsome men before, but she had never been enchanted by their words. She went back indoors, filled a small sealskin pouch with her sewing needles, and walked slowly down to the shore. Sedna’s father did not protest. He believed he could not have made a better choice himself. The old man smiled and waved goodbye to his beautiful daughter.

The handsome young man lifted Sedna gently into his kayak and turned quickly out to sea. That evening, their kayak stopped alongside a rocky coast backed by low rolling hills. There were no houses and no fat animals—just hundreds of loons.

Sedna stepped hesitantly out of the kayak and turned to ask her new husband the whereabouts of the beautiful home he had described, but when she turned around, she was being followed not by her husband, but by an elegant loon with black on his back and white on his breast and belly. “Oh,” she cried. “I have run away with the spirit-bird!”

“I used my power to transform myself into a human after I fell in love with you,” said the young loon. “Otherwise, you would not have come away with me.”

Sedna cried inconsolably. She could not imagine living among a flock of loud birds, who waddled around on webbed feet, let alone marrying one. She begged and begged to be returned to her home. “Please,” she said. “I will give you my bag of sewing needles, if you will let me go home. I will give you anything I own.”

Her loon husband fluffed up the nest of loose plants he had made for her and ignored her pleas. He brought her dozens of fresh fish and fed her well. But still she begged to go home.

When Sedna had failed to return home, even to visit, her father set out to find her. The old man wandered for many days from one island to another in search of his daughter.

At last he spotted the long sleek kayak that belonged to the handsome suitor, and he went ashore. The father was puzzled: there were no houses on the island, just hundreds of black and white loons. He called out his daughter’s name, “Sedna. Sedna. Where are you?”

But he was answered only by the cry of the loons. Then he looked up and saw his once-beautiful daughter sitting on a nest sobbing. “Oh, my child. I will take you home.” He took her in his arms, carried her to his kayak, and they paddled away as quickly as possible.

When Sedna’s husband came home, he asked the other birds, “Where is my wife?”

“Her father came and took her away,” they cried.

Quickly, Loon-Husband turned back into a human, jumped into his sleek kayak, and gave chase.

Sedna’s father saw the young husband approaching in his kayak, and he hid Sedna underneath a pile of furs. “Where is my wife? I want to see her,” demanded her husband. The old man ignored him and paddled on.

Sedna’s husband suddenly grew very angry and whirled his paddle madly in the air. Then he struck the water with his paddle, first on one side of the boat and then the other.

His head and body gyrated back and forth in the tight little kayak, and water splashed all around him. Suddenly, the young man’s handsome anorak turned back into shiny black and white feathers, and the spirit-bird rose up out of his kayak. As the great bird flapped its wings, the strange, wild cry of the loon filled the air.

Within moments, a furious storm rose up out of the sea, and giant waves smacked against the little kayak where Sedna still hid under a cover of heavy furs. Although Sedna’s father wanted to save his beautiful daughter, he was consumed with fear.

The spirit-bird was seeking revenge, and the old man knew he must appease the angry spirit. There was only one way to satisfy the spirit-bird, and that was to throw his daughter overboard. Once her father had made this horrible sacrifice, Sedna struggled to keep her head above the water as giant waves washed over her.

When at last she was able to grip the gunwales of her father’s kayak, he was seized with fear, and cut away her half-frozen fingers. “I must,” he cried, steeling himself against his own agony. “The spirit-bird makes the sea angry and demands your life.”

Sedna’s body slowly disappeared beneath the icy waters, and her grieving father returned home. The old man lay down on a thick pile of caribou hides inside the little tent he and Sedna had shared for so many years, and wept.

During the night, another storm filled the sea with giant waves. This time, the waves washed far up on shore and lashed against the little tent where Sedna’s father lay sleeping. When the last wave returned to the sea that night, it took the old man with it, down to Sedna’s home at the bottom of the sea.

Sedna glared at her father with a single large, hollow eye that shone like a winter moon on her defiant face—the other eye had been lost in the storm at sea. Her father recognized the thick black braids that hung down his daughter’s back, but the youthful beauty he had known had been replaced by the proud face of a great spirit-goddess.

Sea animals had been created from the joints of Sedna’s severed hands: the first joint of her fingers became the seals of the sea; the second joint the whales of the sea; and the third joint the walruses of the sea. When Sedna was in a good mood, she made the animals plentiful, and no one went hungry.

Sedna protected the animals she had created from her dismembered fingers and reigned over a vast region where human souls, including her father’s, were imprisoned as punishment after death.

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