Comparative Guts

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1400 - 1900 CE


Brigitte Sonne

Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

Ulla Odgaard

Independent project researcher - archaeology and history of religion
Greenland is the world’s largest island with approximately 75% covered by ice. It measures 2600 km from north to south and has an arctic climate with below 10°C in the warmest month. Protected fjords in South Greenland have subarctic conditions. The landscape is characterized by mountains, valleys, rivers and fjords; important game animals are caribou, muskox and, in the past, also polar bears; the marine fauna includes seals, walrus, whales as well as fish. First inhabitants of Greenland were the Paleo-Inuit (2500 BC-1100 AD), rooted in Stone Age cultures of North-eastern Siberia. The Paleo-Inuit were not directly related to the later Inuit culture, and they had already left Greenland, except for the North-west region, when the Thule people arrived. Before the Thule culture, the Viking Norse established two settlements in Southern Greenland, around 1000 CE. They belonged to the Nordic farming and trading culture, and disappeared from Greenland in the mid-15th century, probably due to collapsing networks. Contemporary Inuit Greenlanders are descendants of the whale hunting Inuit Thule culture, which originated in Alaska and spread from there to Northern Greenland around 1200 CE. During the following centuries, using big skin boats, kayaks, and dog sledges, they made their camps all around the coast of Greenland. Culturally, close ties to the Inuit of Canada and Alaska are maintained, sharing the same heritage of traditional myths and worldviews. In 1721 a Danish/Norwegian priest set out to find the successors of the Norse in Greenland. Instead, he found the Inuit, and he started a mission among them. Later Greenland became a Danish colony, gaining home rule in 1979 and autonomy in 2009 but is still part of the commonwealth with Denmark and Faeroe Islands. Human population is today 55.000.
greenland guts
The Inuit were hunters, primarily of sea mammals. They knew all details of the animal interior from cutting up the killed body for use. They used flesh, heart, liver, blubber, skin, guts, and bones for food, clothing, heating (the blubber), tents, boat covers, tools and utensils. The interior of human bodies was considered and known to be identical, if only cut up in case of murder. In that event the pieces were widely spread, and a part of the liver eaten by the murder(s) in order to prevent the soul from avenge. Thus, the interior of the human body was no mystery, if invisible to the ordinary eye in daily life. Only shamans, who “could see what was invisible to others” and in possession of an inner light, qaamaneq, were, when in trance able to look into another person’s body as well as into “the Other World” of the spirits and dead humans. Among the guts, the lungs were indispensable to all live beings. Breath was the sign of life, its disappearance of death. The Lung-Eater living in a star close to Moon lived from the lungs of dead humans going to the heavenly realms of death, one in heaven, the other below the sea. Breathing was indispensable to the animals as well. Thus, the sea mammals living mostly in the invisible, airless other world of the sea had to surface at intervals into this world for a breath. In both this and the other world aggressive animals and spirits were feared. The rare birth in its caul, a pooq, made the child immune to aggressive beings, protected as it was in the pooq, meaning “mother” in the language of the Other World. The gutskin- anorak had a similar effect in both ritual and myth.