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13th May 2020

Hi! I’m Jocelyn, Research and Documentation Assistant, based at the Hull Maritime Museum.

Welcome to part 2 of my lockdown research. This blog is all about the object research that I’m doing from home while the Maritime Museum is closed.

Next up is this strange object…

This amazing item appears to show a polar bear with a human skull, made from walrus ivory.

Again, there isn’t much in the object description:

“A polar bear figure with skull head crawling full length, an animal bear head is on the reverse. Folk art possibly Inuit/Eskimo.”

So what is it??

First things first – I knew this must be an object from the Arctic, as it depicts a polar bear! So I headed to the Scott Polar Research Institute to have a look through their collections online. Unfortunately they do not have a ‘search’ function, so I had to look through all of their Arctic material culture collection until I found something that looked similar. But sure enough, there was something!

Y: 2010/10/71- tupilak carving, copyright Scott Polar Research Institute

This is a ‘tupliak’ (or ‘tupilaq’) from Greenland. It struck me as similar to our object in the grotesque, smiling mouth of the skull, and the animal shapes, and the use of bone as the material. But from here, the SPRI website didn’t have any more information.

So, I headed to good old Google, to do a search.

There, I found that a tupilaq more similar in shape to our one. This one was illustrated in an issue of ‘Inuit Art Quarterly’.

This one was illustrated in an issue of ‘Inuit Art Quarterly’.

There is also one a similar shape in the British Museum collection.

Am1944,02.6, tupilaq, carved of wood; copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum

I also had a look at the Greenland National Museum in the hope that they’d have loads! Unfortunately, the Greenland National Museum does not have its collections available to view online, so I’m not sure whether there are any in the collection.

So, our object could well be a tupilaq. There are others in the world that look similar! But what is a tupilaq?

According to Wikipedia…

“In Greenlandic Inuit religion, a tupilaq is an avenging monster fabricated by a practitioner of witchcraft or shamanism by using various objects such as animal parts (bone, skin, hair, sinew, etc.) and even parts taken from corpses. The creature was given life by ritualistic chants. It was then placed into the sea to seek and destroy a specific enemy.”

This was pretty intense information! I went over to Google books for a more in depth study.

According to the book Inuit Shamanism and Christianity: Transitions and Transformations in the Twentieth Century (by Frédéric B. Laugrand and Jarich G. Oosten, 2010), ‘tupilaq’ can be translated as ‘evil spirit’. These can either be the spirits of deceased people, or spirits created by angakkuq (a shaman or medicine man).

According to the book Traditions, Traps and Trends: Transfer of Knowledge in Arctic Region (edited by Jarich Oosten and Barbara Helen Miller, 2018), the tupilaq must contain a piece of the clothing or hunting spoils of the man against whom it is to be sent. Then it was released into the sea or to travel across the land, where it would find whoever it was meant for. If a person faced a tupilaq and was not able to defeat it by using his own stronger spiritual powers, then his life was in danger.

And in the book A Sociology of Religious Emotion (by Ole Riis and Linda Woodhead, 2010), it says that the animal and human features of a tupilaq represent life and death. They say “A tupilaq is more than a symbol of enmity; it is an object that is brought to life by magical acts, potent to spread dread, danger, and illness. It makes people behave in strange ways that jeopardize life itself”.


Don’t worry!

The website ‘Visit Greenland’ has lots of info about tupilaq, too. It seems that the tupilaq that we have today were made to be traded or sold, and are often souvenirs. It has also been a long time since shamanism was the primary religion of Greenland – now 95 per cent of the population are protestant!

So the tupilaq in the Hull Maritime Museum’s collection was likely made for sale and it probably wasn’t ever imbued with magic by a shaman. It poses no danger to those who come near it!

What a relief!

As ever, if you have any more information about this object, we want to hear it! Please get in touch if you can point us in the right direction.