BOOK REVIEW / Red-hot myths from an icy land: Jenny Uglow on the magical songs, stories and customs of a lost Arctic era

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The Independent Culture
'ONCE they've come to the sea-ice the woman falls behind the boat-sled. The husband follows her, always singing. The amulets sewn to their parkas tremble.' It's spring. The north wind drives the pack-ice out to sea, making wide channels for the bowhead whales running north to their summer feeding grounds.

The skin-boats are ready. The woman lies on the sea-ice, then walks, without looking back, towards the shore. While the men hunt she must sit still, but her role is as practical as theirs: she is the whale's soul, in the whale's belly, the underground igloo with its whale-bone tunnel and ice-block skylight,

luring the bowhead to land. And the earth around her, so legend says, was once a whale itself, speared by Rawen-Man's harpoon and rising as the Tikigaq Peninsula, a narrow gravel-spit latticed with lagoons, curving into the sea like a harpoon blade, constantly eroded and remade.

In the 1970s, Tom Lowenstein spent three springs as a crew-man on a Tikigaq skin-boat, and he has produced two books brimming over with the fruits of 15 years of fieldwork in north Alaska. Through the songs, stories and memories of the Inupiaq people, he recreates a community life that remained almost unchanged for 2,000 years, until the Europeans and Americans arrived in the late 19th century and settled at a place called Jabbertown, decimating the whale population, and bringing with them diseases, liquor and their faith.

The Things That Were Said of Them (trs Tukummiq and Tom Lowenstein, University of California Press pounds 18.95) contains finely cadenced translations of myths and oral histories recounted to Lowenstein by the story-teller Asatchaq (1891-1980), a stubborn man, affectionately remembered, who was determined that the new generation of non-Inupiaq speakers know the 'true stories' of their past. And what a past. Violent, ribald and magical, the stories sweep from the mythical birth of the world and the stealing of daylight, through eras of caribou-wives, marmot-sons and underwater witches to the reality of the 1930s. In the final tale an old shaman dies in a modern clinic, abjuring his powers in terror and embracing Christianity with fierce opportunism. But, losing none of his ancient trickery, he 'vomits' his talismanic arrowhead - which is whisked off by the American doctor as a curio.

Lowenstein's Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury pounds 20) recreates the lost pre-contact era - the crunch of whale, animal and ancestor bones among the pebbles, the barking of dogs, basket weaving, winter games and summer trading camps. There is strangeness and beauty but not a scrap of sentiment in this ice-bound pastoral, with its knife-edge consonants and brutal winds. Jealousy, murder, rape are commonplace; blood, blubber and shit are as central as spirit-flight or gleaming moons; ritual is not so much mystical as useful, and a shaman who doesn't deliver soon gets the boot.

Lowenstein is a poet as well as a meticulous ethnographer, and as he traces the rituals of each season he mixes formal translation and direct, explanatory prose with a sinewy, poetic narrative. Somehow this seems absolutely right: as unpretentious yet humorously self-aware as the gliding shifts between the sea and land, human and animal, body and spirit that mark the Inupiaq world. Great stuff.