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Sedna, the witch under the sea


Sedna, the Sea Spirit, was once a mortal girl, living with her father by the seashore. She was very beautiful and many men came to court her, bringing gifts to win her favour. But Sedna was very proud and haughty and would have none of them. Always she found some fault. This one was too short or that one had bad teeth. She spurned their gifts and turned her back on them, refusing even to speak.

This behaviour infuriated her father 'Why can you nor take a husband like other girls?' he asked impatiently. 'Now that I am old, I need a son-in~law to help me with hunting.' Sedna only shrugged carelessly and fumed away, brushing her long dark hair and humming.

Finally, when yet another young man had gone away, hurt and saddened by Sedna's cruelty, her father lost his temper. 'The very next man who comes here,' he stormed, 'you shall marry! Next time I will make you! You will not refuse again!' He did not have long to wait. The very next day a strange kayak appeared at the waters edge. In it sat a tall young man dressed in rich, dark furs . A heavy hood covered his head and his face was half-hidden by his wooden snow-goggles. Sedna's father hurried down to the shore, dragging his struggling, protesting daughter behind him. Even before the stranger had time to disembark, the old man shouted, 'Do you seek a wife? Here is my daughter Sedna ! She is young and beautiful, and can cook and sew. She will make you an excellent wife.'

The young man smiled. 'I have heard much of your daughter's beauty,' he nodded, 'and have come with the purpose of making her acquaintance ' Turning to Sedna, he went on, 'I have a large and splendid house in my own country, hung with furs to keep out the elements. If you marry me, you will sleep on soft bearskins and eat only the finest food.' Sedna looked at the young man sitting tall and straight in his kayak.

'Well, if I must take a husband, I suppose I must,' she thought grudgingly. 'He seems kind and nor too ugly. I could do worse.' Indeed she had little choice in the matter, for her father's mind was made up and without more ado he bundled her into the kayak. The young man picked up his paddle and pushed off from the shore.

For many miles they travelled across the ice-cold sea. Sedna, cross and sulky, said nothing, nor did the young man seem inclined for conversation. Only the lapping of the water against eke kayak or the occasional cry of a solitary bird disturbed the silence. On and on they went until at last a rocky island loomed out of the mists. Look!' said the young man. 'There is my home.' Sedna was filled with dismay. The island seemed a bleak and inhospitable place. Nothing grew on its stony shores and sea birds swooped about the cliffs, filling the air with their wild, mournful cries.

The young man brought the kayak into the shallows and leaped ashore. He threw back his hood and pulled off his goggles. Sedna looked at him aghast. He was very ugly, short and squat, with tiny, red-rimmed eyes. He had seemed tall before only because of the high seat of his kayak. He saw Sedna's horrified face and burst into harsh, cackling laughter.

'Come!' he cried, roughly seizing her arm. 'Come and see my fine house--your new home!'

But it was not at all fine. It was nothing but a heap of twigs and driftwood perched on a high rocky ledge. There were no soft furs as the young man had promised, only a few miserable fish skins thrown on the rough floor. Sedna looked at her new husband and, before her eyes, he turned into a small, soot-black bird. Too late she realized the truth. This was no young man whom she had married, but a storm petrel in human disguise.

Sedna regretted bitterly the foolish pride which had brought her to this terrible place. The cliff-top nest was cold and uncomfortable and there was only fish to eat, but there was no way of escape and so for a long time Sedna lived with the storm petrel on the rocky island. During the day he left the nest in his bird form and flew over the sea in search of food. When he returned in the evening he became a man once more.

Meanwhile, Sedna's father, repenting his hasty temper, decided to go in search of her and, after many days travel, he too came to the lonely rock where the storm petrel lived. When he saw his daughter's misery, he was stricken with remorse. 'Oh my poor child, ' he cried, 'I did not mean you to suffer such a fate. Surely you have been punished enough! Let us return home at once.'

They climbed hastily into his kayak and set off, but, even before the island had faded from view, Sedna, looking back, saw a black speck appear. 'Father! Father!' she screamed. 'My husband is returning! When he finds me gone, he is sure to follow us. What shall we to do?'

The old man pushed her down into the bottom of the kayak and covered her over with skins. Urged on by fear, he paddled as fast as he could and the kayak flew over the waves.

Out of the darkening skies came the storm petrel, swooping low, his wings stiff and outstretched. Although Sedna was hidden under the pile of skins, he knew she was there. He flew round and round the kayak, shrieking wildly. At first the old man paid no heed, but again the bird swooped low, beating at the sea with his wings so that it grew black and angry and great waves began to wash over the kayak. The old man shouted and struck out at him with his paddle, but the bird dodged the blows and, skimming the surface of the water, beat his wings so furiously that the storm raged even more fiercely and the sea became a churning whirlpool, tossing and spinning the kayak like a child's toy, threatening to engulf it completely.

Fearing for his life, the old man lost his reason and dragged the trembling Sedna from her hiding place. 'Here is your wife! he cried. 'Take her for yourself,' and he hurled her into the sea.

Screaming in terror, Sedna clung to the kayak, but her father, maddened with fear, struck at her hands with his paddle, and the first joints of her fingers, frozen with cold, broke off like icicles and fell into the sea. As they bobbed away, they changed miraculously into seals, diving and twisting in the waves.

Again Sedna clung to the kayak, pleading for her life, but again her father tried to make her release her grasp, this time cutting off the second joints of her fingers. These, too, fell into the sea and became the first walrus. With her bleeding stumps, Sedna made one last despairing attempt to seize hold of the kayak, but her father had no pity and struck off the remaining joints, which took the form of whales and followed the seals and walrus down into the depths of the ocean.

Now Sedna had no more fingers and she sank to the bottom of the sea. The storm petrel circled the kayak, lamenting his lost wife. Then he turned and flew back to his bleak island home.

But Sedna was not drowned. Instead, she became the Spirit of the Sea and Mother of the Sea Beasts. Legend says that she lives still at the bottom of the sea, jealously guarding the creatures which came from her fingers. Because of her father's cruelty, she has no love for human beings. Their wicked deeds trouble her, affecting her body with sores and infesting her hair like lice. Lacking fingers, she cannot brush her hair and it becomes tangled and matted. In revenge, she calls up storms to prevent men from hunting, or keeps the sea creatures to herself.

At such times shamans must travel to the land below the sea to confess men's sins and to beg her forgiveness. Only the most powerful, who fear nothing, can undertake this journey for the way is long and dangerous, blocked by great rolling boulders, and evil spirits guard the entrance to the Sea Mother's sealskin tent. To sooth Sedna's rage and pain, the shaman must first comb her hair until it hangs clean and smooth once more. Then Sedna may feel more kindly and release the whale, walrus and seal from the great pool below her lamp, so that for a time, until they forget and sin again, people may hunt freely and without fear.


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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.