Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Brooding anger, festering rage


Bind your anger into bone....

a story of different perspectives


There is a carving in a collection of artifacts from northern cultures in Buxton Museum. Tupilak carvings are quirky characters, hovering somewhere between engaging and horrific. The stories behind them are even more intriguing as these figures carved in whale tooth and bone are illustrations of a much grimmer original. Made from discarded flesh, bones and skin, original Tupilak have apparently never been seen by people outside of those indigenous cultures and are bound around with stories of anger and revenge. I am storyteller. I was captivated.


I am a storyteller. Yes, I tell stories. I enjoy talking. But as a storyteller, I also need to be a story-listener. I need to absorb other stories. That might be from other people talking and telling. It might be as a quieter listener as I read books. It might be listening to whispers on the wind, the long low rumbling stories told by stones or the sighing voices of the waves breaking on the sand. 


The film below grew out of these accounts and stories with a generous helping of my imagaintion thrown in  and with many thanks to Aidan Rhode for making the film and Ros and Ben from the Buxton Museum for adding their voices




As a listener, Tupilaq* stories intrigued me:


"You are to bite Nukúnguasik to death; you are to bite Nukúnguasik to death."1


There is a mystery around these. Built from the dismembered remains of animals by arctic magicians (lots of different northern cultures have Tupilaq or similar – Inuit, Igluulik, Caribou) to execute ferocious revenge on their personal enemies, Tupilaq were (or are?) agents of vengeance. But to make one was risky for the magician wo sends it plunging into the icy sea or across a frozen waste to find his or her foe, for if the supposed victim turns out to a be (or have the support of) a stronger magician than the maker, then the Tupilaq might be turned back and might return its need for a life to consume, for a warmth to steal, thwarted. Until it comes scratching at the door of that first magician’s tent….



Tie flesh to flesh,

To bone,

To hair,

To skin,

To pain,

To anger,

Tie to the blade of a vengeful mind,

To the harpoon of an intention,

To the ax of a soul,

Tie pursuit

Tie destruction

Tie a long bitter revenge

Tie death at the end of anger.2


Tupilak carving

And Tupilaq were made in secret, so secret it is said that no-one outside of those cultures has ever seen a real one. As western explorers met the northern peoples and heard the stories, they were fascinated. So local people started carving Tupilak to sell, trade or give away to those explorers. The Tupilak we see in our museums are not Tupilak: they are tourist shapes: bone and teeth carved into drama: tusks, flaring nostrils, fins, hands, tails. They are vivid, striking carvings, but do they hold the essence of Tupilaq?


But I am a storyteller, a listener, and so I went and listened in the abandoned cold and dark, listened for the voices of the Tupilak who told a different story. They speak of the end of anger. Of brooding hatred built into their frozen, sliding flesh but then released with their melting, returned to the snow, dwindling, diminishing with the thaw, returned to the snow and the sea, the wind and the stone. A different story.


Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has a Tupilak carving. It emerged from a box of wonderful bits in the County’s School Loans Collection that is being carefully dismantled by a team at the museum. Treasures are being found new homes: joining relevant collections in other museums, some may be returning to long-lost homes or finding new homes in societies and community groups. As one of the Museum’s ACE Emergency Response artists, I’ve been immersed in the richness of those polar artifacts. Bone tools, wooden carvings, a stone lemming, exquisite kayak models, a shaman carved in bone, caught in a moment of transformation from human to goose. And a Tupilak


They are a challenge as they offer another question to the ongoing collection of storyteller questions I have been building through this Buxton Museum project:

“what do you hold onto despite everything and what do you let go of?”


Do you hoard your anger like treasure, a golden trove of brooding bitterness? Or like the hero escaping in a story, do you throw your anger over your shoulder? Maybe like the vanity of a comb that springs into a hedge of thorns and prickles to thwart pursuit or the mirror that becomes a lake and give you the chance to escape

What do you need to be free of to be ready to become something new?



Rage in flesh, anger in bone,

Envy, greed, and malice,

Caught in this festering flesh.

And lost with it.

To the wind,

to the storm,

to hungry beaks and tearing jaws

Tupilak is

Lost to the thaw

And all anger is released.2




*Tupilak or Tupilaq: no-one seems quite sure if there is a correct spelling. I like both!

1.from:  Eskimo Folk-Tales, by Knud Rasmussen, [1921]

2. poems are lines from the story poems in the Tupilak film you can visit here


From the top:

Kayak model and Tupilak carving: BMAG collection, G MacLellan

Tupilak: wikimedia commons

Thumbnail from Tupilak film

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