The Breath of the World

The Breath of the World

Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful.
— Artist and writer Wayne Ferrebee

When I lived in Alaska, I became fascinated by carvings of the Inuit gods, and began to find out all I could about them and the people who carved their fantastic images. One of the heroes of my novel Hearts Set Free, Yura Noongwook, is an Inuit sculptress, and the following passage is narrated by her son, Luke. The two have traveled from central Alaska to Seattle to find the husband and father who deserted them, and must sell Yura’s works to continue their quest. As you’ll find out in the novel, theirs will turn out to be a spiritual journey, from darkness into the light of Christ.

My mother began unpacking the contents of her suitcase onto a large table Ray had cleared for this purpose. First came her sculptures, many carved from walrus ivory, some from the antlers of caribou, others fashioned from soapstone, or serpentine, black streaked with olive, and yellow with flecks of gray. He watched in silence, arms folded across his chest.

On the tabletop was an assembly of the Inuit gods in all their wondrousness, vainglory, cruelty, and lust. Tatqim, moon god, master of the hunt, ever in incestuous pursuit of his sister, Seqinek, goddess of the sun. Sedna, the sea goddess, who spurned every proposal of marriage, choosing instead to copulate with dogs—hence the origin of the white race. And Sila, breath of the world, god of wind and weather, of story and song; mother showed him whittling a walrus tusk, the shavings falling as snow. The sculptures, finished with a coat of hot beeswax, were luminous, as though lit by the first rays of dawn.

Then came masks like those my mother had created for the Angakkuq when he danced near bonfires that burned through the long darkness of the winter night.

They were made of driftwood, animal skins, and feathers, and colored with red ochre. These dancing masks were revelations of the spirit world and showed the faces of bears and eagles and strange men whose mouths were frozen in teeth-baring grins.

Ray squatted by the table and looked for a long time at each of the gods, picked up some with a handkerchief and turned them this way and that, then peered through the eyeholes of one of the masks. 

“Where did you get these?” he asked.

 “I made them with my own hands,” mother replied.

 “It is unusual for a woman to do such work.”

“My father, who learned from his father, taught me to carve, and to sew masks. I was my parents’ only child; he raised me like a son.”

I’m particularly intrigued by Sila, god of the wind and breath of the world, who in some ways brings to mind the Holy Spirit. Edward Wozniak provides an excellent description of Sila in his superb blog:

“…it was through him that shamans ultimately derived their powers. Intuitive warnings, especially on the part of children, were said to be the whisperings of Sila. The nagging of one’s conscience was also attributed to Sila. This god was said to be always with us but always far away. In some traditions it is said Sila sculpted the first humans from wet sand and breathed life into them.”
--Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog

The Hebrew word for spirit, ru'ach, used in the Old Testament, literally means the wind, and in the New Testament the Greek word pneuma (πνεῦμα) means, among other things, both wind and breath. In Hearts Set Free, mention of Sila serves as a bridge to the workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Yura and Luke.



Goddess of the sea, carved from soapstone


Ritual mask.jpg

Ritual mask


Jess Lederman