Greenlandic Polytheism: the Eldest Religion of the Greenlandic People

Written by Dyami Millarson

Not unlike other polytheists of the Northern Hemisphere, the Greenlanders traditionally bring blood sacrifices — sometimes offerings of other appropriate items — to the Gods. Fridtjof Janssen says on page 292 of Eskimo Life (1894):

Offerings to the supernatural powers are very infrequent among the Greenlanders. The most common form of offering is made to the inie of the sea, the so-called kungusutarissat (the plural of kungusutariak). They are fond of foxes' flesh abd foxes' tails, which are, therefore, offered to them whenever a fox is caught, that they may make the fishing successful.  In travelling, too, the Eskimos will make offerings to certain headlands, glaciers, and the like, which they regard as dangerous, in order to get past them unharmed. The offering is as a rule thrown overboard into the sea; it often consists of food, but may also take the form of beads or other things which they value. 

Instead of interpreting the sacrifices as infrequent or limited, it is better to interpret them as situational: when the situation lends itself or when the situation necessitates it, a blood sacrifice is made. It depends on the situation. This is not unlike how it works among other paleopagans: they are not making blood sacrifices every single day, but they do it when they feel it fits the circumstances. Therefore, one should expect the polytheists to make blood sacrifices every single day for no particular reason; they make sacrifices to mark occasions, solve problems and foster a bond with the Divine. A blood sacrifice is costly by its very nature, and so it has to be done with intent. Not overdoing blood sacrifice makes perfect sense, but that does not mean they are necessarily infrequent; it just means it is a situational affair, while the circumstances have to align for it.

One has to consider what is a sustainable model: if we know blood sacrifices are expensive — though not prohitively so — to the community, then can we also make a guess that the community, in order to preserve itself, will only give as much to the Gods as it can reasonably be expected to sustain. Blood sacrifice is meant to assist the community in its survival efforts; it is, therefore, contrary to sacrificial tradition to expect communities to make an excessive amount of sacrifices. Each paleopagan comminity will make sacrifices within their means; that is the basic economics of sacrifice. In conclusion, blood sacrifice is not meant to bankrupt a community or to make it commit collective suicide by causing a food shortage.

Consistent with the analysis of blood sacrifice as a sustainable economic model, Othin says in stanza 144 of the Hávamál in Oliver Bray’s Elder Edda:

Betra er óbeðit
en sé ofblótit,
ey sér til gildis gjöf;
betra er ósent
en sé ofsóit.

(See page 104 of Oliver Bray's Elder Edda. Another version of the full text in Old Norse is also available here.)
Better ask for too little than offer too much,
like the gift should be the boon;
better not to send than to overspend.

(Translation by Oliver Bray: see page 104 of his version of the Elder Edda.)

Thus are the workings of blood sacrifice; it is not practical — not wise — to overspend. Heeding Othin’s wise counsel, the Greenlanders traditionally make offers within their means. I say about sacrificial moderation in my 2020 article on Germanic cultural religion: “It is not like Germanic peoples would slaughter animals every single day. A community could live off the meat of a slaughter animal for a long time and so there was no need for excessive slaughter. Sacrifice was done in moderation. This is highly understandable because the Germanic peoples had to be careful with their scarce resources. It is even recommended in the Poetic Edda that one should not sacrifice too much. The sacrificial cycles that occurred in the Germanic religion were entirely related to the cycles of food and slaughter.”

The concepts of Silla, Sillakangilak and Sillarsoak are described on pages 343-344 of the English edition of David Cranz’ History of Greenland, to which correspond pages 324-326 of the 1770 German edition of David Cranz’ History of Greenland. Silla is Týr’s name among the Greenlanders (see here also).

Sillagik Sartok is a powerful Goð Deity, who causes storms and dwells in the ice (see here).

It has been claimed that about half of the Greenlanders still practise Greenlandic folk religion (see here).

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s