“Sedna: Inuit Goddess of the Sea” – Using Art to Learn

In much the same way that Nunavut, where the art currently leaving its mark in the Guilford Art Gallery comes from, is trying to become a Canadian province, art is valiantly fighting its way toward intelligent scholastic status. The arts are oftentimes left out of the rankings of scholastic importance, but little by little, stones are being added to the bridge that makes academia and art accessible to each other. By using pieces from the Inuit art collection, an Inuit myth, and theories from sociology, anthropology, and religious studies, Eric Mortensen’s lecture, “Sedna: Inuit Goddess of the Sea,” added a very large stone, indeed.

I don’t think you could get any closer to an Indiana Jones movie at Guilford if you tried – In the same informative, relevant, and inspiring way that Dr. Jones lectures to his fictitious class, Eric Mortensen, from our Religious Studies department, aided by visual aids and artwork from the collection, told us the story of Sedna, a daughter who refused to marry. Dissatisfied with all of her suitors, Sedna eventually marries a dog or bird (depending on the version), angering her father so much that he throws her from a boat into the sea. When Sedna tries to climb back into the boat, her father cuts her fingers off and they fall into the water. She falls to the bottom of the sea and becomes a powerful goddess, and her fingers turn into the first seals, fish, and other marine creatures that the Inuit rely on for survival. When Sedna is angered by the sins of the people, the earthly sins of humans tangle into her hair, she restricts the sea life, and a shaman must go to her and comb them out so hunters can continue to provide for their families. According to legend, the shamans have the ability to transform into animals in order to travel to see Sedna. The shaman would transform into a fish of some kind and go to Sedna to comb the snarls and tame her hair into braids, relieving her anger. In this way, there is a codependent relationship at work – Sedna needs the shaman and the shaman needs Sedna.

As the lecture drew to a close, Mortensen allowed for an open discussion. He challenged our views on gender and society roles by bringing up the oppression of women and asking how our outlook might be different if we had Sedna in our lives. Inuit society is predominantly patriarchal, and the Sedna tale serves as a commentary on the sociological connection between females and males. Because Sedna refused to marry, her father exercised his entitlement within the patriarchal society they lived in to punish his daughter in the way he saw fit. In turn, Sedna became a goddess depicted by the Inuit as half wronged human woman and half marine animal who is feared above all – Hell hath no fury like a mermaid woman scorned.

All of these musings came from a thoughtful look at art from an anthropological standpoint. Eric Mortensen utilized the artwork we currently have at hand to provide us with intriguing insight into the lives of the Inuit people. Approaching artwork from a more scientific, more research-driven perspective is a valuable use of time for anyone wishing to understand society and culture. Using artwork in this way proves that art has a place in intelligent academics and should be taken seriously as a way of researching, thinking, practicing, and performing.

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