Tupilak, c. 1960 Greenland Carving Whale's tooth ivory 3.75” high x 1.5” wide x 2” deep
A world of souls and spirits
In Greenlandic the word ‘tupilak’ means an ancestor’s soul or spirit, and previously reference was made to mysterious, sinister spirits when using this expression. Today, however, the majority of people think of the well-known small figures carved in tooth, bone or stone when the word ‘tupilak’ is mentioned.
Revenge against enemies
A tupilak spirit could be called upon to help against a foe by a shaman secretly creating a figure made from various bones or other parts of animals. The figure was then inaugurated and made a home for the spirit by singing a spell over it.
The tupilak was often put out to sea so that it could find the enemy itself and kill him. However, this course of action was not without risk because if the tupilak’s victim had greater powers of witchcraft than its creator, he could repel its attack and instead send the tupilak back to kill its originator.
Tupilaks as souvenirs
It is only in recent times that it has become a tradition to produce tupilaks as works of art made from materials such as wood, bone, tooth and reindeer antler points. This began to occur in the previous century when Europeans began exploring East Greenland and became aware of these small figures.
Tupilaks are often ground and carved based on inspiration from a number of other figures from Inuit mythology, for instance the Mother of the Sea.