The tupilak the world-famous figure was originally feared and hated. In its present shape, it is loved by collectors of Inuit art and as an ordinary souvenir for tourists to Ammassalik.
The word tupilak describes a wide variety of small figures which represent either tupilaks or other mythical and spiritual creatures and it can be difficult to see the difference.
Once a deadly creature
Originally the tupilak was a creature composed of different materials from the natural world – animal, bird and human remains – even parts taken from a child’s corpse. Those who knew about witchcraft gathered these bits and pieces together in a secret, isolated place, tied them together, chanted magic spells over them and allowed them to suck the energy from their own sexual organs.
The tupilak was then ready to be put into the sea and sent off to kill an enemy. This way of getting rid of your enemies was, however, not entirely without risk because if the would-be victim had greater powers of wizardry than the initiator, his power could reverse the tupilaks strength and potency like a boomerang. In other words, it was a dangerous game – a Greenlandic version of Russian roulette. No original tupilaks remain. They have vanished from the scene because they were made of perishable materials. They were, for good reason, ”disposable” tupilaks and were not meant to be seen by others.
Carving tradition in Ammassalik
When curious, ignorant Europeans came to Greenland, figures were carved to show the visitors what the creature looked like. The tupilak figure is known throughout all of the Eskimo regions. Throughout time, tupilak figures have been carved in different materials all over Greenland. The oldest known tupilaks are made of wood with a skin belt and they resemble the authentic ancient figures. Today these carvings are associated with East Greenland as the old days are more alive there and its culture has always maintained a rich carving tradition.
The more grotesque and terrifying the figure - the easier it was to sell. It became quite an industry for east Greenlandic artists who made tupilaks in the form most of us are familiar with.
In the 1950`s until the 1970s, large numbers of these figures were produced in a more or less stereotypical form, although now and again the artists created figures of great artistic craftsmanship.
Today the figures are still produced but due to whale conservation, they are usually made from reindeer horn or narwhal tusk.
A living tradition
There is not enough room here to name the talented artists who have made tupilaks throughout the years but one of them has to be mentioned. Gedion Qeqe comes from Tasiilaq in East Greenland and produces tupilaks and mythological creatures of great artistic and technical quality of narwhal tusk and reindeer horn.
Contemporary tupilaks are not dangerous. The only risk you take is that you might become fascinated by Greenlandic mythology. But most of us can live with that.