Greenlandic Folktales: Little Kâgssagssuk

The Father of Eskimology

Knud Rasmussen (1879-1921) was a polar explorer and anthropologist who was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage by dog sled. He was born in lulissat, formerly Jakobshavn in Greenland.  His mother, Lovise was of Inuit-Danish descent and his father was a Danish missionary and vicar named Christian Rasmussen.  He was brought up in Greenland and spent his early years living among the Kalllitt, a group of the Greenlandic Inuit people learning the Kalaallisut language they spoke and learning how to live, hunt and use the dog sleds used to traverse the harsh Arctic terrain. He said,

“My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with the hunters, so even the hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me.” (1)

He was called the “Father of Eskimology,” and collected data for the Fifth Thule Expedition, (1921–1924) which sought to investigate the origin of the Eskimo people and published in a ten volume work “The Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924,” containing ethnological, archaeological and biological data he had collected.  He also published accounts of his expeditions and exploits and a book of folk stories, “Eskimo Folk-Tales.” The story that follows is a rewrite from this book and was called, “Kâgssagssuk, The Homeless Boy Who Became A Strongman”.   Really, it is a story that could be found throughout the history of human society in any human culture  around the world and is still very relevant today.

Kâgssagssuk, The Homeless Boy Who Became A Strongman

They say there was once a day when the men and women had gone to a spiritual meeting held by a wizard and had left the children in one  house to keep them safe.  The children played lots of noisy games together and as might be expected made a great deal of noise. Outside, a homeless orphan boy called Kâgssagssuk walked by.  Hearing the noise the children were making he shouted out, “You are making so much noise the evil Fire Spirit will come for you!”

The children made fun of him and would not believe him and carried on with their noisy game.  They  were having such great fun and grew louder and louder and just as Kâgssagssuk had warned the an evil Fire Spirit appeared.  Kâgssagssuk ran into the house crying, “Quick, quick, lift me up, I need my gloves that are drying up there!”   So the children lifted him up to the great drying frame under the roof.  Then the evil spirit ran into the house with a live ribbon seal in his hand that had long sharp claws attached to it that he used as a whip .  Each time he whirled his whip he caught one of the children and dragged them towards him and as they drew near him they were frizzled up in his flames.  He did this until all the children were frizzled up and then he turned to leave.  As he was about to go he reached up and touched a skin that was hanging from the drying frame and then left the house.

When he sure it was gone Little Kâgssagssuk climbed down from the drying frame and ran to the wizard’s house where the spiritual meeting with the adults was taking place. Kâgssagssuk told them what had happened but they would not believe him and accused him of killing the children.  Kâgssagssuk said,

“It was not me it was the noise they were making that roused the Great Fire. If you don’t believe me you make a noise like the children made and see what happens!”   

The adults began cooking a big vat of blubber which they had positioned over the door of the building  on the outside.   As the blubber heated up all the oil came out and began boiling and bubbling creating a great noise,   Sure enough, this roused the the evil Fire Spirit who appeared outside.  The adults had ordered little Kâgssagssuk to stay out of the house so he hid himself in the outside shed.

Once again the evil Fire Spirit came wielding a living ribbon seal as a whip.  The adults heard it coming and quickly tipped the vat of boiling blubber over  the whip as it came through the door.  This caused the Fire Spirit to crackle and spark and with the whip extinguished and destroyed it went away.

Although little Kâgssagssuk had been proved right and had told the truth, from that time onwards the people were cruel to him.  Being an orphan little Kâgssagssuk had lived at the house of one of the great men of his community named Umerdlugtoq.  Now he was restricted from entering his house and  Kâgssagssuk was now only allowed enough time indoors to dry his boots.  When the time was up Umerdlugtoq would grab Kâgssagssuk by the nose and lifting him off the floor throw him through the door.

The only family little Kâgssagssuk had was two grandmothers and neither were very nice to him.  One would beat him if he tried to shelter in her passage  and although the other, who was the mother of his mother, was kinder and would dry his clothes for him she would do nothing else.

Sometimes the people would only give him the tough hide of a walrus to eat.This was out of malice because they knew how tough it was and how hard it was to eat and digest.  To help him chew the hide Kâgssagssuk kept a small sharp stone in his pocket which he placed between his teeth  to bite down on.  Sometimes he would be so hungry he would eat what the dog’s had left and refused.  He would sleep with the dogs and would climb on the roof of a building to feel the warm air rise through the smoke hole.  Whenever  Umerdlugtoq caught him he would grab him by the nose and pull him off the roof.  Things went on like this for a long time for little Kâgssagssukv all through the dark days of winter.  As spring began to show and the days grew longer and lighter little Kâgssagssuk  took to roaming out of the settlement into the countryside.

One day while he wandered in the country he came across a huge man who he realized was a giant.  The giant was cutting up his catch and Kâgssagssuk was feeling very hungry and cried out, “Hey, giant, let me have some meat please!”    

Although he shouted at the top of his voice the giant could not hear him. Kâgssagssuk kept shouting and eventually the giant heard his voice and not knowing who was talking but thinking it was one of the dead, dropped some meat, saying, “ There now, bring me good luck!” as he deliberatley dropped a small slice of meat on the ground as he said it.

Now, although little Kâgssagssuk was still young he had some helping spirits who looked after him and they turned the small slice of meat into a big slice.  Little Kâgssagssuk ate as much as he could and when he was full he was pleased to see there was still a lot left.  In fact there was so much that he struggled to drag it to a hiding place he had found to store it in so that he could eat it later.  Nevertheless, after a struggle he managed it and went back to the settlement.

Then few days later little Kâgssagssuk said to the mother of his mother, who was his kindest grandmother, “I have been given some meat and now I find I keep thinking about it and I am now going out to check it.”  With that he went to the place he had hidden it, but when he got there it had gone.   He was bitterly disappointed and began to cry.   While he was stood crying the giant came up and said, “Why is it you are weeping?”

Little Kâgssagssuk replied, “I am upset because a few days ago I hid some meat here and now it has gone.”

“I see,” said the giant, “but I found that meet and thought it had belonged to someone else so I took it.”  and because the giant had taken to little Kâgssagssuk and felt pity for him he said, “Come and play with me!”  This seemed good to little Kâgssagssuk and he went off with the giant.  As they went they came across a small boulder and the giant said, “ Let us push this boulder.” So they pushed the boulder until it twirled round and then little Kâgssagssuk tried to push it on his own but he just fell backwards.

Once more, once more!” cried the giant and, “Quick, now, once more!” and in this way the giant took little Kâgssagssuk from boulder to boulder each one bigger than the last. Llittle Kâgssagssuk found that eventually he stopped falling backwards and could push them so hard even the biggest  twirled in the air.

“Good!”said the giant, “Now you are as strong as me and are indeed, a very strong man.  Because it was all my fault you lost your meat I will now make three bears walk into your settlement”

Little Kâgssagssuk went back to his village and went to warm himself by a smoke hole on one of the roofs.  Umerdlugtoq saw him and grasped him by the nose and pulled him from the roof and threw him to the ground.  So little Kâgssagssuk went to lay with the dogs to keep warm, but the mother of his father took a stick to him and beat him and the dogs

That night when all the villagers had fallen asleep Kâgssagssuk went out to the kayaks which were all frozen fast in the water and lifted one free, breaking the ice.  Then Kâgssagssuk went and climbed upon the roof of a home to get the warm from its smoke hole and there he spent the night.

In the morning when the men went down to make their kayaks out fishing they were greatly surprised to find one had been hauled out of the ice in the night and they all gathered round to discuss this remarkable feat.  “Who is the strongman who pulled the kayak from the ice? asked one.”

“Indeed there must be a strongman among us,” said another.

“No one is that strong,” said yet another.

“Ha! Here is the mighty man!” said Umerdlugtoq mockingly pointing to Kâgssagssuk who had wandered down to the edge of the group.

Later on that day the people of the village began to call out excitedly that three bears – a mother and two cubs –  were approaching the village just as the giant had sad they would.  At this time Kâgssagssuk was drying his boots by a fire of his mother’s mother and mindful of what the giant had told him borrowed her boots and ran outside and across the snow covered ground to find the bears.  The snow had been packed hard where everyone had walked upon it and usually little Kâgssagssuk would leave no footprints when he walked upon it being small and light.  Now as he ran over the hard packed snow he left deep footprints such as would be made in newly fallen snow.   He soon found the bears and the villagers watched in surprise as he approached them.  “Hey, what has come over Kâgssagssuk, he is running towards the bears!”  cried one. “What has gotten into him? shouted another.

Umerdlugtoq was astounded to see him running to confront the bears and looked on in astonishment as Kâgssagssuk grabbed the mother bear in his bare hands and wrung her neck and threw her to the ground dead.  He then grabbed the two cubs, one in each hand and battered their heads together killing them instantly.   Then he threw the great mother bear over his shoulders and grasping a cub in each hand he casually walked back to the village to the mother of his mother’s house.   There he skinned the bears and cut them up and placed their flesh into a large pot ready to cook them for her and built a big fireplace to cook the meat on.

Umerdlugtoq had been shocked when he saw little Kâgssagssuk kill the bears and made haste to get away from him taking his wives with him.  His father’s mother who would beat him came by to threaten him and he threw her on the fire and she burned up leaving only her stomach.  His mother’s mother saw this and tried to run away but he held her and said to her, “You have nothing to fear, for you were kind to me and would always let me dry my boots and now I shall be kind to you!”

After the bear meat was cooked and he had eaten a meal of it he went looking for Umerdlugtoq who had climbed a high hill and pitched a tent by the side of a precipice and there he stayed with his wives.   Kâgssagssuk reached into the tent and grabbing Umerdlugtoq by the nose pulled him out.   He held him at arm’s length off the ground and shook him until his nostrils burst and Umerdlugtoq feared he would be killed.

Kâgssagssuk shook him again and said,  “Fear not, you did not kill me so I will not kill you!” and threw him on the ground.  Then went into the tent and shouted, “Hey I am in here with your wives.  Come and take a gòod look!”   Umerdlugtoq had often threatened and beaten little Kâgssagssuk if he had so much as glanced at one of his wives and now little Kâgssagssuk was taking his revenge.  When he was satisfied he had punished Umerdlugtoq enough he went back to the village to seek out others who had made his life a misery.  When he had taken vengeance on these he left the village and traveled south and lived with the southern people.

There are those who say that he would go out hunting with other men but because he had grown so strong he began to enjoy filling them with fear.  They say he turned bad and began catching children and squeezing them to death.  The men in the village harpooned him one day while he was out in his kayak to  put an end to his bullying and that was the end of the story of how Kâgssagssuk, the homeless boy who became a strongman.   Sadly, it was not the end of the story.

The Story Continues

Little Kâgssagssuk was a boy in this story but could easily have been a girl.  Such children, perhaps orphaned, abandoned or lost, still exist today in many places around the world living alone and on the fringes of society, or invisible to it.  Abuse and neglect breed abuse and neglect and shamefully the story continues.

© 18/10/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 18th, 2017 zteve t evans

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4 thoughts on “Greenlandic Folktales: Little Kâgssagssuk

  1. Wow! What a story. Abuse turns to vengeance. Little Kâgssagssuk became strong thanks to the giant who taught him how. It was the choices that Little Kâgssagssuk made that were so interesting. He responded to each person the way he was treated. I felt sad for Little Kâgssagssuk.

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