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date: 17 February 2018

The Role of Planets in Inuit Astronomy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Inuit, formerly known as Eskimos, are an indigenous people traditionally occupying the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and parts of Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Over this vast region—which stretches almost halfway around the Arctic Circle—Inuit society is not entirely homogenous, either culturally or linguistically; nevertheless, it shares many common elements of astronomical knowledge and related celestial mythology. Inuit traditionally used prominent celestial objects as markers for estimating the passage of time (diurnal, monthly, and seasonal); as navigational directional aids (stars in winter; sun in summer); and, importantly, as the basis of several of their foundational myths and legends underpinning their society’s social order and mores.

Random observations on Inuit astronomy, following European contact through the mid-18th and early 20th centuries, was characteristically haphazard and usually secondary to some other line of enquiry, such as folklore or mythology. Moreover, in many instances, Inuit celestial accounts were misrepresented or compromised due to poor translation, European cultural biases, and by a lack of general astronomical knowledge on the part of most European commentators. Thus, these early accounts tended to diminish the cultural significance of Inuit astronomy, even to the point of denying its existence. Ironically, by the mid-1980s, when appropriately informed enquiries into Inuit astronomy first began, Inuit knowledge of the topic was already marred by European acculturation and substitution, in some cases resulting in ambiguous assignations of Inuit asterisms, star names, and planets (the latter collectively known in Canada’s central and eastern Arctic as Ulluriarjuat, or “big stars”). Planets and their role in Inuit culture appear to have been especially vulnerable to these diminishing processes, particularly following the introduction of Christianity across the Arctic and the resultant fashioning of competing mythologies. Moreover, the extent to which Inuit used and recognized planets was unavoidably linked to geographical latitude. For Inuit groups living far north of the Arctic Circle, where continuous daylight obtains throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall, year-round observation of planetary movement would not have been possible. Speculation on the naming and significance of the major planets in Inuit culture therefore relies on several factors including acculturation, mythology, and geographic location. While there is some indication that some planets, particularly Venus, may have had a place in Greenlandic and Alaskan folklore, the unavoidable conclusion is that Inuit astronomy rests firmly on the “fixed stars” and that the naked-eye planets, while certainly seen, were, in a real sense, not much noticed.