Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (October 2007, No. 15)

Mythical Animals from Greenland

Chad Arment

Greenland, with an area of land mass exceeding three times the area of Texas, is the largest island on Earth. About 85% of Greenland is covered in an ice cap, which severely limits species diversity on the island. Only on ice-free edges of the island are animals able to survive. The WWF has classified Greenland's ecoregions (excluding the ice cap) as high arctic tundra in the north and low arctic tundra in the south. Only nine species of terrestrial mammals are recognized as native (or occasional) to Greenland:

  • Arctic hare
  • Greenland collared lemming
  • Ermine
  • Wolverine
  • Arctic fox
  • Arctic wolf
  • Polar bear
  • Musk-ox
  • Caribou

Most of these terrestrial mammals are only found in northern Greenland, not being able to traverse the inhospitable ice cap region. Some human introductions (musk-ox and caribou) led to southern Greenland populations.

Six seals are regularly found in Greenland's waters:

  • Ringed seal
  • Bearded Seal
  • Hooded Seal
  • Harp Seal
  • Harbor Seal
  • Walrus

The zoological folklore of the Kalaallit Inuit has only occasionally been discussed with an attempt to reconcile ethnoknown animals and what science currently recognizes to exist. Because of inherent difficulties with folk taxonomies (as I've discussed in Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation), this sometimes prompts outright dismissal of anything that isn't immediately identifiable.

One early review of folkloric Greenland species came from Scottish explorer Robert Brown, published in 1868:

On some of the doubtful or mythical Animals of Greenland.

Otto Fabricius used to spend his summers roaming about with the Eskimo, until he had learned to manage a kayak and strike a Seal with a skill which few Europeans can ever acquire. On one of these excursions he found in "Sildefjord, north of the colony of Fredrikshaab," a piece of a skull, about which the natives told him something; and from what they related to him, and what he thought himself, he entered no less than two species in the Greenland fauna, "Trichechus manatus" (Rhytina gigas) and "Phoca ursina" (Callorhinus ursinus), being, apparently, not certain to which it belonged. The Greenlanders called this animal Auvekæjak, or Auikæjak, and said it was like a Walrus and broke things easily to pieces. He was sure that the piece of skull belonged to the first of these animals; and again he repeats the same under the head of Phoca ursina; so that it is now difficult to arrive at any conclusion regarding the species of animal to which it belonged. However, I think there can be but one opinion, that neither the Sea-Bear nor the Rhytina can be entered in the Greenland fauna on such fragmentary evidence. The confused stories of the Greenlanders can give the critic no great hold.

This piece of cranium is not now to be found in Fabricius's Museum. In a posthumous zoological manuscript, entitled "Zoologiske Samlinger," written in Copenhagen during the period between 1808 and 1814, and now preserved in the Royal Library, he has again spoken about the Auvekæjak (Bd. ii. p. 298, no. 286), and has thus written about the skull he found in Greenland:—

"'The head which I found was full of holes, and looked like that of a Walrus (no. 82), without tusks."

There were many long small teeth in the head (1); and if such was the case, we cannot be wrong in saying that the animal was not a Mammal. We have, however, no right, when we remember the clear comprehensive style in which Fabricius wrote regarding the Greenland fauna, however much we may be inclined, to say that the whole was erroneous.

It is unfortunate that when Fabricius referred his Auvekæjak to the Sea-cow of Steller, he was not acquainted with that animal, and did not know of the horn-plates; for, if he had, it is impossible that he could have found a resemblance to it in the Auvekæjak. His words regarding it are clear enough, so far as they go— "Rarissimum animal in mari Grœnlandico, cujus solum cranium ex parte conservatum commune cum sequenti specie ab incolis dictum nomine Auvekæjak, jak, vidi, inque hoc dentes spurios tales confertim congestos quales Steller" (vid. loc. cit. Adel.(2) § 189). Again, immediately under the head of "Phoca ursina," he says:— "Grœnl. Auvekæjak.—Illam esse animal quod sub nomine hoc memorant incolænon est dubitandum. Dicunt illud in Australiori Grœnlandia, licet raro, dari quadrupes pilosum, ferociter omne occurrens dilacerare, et si visum consumere: ursi maritimi more terra marique degere, impetuosissime natare, venatores valide infestare. Dentes ut amuleta contra ulcera, nec non quodammodo ad instrumenta venatoria adhibentur." There is an evident uncertainty in Fabricius's mind; and he has listened too much to the idle fables of the natives (who have, as I shall presently show, many of that nature); whatever it is, there can, I think, be scarcely a doubt as to the exclusion of Trichechus manatus and Phoca ursina from the Greenland fauna; nor can their place as yet be supplied by any other species. Prof. Steenstrup thinks that it was a portion of the skull of the Sea-wolf (Anarrhichas). The situation of the teeth and the nature of this fish's cellular skull well agree with his description of the skull as "full of holes" (forhulret (3)). Hr. Bolbrœ, who understands the Eskimo language intimately, tells me that the word means a "little Walrus," and that in all probability it was only the skull of a young Walrus, an animal not at all familiar to Fabricius, as they are chiefly confined to one spot, and the natives fear to go near that locality. Fabricius may have only written the description from recollection; and memory, assisted by preconceived notions, may have led him into error in the description of the long teeth, which after all might, without great trouble, be made to refer to the dentition of the young Walrus as described by Macgillivray (4) and Rüppell (5).

This opinion is strengthened by a passage in Fabricius's account of the Walrus, when he again is in doubt whether a certain animal is the young of the Walrus or the Dugong, "De varietate dentibus exertis brevioribus loquuntur incolæ, quam minus recte (ut videtur) ad Phocas referunt, si non pullus rosmari, an animal Dugong" (Buff. 205, 245, tab. lvi). So that, after all, perhaps the Auvekæjak was only the young of the Walrus; and this opinion I am on the whole inclined to acquiesce in.

Fabricius enters, under the name of "Mustela gulo, L." (Gulo borealis, Retz.), an animal which the natives talked about under the name of Kappik. It was said to be found in south Greenland, among high mountains, particularly besides streams, and was especially fond of the hearts of Reindeer. He considered it to be the well-known Wolverine, the Jerf of Scandinavia (Norse Arv, Erv, and Jærv; Swedish Jerf, Gerf; Finnish Kamppi and Kamppi-Karhu).

If so, it must be exceedingly rare, for since his time no one has been able to obtain or hear of a specimen. We more than suspect, however, that here, as elsewhere, he was only reproducing in a zoological dress the stories of the natives. So little was then known of the zoology of the Arctic regions, that he might well be excused for entering such animals in his fauna, there existing no reason why they should not be found in Greenland. If Fabricius could have lived to this day, he would have been the first to erase these from his list. The reason why I think so is this:—Under the head of "Ursus luscus" he has inserted a very doubtful and problematical animal, talked of long before his day, and equally so now, under the name of "Amarok" ("Ursus luscus, Eg. (6) 33, Cr. (7) 99, ex descriptione pellis ejus. Cf. Continuation. (8) 287, ubi dicitur subfusca, forsitan etiam veterum Hyæna Torf. (9) 82"). This animal seems the same as that which he indicated in his fauna under the name of "Mustela gulo." He describes it as very fierce, corresponding in this respect with the character of the Wolverine. Depending upon the natives being in the habit of distinguishing animals by different names very clearly, he considered that Amarok and Kappik were different animals. Neither of them he appears to know anything about. I found the Greenlanders talking to this day about the Amarok all over Greenland; and wonderful stories they tell of its ferocity. It is the terror of the Greenlanders, as Fabricius truly enough remarks; everybody knew about it; but I could find nobody who had ever seen it (10). Graah (11) found the natives of the east coast equally familiar with the name of the Amarok; the name Kappik, however, was unknown in north Greenland.

Finally I discovered a man in Claushavn who declared he had seen the Amarok; it hunted in packs, he said; and this man made no secret of his belief that it was only native dogs which had escaped and returned to their wild state. In proof of this, he told me that, as frequently happens during the annual Reindeer-hunting-season, one of his dogs escaped and could not be captured again. Three years after, one severe winter, when "looking" his fox-traps, he found the identical dog captured, much subdued by hunger, but still very fierce after living for so long a period out of the reach of the merciless lash. It served its master for many a day after in harness. This man described the "Amarok" as all grey. It has been supposed to be the Wolf (Canis occidentalis albo-griseus), and to have crossed over the ice in Smith's Sound; but, from what I have said about the Eskimo Dog, it will be apparent that to distinguish between a wild Dog and a Wolf is a matter of some difficulty. I think, therefore, that you will agree with me that the Wolverine has no place in the Greenland fauna, and that the Kappik (12) and Amarok must be regarded as synonyms of Canis familiaris, var. borealis, tinctured with a deep hue of fable. Murray portrays the distribution of the glutton (Gulo borealis) on both the east and west coasts of Greenland up to nearly 67° N. lat. (13); but if I am right in excluding this animal from the Greenland fauna, this distribution is erroneous.

Here I may remark, what must by this time be self-evident to you, that the Greenlanders cannot be relied upon (independently of the principle in the abstract) for the names of animals. They are not the excellent cetologists we have always been led to suppose, confounding as they do several animals under one name, as I shall have occasion to notice at a future time when discussing the errors which Fabricius was led into by trusting too much to their nomenclature, and which to this time have entangled the history of the northern Cetacea in an almost pathless maze. Fabricius has notified in his Fauna many species of supposed Seals &c. under various Eskimo names, but which he was unable to decipher (14). Hr. Fleischer, Colonibestyrer of Jakobshavn, has aided me in resolving these:—

1. Siguktok, "having a long snout and a body similar to Phoca grönlandica, perhaps P. ursina." This is apparently some Eskimo perversion, if they have been interpreted properly; for I am assured that it is only the name of the Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima).

2. Imab-ukullia, a Seal with a snow-white coat, "the eye presenting a red iris, probably P. leporina," is a rare albino of the Netsik (Pagomys fœtidus). The meaning of the word is the Sea-hare.

3. Atarpiak or atarpek, "the smallest species of Seal, not exceeding the size of the hand, of a whitish colour, and a blackish spot of the form of a half-moon on each side of the body." This description does not correspond to the meaning of the word, which is "the Brown Seal." Hr. Fleischer thinks that it is only a myth, as is—

4. Kongesteriak, which has, "according to the description given by the natives, some resemblance to the Sea-ape described by Mr. Heller" (15). This is one of the northern myths. The natives say it is a Bear which is so covered with an ice-coat that it never comes on land, but is always in the water, &c. These myths, both in the pseudo-Mammalia and in other groups, are endless; but I have given enough to show that no dependence can be placed on their idle superstitious tales.

I may as well close these notes on supposititious or non-existent animals by some remarks on other species, which though not mammals, yet come fairly under the headings I have given to this section of my paper. The Great Auk (Alca impennis, Linn.), once so common in Greenland, in the days of Egede, Cranz, and Fabricius, as, indeed, it was in many other parts of the northern portion of Europe and America, there can be little doubt is now quite extinct in Greenland. I made every inquiry regarding it, but could learn little or nothing about it. The natives about Disco Bay do not now even recollect it by name, though when the old Eskimo name of it (Isarokitsoc) was mentioned they immediately repeated it, and said, "Ah! that means little wings!" Though the Royal Museum in Copenhagen has offered large rewards for a specimen, hitherto their efforts have been in vain. One of the stories I was told at Godhavn, on Disco Island, if true, would afford some hope of its yet being found:—Eight years ago (1859), on one of the little islets just out­side of the harbour, in the winter time, a half-breed named Johannes Propert (a nephew, by the way, of the well-known interpreter Carl Petersen) shot a bird which he had never seen before, but which, from description, could be no other than the Great Auk. He and his companions ate it, and the dogs in his sledge got the refuse; so that only one feather could afterwards be found. I know the man well. He is rather an intelligent fellow, and was not likely to destroy a bird of such rarity that he had never seen it before, when he knew that it would command a price from the Governor. Moreover Johannes bears the reputation of telling wonderful tales now and then. He says that he saw two, but that one escaped among the rocks. Mr. Frederick Hansen, Colonibestyrer (Governor) of Godhavn, has offered a reward for it, and is very sanguine that he will yet obtain a specimen of the Geirfugl (16).

Depending on the native stories of a jumping animal found in the southern part of Greenland, on grassy meadows, and called by them Piglertok ("the springer"), Fabricius thought that he recognized the Common Frog, and has accordingly entered the Rana temporaria as a member of the Greenland fauna. He, however, saw no specimens, nor is such an animal known in Greenland, where there are no species of Reptiles or Batrachians found. About the southern portion of Disco Bay, the natives use the name as a sort of slang title to the Nisa (Phocæna communis, Brookes), the Marsvün of the Danes in Greenland (17), from its tumbling or springing movements while disporting itself. Jansen (18) gives the word in the south Greenland dialect as pisigsartut or pigdlertut, and translates it a Grasshopper (græshopper).

I will not stop to inquire into their grosser myths, which, though relating to animals, are yet only remotely connected with zoological science, and wander away into the domains of mythology, interesting enough, no doubt, but with which we as zoologists have but little to do. For instance, as far back as the days of Fabricius, they used to talk about men living away in the glens off from the coast. "They tell tales" (fabulantur), he says, "of other people living away among the mountains, rarely seen by them, never by the Europeans, whom they call Torngit or Tunnersoit, and even say that they have the appearance, stature, and clothing of Europeans. If they speak truly, which I am not in a position to deny, perhaps they are the remnants of the former Icelandic colonists, who have fled in among the mountains" (19). About Jakobshavn they still talk of these people, and I collected many such stories. Some of these superstitions describe the Torngit as little men; and I know a man who says he saw one of these little men "pop out of a hole and in again" most agilely, and he tells a long story about it. Others describe them as tall men; so that these are undoubtedly only traditions of the old Norse-men. During the Norse possession of the country, the population appears to have got much amalgamated (as indeed we know, because when Paul Egede came, there were many traces of the white stock; and to this day there come down from the east coast natives with fair hair and blue eyes (20)) with the Icelandic adventurers who came with red-haired Erik, and subsequently imbibed much of their superstition. Indeed most of the best Eskimo traditions (as related by Rink in his 'Eskimoiske Saga og Eventyrn') are of Scandinavian parentage. Accordingly we find the old Norse tale of that fearful Kraken (21) which drew stout ships down to the bottom of the sea, in a Greenlandic version, still terrifying the squat seal-hunters who gather round the blazing Kotlup during the long winter nights; but I need say nothing further about it. It is one of the old trols of Scandinavia, familiar enough to all of us.

Still less will I stop to inquire regarding that "sea monster" which good Paul Egede saw, and Pastor Bing sketched "off our colony in 64° north latitude" (22).

I have said enough to show that, though there is yet much to be done to the legitimate zoology of Greenland proper, there is still more to be done in what may be called the illegitimate zoology—the history of zoological myths and errors.

  • (1) Reinhardt, loc. cit. p. 6.
  • (2) Adelung: 'Geschichte der Schiffahrten und Versuche zur Entdeckung des nordöstlichen Weges nach Japan und China' (Halle, 1768) is the book Fabricius refers to. There is a wrong reference in F. G. to Adelung, viz. 189 for 148.
  • (3) Reinhardt, loc. cit. p. 8.
  • (4) Naturalists' Library, (Mammalia) vol. vii. (vol. xiii. of series), p. 220. M'Gillivray's Edin. Journ. of Nat. Hist. and Physical Sciences, Aug. 1838. p. 153; Hamilton in Nat. Lib. vol. viii. p. 102.
  • (5) Bulletin Scien. Nat. vol. xvii. p. 280.
  • (6) Description of Greenland. Eng transl.
  • (7) History of Greenland, Eng. transl.
  • (8) Continuation of the above.
  • (9) Grœnlandia Antiqua.
  • (10) Mr. Tegner informs me that one of the natives declares that in July 1867 he saw the marks of the foot of an Amarok at the head of the Tessiursak, an inlet near Claushavn.
  • (11) Lib. cit. p. 90
  • (12) Jansen in his 'Elementarbog i Eskimoernes Sprog til brug for Europærne ved Colonierne i Grönland (Kjöbenhavn, 1862). p.55, translates "Kappik" as "en Gravling."
  • (13) Op. cit. Map xxiv.
  • (14) Vide also Giesecke in his "Greenland," in Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopædia. This article, which is the only original one, as far as I know, ever written upon Greenland in the English language, is a most trustworthy account, for the time it was written. The author, however, copies Fabricius in all his errors as well as excellencies.
  • (15) I suppose Giesecke means Steller's account of the "Sea-ape," vide Pennant, Quadr. ii. p. 301 (Trichechus hydropithecus, Shaw. Zool. i. p. 247; Manatus simia, Illig.: M. ? hydropithecus, Fischer, &c.)
  • (16) Swedish Garfogel, Norse and Icelandic Geirfugl and Goiful. It is also called in Norse Stor-Ommer.
  • (17) Called in Sweden Marsvin and Tumlare, in Finnish Merisika, and in Norse Ise and Nise, from which, apparently, the Eskimo name Nisa is derived, as are not a few of the Greenland words, from their intercourse with the old Norsemen prior to the Middle Ages. I suspect Piglertok, now the vulgar term, was originally the native one.
  • (18) Lib. cit. p. 59.
  • (19) Fauna Grœnl. p. 4.
  • (20) A Moravian Missionary at Pamiadluk, near Cape Farewell told Captain Carl W. Neslon, who told me, that, in 1850, a party of natives came to that settlement from the east coast, and declared that it was two years since they had left their homes. They were described as tall and fair-haired. Almost every year some come down and permanently settle in the Danish colonies.
  • (21) Kraken, Kraxen, Krabben, and Horven, vide Pontopiddan. Nat. Hist. of Norway, vol. ii, p. 211: Ancker-Trold. Olaus, Wormius, Torfæus, &c.
  • (22) Lib. cit., p. 86.

We know now that the wolverine is in fact an occasional member of Greenland's northwestern arctic fauna. Whether it has bearing on the identity of the Amarok is another question.

The Amarok (with associated varied spellings) is probably the best known of the Greenland folkloric animals, and shows up in Newton's Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. (What little has been written about it is still more than can be found for most of the mythical creatures here noted.) Inuit story-legends about it have been collected in anthropological journals and folklore texts, but there seems to be little discussion of whether it has a unique biological basis. It appears, from looking over a variety of old texts, that as an ethnoknown, the Amarok is biologically confused. Today, the word Amaruq is associated with the Arctic wolf in Inuit language in North America and Greenland (I've seen different words used for "wolf" in a historical dictionary of Siberian Inuit phrases), but that may be a case of generational change or regional confusion. Here are a few examples of early mentions:

They knew but of two large animals on the land, besudes those which have been enumerated in the account of their food, namely, the amarok and the umimuk, but said that they had no means of killing either of them. The amarok has been known by name to writers on Greenland, but has not been yet described on the personal knowledge of any naturalist. Zaccheus said it is not uncommon about Jacob's-Bight and Disco-Bay, where its cry is frequently heard at night; but being a shy and very fierce animal, it is seldom killed by the natives. It resembles a cat, excepting in its size, which is about three times as large. Its skin is striped; it lives in holes in the rocks, and feeds on hares and grouse, which it lies in wait for, and catches by springing on them.

What the umimuk is, appears yet more doubtful. Fabricius, in the Fauna Greenlandica, p. 28, describes an animal under this name, the head and part of a carcase of which he had seen, having been found on a piece of ice in the Greenland sea. Believing that no such animal inhabited the western coast, he conceived that it had been drifted with the ice, either from East Greenland, or more probably from the northern coast of Asia. The skull was injured, and one of the horns broken off; but from the other, which was smooth and bent outwards, and from the hoofs and hair, the latter of which was long, black, and woolly, he considered it as identified with the bos grunniens of Linneus. Whatever may have been the original animal, the name of umimuk has been since applied to the breed of cattle which the Danes introduced from Europe. It appears, however, that there actually is a large land animal (and horned, for so they describe it,) inhabiting Greenland, and called umimuk by Esquimaux who have never had communication with Danes. Whether it is the same which Fabricius saw may be doubted, but it seems very improbable that either should be the bos grunniens. (Sabine 1819).

We can clear up the Umimuk fairly quickly; that was not "bos grunniens," or the yak, but rather the musk-ox. But, to continue with Amarok stories:

The natives tell use moreover of another kind of ravenous beasts, which they call Amarok, which eagerly pursue other beasts, as well as men; yet none of them could say, they ever had seen them, but only had it from others by hearsay; and whereas none of our own people, who have travelled up and down the country, ever met with any such beast, therefore I take it to be a mere fable. (Egede 1818).

Some Greenlanders pretend to have seen black bears, and their imaginations aided by fear, have exaggerated them into monsters six fathoms in length. But it is more usual among the natives to talk of a certain species of tiger, which they call Amarok. These animals, which, according to their description, are covered with white and black spots, and about the size of a calf, have never been seen by any European. They may possibly be a species of spotted bears, such as have been known to cross the ice between Greenland and Iceland. (Crantz 1820).

As the 1800s wore on, it appears that the "wolf" identity either clarified or was merged into Amarok as a folkloric ethnoknown.

The great auk is not the only mysterious creature in Greenland that seems likely soon to become entirely extinct, for there is, besides, the fierce and powerful amarok, which has been in latter times rarely seen, and is much dreaded. It is the national terror of the nursery; and children are frightened to sleep or kept at home with threats of calling the awful monster, whose rapacity is so great that he can take off any number of Esquimaux babies that you choose to name. This animal, which is an enormous wolf, is not, however, quite as fabulous as the old wives' stories would incline you to believe, one having actually appeared in the country within a few years, and, after committing the most fearful ravages among the dogs, and terrifying the people, was finally shot. His skin now adorns the Copenhagen Museum. The story has spread everywhere, and is related by everybody with the same zest that a frontiersman would tell of an Indian raid. (Hayes 1871).

Mr. Peary learned from them that many years ago Mekhtoshay ahd shot an "amarok," or wolf, at Netchiolumy, and that Panikpah had killed one at Nerki; Koomenahpik and Mekhtoshay, who are brothers, also related that years ago they had both seen "oomingmuk" (musk-oxen), "awahne, awahne, Etah" (far beyond Etah). (Diebitsch-Peary 1894).
What we see, basically, is an initial wide diversity of folkloric descriptives for the Amarok, which narrows down over the years until it becomes intrinsically associated with the Arctic wolf, or with wolf folklore, at least. There is, as far as I can see, no way to determine what the original stories were based on (if anything other than wolves or perhaps wolverines), and without having heard of any contemporary folklore of an unknown Arctic predator in that region, I don't see any basis at present for suggesting that an unrecognized species exists as a basis for such tales.

For future investigation, however, I would suggest interviewing Inuit hunters from northwestern Greenland. There are, as noted, a number of historical ethnoknowns with cryptozoological potential, and it would be interesting to know if any of these stories survive, or what other kinds of stories might be recorded. Unlike Robert Brown, I wouldn't suggest dismissing Inuit folk classifications as "idle superstitious tales." Folk classifications are based on cultural perspectives, and what is an important Inuit character may not be relevant to scientific systematics, but given the likelihood of potential new species (particularly cetaceans), the Inuit traditions may very well uncover some cryptozoological leads worth exploring.

Resources:.

  • Brown, Robert. 1868. On the Mammalian Fauna of Greenland. Proc. Zoological Society of London, 1868. (May 28): 330-362.
  • CIA World Factbook, www.cia.gov (including map used)
  • Crantz, David. 1820. The History of Greenland. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.
  • Diebitsch-Peary, Josephine. 1893. Battling with an Arctic Hurricane. in, Around the World: Contributions to the Knowledge of the Earth and its Inhabitants. Vol. 1. New York: Contemporary Publishing Co.
  • Egede, Paul. 1818. A Description of Greenland. London: T. and J. Allman.
  • Hayes, Isaac J. 1871. The Land of Desolation, Being a Personal Narrative of Adventure in Greenland. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle.
  • Sabine, Edward. 1819. An Account of the Esquimaux, who inhabit the West Coast of Greenland, above the latitude 76°; in a Letter to the Editor from Captain Edward Sabine, of the Royal Artillery, F. R. S. and F. L. S. The Quarterly Journal of Literature, Science and the Arts 7: 72-94.
  • World Wildlife Fund, Terrestrial Ecoregions, www.worldwildlife.org

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