To the Inuit peoples, Sedna is the spirit of the sea. In Greenland she is called Arnakuagsak, the “Old woman of the sea,” and the people of Alaska named her Nerrivik. She is the mother of all sea creatures, and control them. For this, she is invoked by hunters and fishermen who beg her to send walruses and seals to the ice. All of the Arctic peoples have a story somewhat like Sedna’s, featuring betrayal by kin, the gruesome disfigurement and murder of a girl. In some tales she is a poor orphan doomed by circumstance. In others she is vindictive, spoiled and vain. In both versions, it is her death which leads to the unrefutable fact that success or failure in hunting depends only on her unpredictable moods.

Sedna, the fool
Before she became the most powerful force in the sea, Sedna was a beautiful young woman, the only daughter of a widowed hunter. Many eligible young men came to ask for the hand of the maiden, but she refused them all. Her father, while proud of his daughter who was skillful with the needle, was nonetheless worried that she would take no man to be her husband. He could take no more of her constant refusals. One day a boat approached the shore and Sedna’s father dragged her down to the sea. He asked the man in the boat “Are you looking for a wife? My daughter would make a fine one!” The man in the boat nodded and said that he had heard tales of Sedna’s beauty and had come to ask for her hand. Then, he told Sedna about his luxurious home in a far-off land and that she, if she would consent to become his wife, would never want for anything.

Sedna studied the stranger as she considered what he had said. Though his face was concealed in the shadows of his hood and his eyes were hidden behind goggles, the suitor seemed fit and capable. Seeing that she had little choice, she agreed and left with him on his boat that very hour.

But after a long trip across the sea, there was no fine hut or warm furs, only a bird’s nest. And when her new husband threw back the hood of his cloak she saw that he was not a man, but a fulmar, which is a sort of bird. She was horrified, but she could do nothing other than shed bitter tears, and tell her woes to her father when he came to visit. When the hunter saw the conditions his daughter had to live in, and her sorrow, he said, “Forgive me daughter, I have come to take you home.” Together, they climbed into his kayak and set out across the sea.

When the fulmar came home, he found his wife gone and guessed what had happened. He flew out over the sea, found the little boat and demanded that his wife be returned to him. When Sedna’s father refused, the fulmar circled around the kayak, raising a powerful storm that threatened to overturn the boat. As the craft rocked back and forth, Sedna’s father, fearing for his life, tossed his daughter overboard into the frigid waters.

Desperate to survive, Sedna grabbed the side of the boat and held on tightly. In terror, her father took his knife and, in one blow, chopped off his daughter’s fingertips at the first joint, which fell into the sea, transformed into a seal and swam away. But still she held on, and he swung again, cutting off her fingers at the second joint, which fell into the sea and were transformed into walruses. Bloodied and freezing, she held on, and he swung a third time, severing what was left of her fingers, which fell into the sea and became whales. And then Sedna, unable to hold on any longer, sank into the waves and the sea was calm.

As she sank deeper and deeper into the waters, Tatqeq, the moon spirit, and Sila, the air spirit, combined together and watched her descent. They pitied her and said, “For your hardship, we give you the power of all so that you will become the guardian for the Inuit." Sedna became a spirit and created a kingdom under the sea from which she controlled the movements of all the creatures in the sea.

Sedna, the oppressed
In another version, her frustrated father could stand it no more, chose a man and presented him to Sedna, saying “Daughter, I have chosen your husband.”

But the maiden refused, and the hunter was enraged and shamed. He said, “Since you will not accept a man, then you will have my dog, for that is all that is fit for a girl child who dishonors her father." True to his word, he forced her to marry his dog as a punishment.

During the night, the hunter’s dog came to Sedna’s bed, and soon she was pregnant with its children. The hunter, both sorry for his daughter and disgusted by what had taken place. He cried out, “Daughter, you are with the child of my dog and shame me again, you will be placed in isolation as you deserve no better." He hid her on an island where she gave birth to a litter of babies, some human and some puppies. The dog, however, loved Sedna, for she was gentle and kind, and would swim out to the island with packs of food and skins.

Sedna’s father was enraged and drowned her poor husband, leaving her alone with her children. The children tried to avenge the death of their father, but to no avail. Sedna, alone with no husband or children, languished on the island under the watchful eyes of her father. But one day, when he chanced to look out over the water, his daughter was no longer there. During the hunt, a handsome but strange man in a kayak had appeared to Sedna, and seeing her beauty, asked her for her hand in marriage. She accepted and her fate was sealed.

In this tale, too, Sedna sinks down into the waves, but here she is reunited with her dog husband and her remorseful father. The three dwell at the bottom of the sea. Sedna makes the sea mammals scarce when the Inuit transgress against each other or the land, only relenting when a shaman comes to comb her long hair for she cannot hold the comb herself. The people who survived only by the graces of Sedna were careful not to incite her wrath because for three days after death, the souls of her animals would remain in the body, watching for signs of wrongdoing. In those times when Sedna remembered all that was done to her, she would send her animals away and the people would starve.

In alternate versions, she hates all humankind and withholds food from them. Their only hope was the angakok, a man of spiritual power, would send his spirit under the waves to Sedna’s kingdom. She was constantly plagued by tiny crustaceans that would nibble on her dead flesh. The angkok would pluck them off for Sedna, who could not remove them with her fingerless hands. In temporary gratitude she sends her mammals so that the people survive.