The Disemboweller

Filed Under: Arctic, Folk Tales

An excerpt from Eskimo Life by Fridtjof Nanse (1894).

“Hoeg’e ae den Gjallarbrui,
ho tisst ‘punde skyi hange;
men eg totte tyngre dei Gaglemyrann,–
gu’ baere den, dei ska gange!

High is the Gjallar-bridge; it hangs,
Close to the clouds, in air;
But worse I deem the Gagle-moss–
God help who treadeth there!”

In European folk-tales, and especially in those of Scandinavia, we often meet with an old woman who bears rule over animals. She likes to be called ‘Mother,’ is fond of being scratched or washed, and is glad to get hold of a pair of shoes, a piece of tobacco, or the like. If the Ash-Lad meets her and does her any such service, she requites him with a ‘motherly turn,’ making her animals help him or giving him gifts. But besides this common theme which reappears in a majority of our folk-tales, we can also point to a particular story which is founded on similar conceptions. The Ash-Lad comes to the ogress with a whole company of animals, the stoat, the tree-bear (the squirrel), the hare, the fox, the wolf and the bear, to try to rescue his sister whom she has carried off. While he is eating, the ogress cries ‘Scratch me! scratch me!’ ‘You must wait till I’ve finished,’ says the boy; but his sister warns him that if he does not do it at once the ogress will tear him to pieces. Then he makes the animals scratch her, one after the other; but none of them content her until it comes to the turn of the bear, who claws her till her itch departs. In several variants, three brothers make the attempt one after the other, and she kills the first two of them. Even at first sight this Scandinavian group of stories seems suspiciously like the Greenland legends, the scratching and washing especially reminding us strongly of the hair-combing; but when we also find that Arnarkuagssak is unknown to the Alaskan Eskimos, the connection seems to be clear. According to one Greenland legend she was the daughter of a powerful angekok who, being overtaken by a storm, threw her out of the woman-boat to save himself. She clung on to the gunwale, whereupon he, one by one, cut off her fingers and her hands. These were transformed into seals and whales, over which she obtained dominion; and when she sank to the bottom, she took up her abode there for good. Among the Eskimos of Baffin’s Land the same legend is told of a woman named Sedna, who has, however, become a different being from Arnarkuagssak. The latter seems to be unknown on the Mackenzie river. ‘If it should appear,’ says Dr. Rink, ‘that the Greenland myth is not known in Alaska either, we must conclude that it was invented during the course of the emigration to Greenland.’ It seems more natural, however, to conjecture, as I have done above, that it descends from the old Scandinavians.

On the whole, then, it seems probable that this Greenland divinity was originally a character in old Norwegian folk-lore, and that the description of the journey to her abode is descended from, or at least coloured by, European myths and legends, imported by the old Scandinavian settlers; but more original Eskimo elements may also be mixed up in it, having their origin in the west, and resembling the
myths of the Indians.

The souls who go to the over-world have to pass the abode of a strange woman who dwells at the top of a high mountain. She is called Erdlaversissok (ie. The Disemboweller), and her properties are a trough and a bloody knife. She beats upon a drum, dances with her own
shadow, and says nothing but ‘My buttocks, &c.,’ or else sings ‘Ya, ha, ha, ha!’ When she turns her back she displays huge hindquarters, from
which dangles a lean sea-scorpion; and when she turns sideways her mouth is twisted utterly askew, so that her face becomes horizontally oblong. When she bends forwards she can lick her own hindquarters, and when she bends sideways she can strike her cheek, with a loud smack, against her thigh. If you can look at her without laughing you are in no danger; but as soon as anyone begins to smile she throws away her drum, seizes him, hurls him to the earth, takes her knife and rips him up, tears out his entrails, throws them into the trough, and then greedily devours them. In this story, too, we meet with more than one trait of Scandinavian tradition. Thus ‘the underground folk’ cannot endure laughter; the human being who wounds them by laughing at them must pay dear for his thoughtlessness. And in two names for the Jotun-woman which are preserved in Snorro’s Edda, Bakrauf and Rifingafla (‘the woman with the cleft or torn hindquarters’) we find exactly the same idea which is represented in the ogress of the Greenland legend.

On the same journey the souls also pass the dwelling of the Moon Spirit. The way they have to go is described as very narrow, and one sinks in it up to the shoulders.[110] This reminds us of the bogs which are said in our ‘Draumekvaedi’ to lie in the neighbourhood of the Gjallar-bridge, and into which the wicked sink.

Source: Eskimo Life by Fridtjof Nanse (1894). (via Project Gutenberg)