Ugjuknarpak

Variations: Giant Mouse

The giant mouse Ugjuknarpak once lived on an island in the middle of a long, narrow lake near the source of the Colville River in Alaska. It was like a field mouse in appearance, but it had impenetrable skin. So thick and hard was its hide that even the largest harpoons, knives, and arrows could not penetrate it. It was also armed with a long, prehensile tail that it coiled around its prey.

The Inuit traveling to Nerleq to trade with the people of Point Barrow lived in constant fear of the Ugjuknarpak. If anyone made the slightest sound in the vicinity of the island, the giant mouse would pounce upon them, grabbing and capsizing the umiaqs with its long tail before biting the people to death and devouring them.

Trade slowed as the Ugjuknarpak continued its depredations. But it could not be avoided, as the people needed to go down the river to buy blubber on the coast, and return before the river froze in order to hunt caribou.

One day a man, fearing for his daughter’s life, decided to put her on an umiaq separate from the main fleet. This one had few people and fewer dogs and babies that might make sounds. He himself took one of the more crowded umiaqs – and his fear was realized. Along the way a dog snarled a little, and the Ugjuknarpak pricked up its ears and fell upon the boats. The girl, on the other hand, had passed ahead in safety. She never saw her parents and brothers again, and she knew that the giant mouse had killed them.

In time the girl was married and had a son of her own. As soon as he could understand, his mother told him “you are now a boy, and you will become a man, but you will never be strong enough to avenge your parents and uncles”. She did this knowing that, far from being discouraged, the boy would be goaded into slaying Ugjuknarpak.

The boy grew into a tall and powerful young man and took the name of Kugshavak, “Woodpecker”. He was soon joined by his brother Hagáneq, “Fellow”, a boy with hands like the flippers of a bearded seal. He too was motivated to avenge his fallen kin.

The brothers had adventures together and performed great feats, until the day came when they set out to slay Ugjuknarpak. They set out in the early morning and reached the island silently. Ugjuknarpak was just waking up and yawning, its jaws so big the brothers could see the dawn through them. Woodpecker paddled around the island in his umiaq while Fellow swam alongside him with the ease of a seal.

Ugjuknarpak soon noticed them and set off in pursuit. The brothers led it to a plain by the river. There they dodged its every lunge and bite while studying it, and finally noticed that its skin crinkled at one place on its neck. That must be its weak spot. Armed with flint knives on long spears, they stabbed the giant mouse as its fury redoubled. The brothers pressed their attack on the weakened, bleeding monster until at last it collapsed and died. The brothers found many broken knives and arrowheads in its skin, witnesses to Ugjuknarpak’s resilience.

The head was severed along the neck’s weak spot. It was taken to Ivnaq, a place on the river where all umiaqs could see it as they passed by. The head decayed, but it is still terrifying to see; it is the size of a walrus’s head, with long fangs and a long gristly nose like that of a field mouse. It lost none of the terror it once inspired. Those paddling by it speak in whispers and tie their dogs’ noses so they make no sound.

References

Ostermann, H.; Calvert, W. E. trans. (1952) The Alaskan Eskimos as Described in the Posthumous Notes of Dr. Knud Rasmussen. Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, Copenhagen.

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