June 9, 2023

Truth or Dare with the Tupilaq

The nights are long this far North but the moon is full and it is bright enough to see, light bouncing off the snow and ice. It is cold but clear, the horizon open, a field of white for as far as you can see. 

So it’s a surprise to see movement, something suddenly closer than it should be, like it materialized out of the ocean. You assume it is a bear at first, what other creature would be out here on the ice, but it is too fast, too ungainly, an unfamiliar mess of limbs and fur. All you know is that it’s headed straight for you. 

Roll for initiative because the tupilaq is coming at you. 

This creature comes from Greenlandic Inuit lore. The tupilaq is an avenging spirit, created by a shaman in secret and quietly unleashed on its target. Shaman created a tupilaq out of animal parts and, sometimes, the corpses of children, combining skin, bone, sinew, and fur into a totem and releasing it into the sea to set it on its path of vengeance. 

Once on its way, the tupilaq may maim and attack its target or take a more indirect approach, making its victim inexplicably sick. People tell stories of remembering their older relatives fighting an invisible creature–the tupilaq cannot be seen by children–leaving behind a very real blood and hints of a creature that was part animal, part man. One account describes a man watching his uncle grappling with the invisible tupilaq, pummeling the creature until the floor was covered with its blood. 

Creating a tupilaq was a gamble. Shaman could control their creations, but if their target had greater magical ability, the tupilaq and all of its viciousness could be sent right back to its creator. So if you’re confident in your magical abilities and don’t feel like trying to fight the tupilaq with your bare hands, you could bounce that sucker right back to its maker. 

But there’s a simpler way to take down a tupilaq. Secrecy is essential to this creature’s existence. They are created in secret, or in some traditions come into existence on their own after someone secretly breaks a taboo, say by committing infanticide. A surefire way to neutralize the tupilaq is public confession, admitting what you have done to earn the tupilaq’s wrath or that you created it in the first place. Keep in mind that though this will eliminate the creature, it will not free you from the consequences of your admission, and you will have to live with everyone’s reaction to your secret shame. Depending on what you’ve done, maybe it would be easier to just fight the thing.  

Because of the secrecy around making a tupilaq, they had no particular form. Shaman weren’t exactly comparing notes, and none of the originals survived. Their appearance was as varied as the materials used and the people making them. However, early European settlers heard stories of the tupilaq and were curious about what the creatures looked like, so craftsmen started carving more permanent versions out of bone and sperm whale teeth. This has developed into an art form, and now tupilaq totems are a tchotchke of choice for tourists visiting Greenland. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark keeps a pair on her desk, prominently visible during her New Year’s speeches.

Dex Dylan is the founder and acting president of the International Society of Astrocryptozoology. For decades, Dex has scoured the skies and seas (and sometimes the land, but honestly it’s so crowded) for hints of unusual life forms, and has done extensive research into the possible existence of chupacabras on Mars.