Tupilak – the language of the tongue

Tupilaks

Nuuk Art Museum houses many tupilaks made of bone and tooth, and also a few out of wood and stone. These tupilaks have several visual characteristics, like recurring shapes and figures, and one of these is the use of the tongue. Something that is being eaten, or regurgitated, something being swallowed, licked, flirted with, something wriggling – or simply a tongue that sticks out.

The tupilak was originally put together from different dead animals, with pieces from cadavers and the like that a shaman would nourish and send after his (or her) enemy; as Europeans started landing their ships on Greenlandic coasts, they became really curious about the tupilaks. In the consonance of interest from outside and the imagination and narration about all the different tupilaks, the tupilak eventually acquired visual features.

In a figure by Aron Kleist (1923-1989), an animal-like tupilak with hair and long claws stretches upwards. The mouth opens in a crooked smile with the tongue peeping out. The tongue lies there, in the middle of the mouth, with a light flick upward. Able to lick and swallow, it appears here almost like slurping.

The tongue is hidden inside the mouth. It senses and tastes, it takes part in chewing and swallowing food, as well as in drinking. The tongue can also become visible. Outside the mouth, the tongue can be slurping, licking and swallowing. It can turn into an ornament, into something that wriggles and frolics, turn into puke, but it can also become a complaint about the world – to stick the tongue out, to make faces, to grimace.

Karl Egede Kristensen has cut a long tupilak out of the tooth of a walrus. A long tongue wriggles out from its mouth and bifurcates in the end. It has the same long, outstretched cut as the rest of the tupilak and becomes almost ornamental, while its split end suggests something evil – like telling two contrasting things, lying and manipulating.

When we talk, we use our tongue. There are many metaphors referencing the tongue. One can “speak in tongues”, when in a mental trance and somebody or something else speaks through his body. Something can be “on the tip of my tongue”, when I am right about to say what I intend to express. When a remark is “tongue-in-cheek”, that means it is made ironically. One can also be “tongue-tied”, if she turns unable to speak.

When the tongue is out of the mouth, we are only able to produce noises. The tongue hangs out of the mouth if we are thirsty, breathless or lack something – when we are sick, have eaten too much or improperly, we throw up with our tongues out of the mouth.

Something animal-like hangs out of the mouth of a tupilak from the museum’s collection: a skin and the head of an animal. Is it on its way up or down? It hangs dangling as if it were stuck. Moreover, the figurine has got a supporting staff through its mouth, like a sort of kickstand; that makes possible for the figurine to stand without tipping over. There are deep wrinkles between the tupilaks brows. Maybe it is trying to swallow that creature; or maybe the “animal” is actually nothing but this tupilak’s own tongue.

 

THE TONGUE IN THE LANGUAGE

The tongue is called oqaq in Greenlandic. An older word for sticking out your tongue is mitaartaavoq, which is related to the more modern kiinarsorpoq (to grimace or make faces) and mitassippoq (to grimace in order to make people laugh). The root mitaar means ‘to grimace’, and in an older meaning ‘to tease and make fun of’.

Mitaartut, ‘Epiphany’ (6th January, Christian celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the Magi), has the same root as Mitaartaavoq – i.e. to stick out one’s tongue. When celebrating the Epiphany, people put on costumes in order to alter their look, to scare and make fun of other people, among else by making grimaces. This festival and the habit of dressing up seem to be connected to the visual tradition of the tupilaks: something concurrently foolish and frightening – the tongue teases, and at the same time can threaten to swallow or eat someone.

The mask and mask dance, with their peculiar use of the tongue and distorted faces, fluctuate between being silly and serious too. The tongue relates to the grotesque and the exaggerated, the scary and the foolish.

A mythological figure which embodies such duality of play and seriousness, silly and scary, is The Gut Eater(ess), or Erlaveersiniooq. She tries to lure people who are on their way to the Moon Man’s house, and attempts with all possible grimaces, faces and mockery to make them laugh. Were she to succeed and one started laughing, she would rip him open.

It is often told in myths and legends that a shaman is eaten or swallowed by animals, something which marked the transition to a spiritual world or journey.

TONGUE OUTSIDE GREENLAND

The tongue as a visual feature is not something exclusively Greenlandic. Kali, the Hindu god, is represented in figures, pictures, and masks with a long bloody tongue out of her mouth. With her tongue, she destroys everything false; she destroys time, which is the only attachment to this world.

In churches from the Middle Ages, the tongue can appear as part of the ornament that wiggles and twirls above the entrance to the church space. This passage into the church and the holy space could be a treacherous place, where one needed to beware of the devil’s calls and other temptations.

The Danish artist Asger Jorn (1914-1973) and the French photographer Noël Arnaud created a whole set of books composed of photographs of the use of the tongue in ornamentation, art and photography. The work was published in 1968 – the year before the youth rebellion – with the title The Raw Tongue and the Cooked One (f. La Langue Verte et la Cuite).

 

THE MANY LANGUAGES OF THE TUPILAK

Apart from the tongue, the tupilak has other recurrent visual features, such as the dilated nostrils, evocative of a predator’s sharpened senses or of its aggression; the symmetric lines on the face, partially a decoration, partially pointing back to (forgotten) tattoo traditions, and partially also literally wrinkles, even signs of starvation; the big eyes with a black pupil in the middle, that remind so-called “stressed eyes”, i.e. when the eye appears gaping, with dilated pupils; the visible ribs or spine – the tupilak as skeleton parts; and then its composite nature, made out of different animals and creatures.

 

TONGUE OUTSIDE GREENLAND

The tongue as a pictorial feature is not only a Greenlandic thing. Kali, the Hindu god is pictured in figures, pictures, and masks with a long bloody tongue out its. With her tongue, she ruins everything untrue; she destroys the time which is the only attachment to this world.

In the Middle Ages’ churches, the tongue sometimes appeared in an ornament, wriggling and turning by the entrance to the church space.This transition to the church and the holy space could be a dangerous place where one would have to be aware of the devil’s speaking in tongues and other temptations.

The Danish artist Asger Jorn (1914-1973) and the French photographer Noël Arnaud created a whole set of books put together of photographs of the use of tongue in ornamentation, art and photography. It was published in 1968 – the year before the youth rebellion – and in English it’s called “The Raw Tongue and the Cooked One” (La Langue Verte et la Cuite).

 

THE MANY LANGUAGES OF THE TUPILAK

Apart from the tongue, other pictorial features of the Tupilak are repeated – the big nostrils, like a predators senses or pure aggression; the symmetric lines in the face, partially as ornamentation, and partially pointing back at (forgotten) tattoo traditions, partially as wrinkles or starvation; the big eyes with a black pupil in the middle, where the eyes are dilated and starring; the visible ribs or spine – the tupilak as parts of a skeleton; and then the way the tupilak is composed from different animals and creatures.