Tupilak – the language of the tongue


TUPILAK – The Language of the Tounge

Nuuk Art Museum has many tupilaks of bone and tooth and a few of wood and stone. These tupilaks have some pictorial characteristics – figures and shapes are repeated – and one of these are the use of the tongue. Something to be eaten, something that comes back up, something that is being licked, is being flirted with, being wriggled with or just simply a tongue that sticks out.

The tupilak was once put together with different dead animals, pieces from cadavers and the like, which a shaman nourished and sent after his (or her) enemy; as the European ships started to harbor the Greenlandic coasts, the people on them got really curious about the tupilaks.

In a figure by Aron Kleist (1923-1989) a tupilak with hair and long claws is upward-stretched and animalistic. The mouth gives a crooked smile with the tongue on its way out. It’s lying there, in the middle of the mouth, with an upward seeking flick. It almost slurps – it is the tongue that can lick and swallow.

The tongue is hidden inside the mouth. It is sensing, tasting, and participates in processing and swallowing food and drink. The tongue can also be visible. Outside the mouth, the tongue can become slurping, licking and swallowing. It can become an ornament, turn into something that wriggles and frolics, it can become the wrong side of the world; to stick tongue out, to make faces, to grimace.

Karl Egede Kristensen has cut a long tupilak from the tooth of a walrus. From its mouth, a long tongue is wriggling a long tongue which separates into two at the end. It has the same long and outstretched cut as the rest of the tupilak, and becomes almost like an ornament, while the fact that it is pointing and in two parts tells us something evil – to tell two contrasting things, to lie and manipulate.

When we talk, we use our tongue. There are metaphors using the word ‘tongue’ (to speak in tongues, at the tip of my tongue, tongue-in-cheek …) to tell us about being in trance and someone or something speaks through someone else’s body. When almost saying what is intended to be said. When the tongue is outside the mouth, we can only make noises, not express words.

The tongue is hanging outside the mouth if we are thirsty, out of breath or in need of something – when we are sick, or have eaten too much we throw up with our tongues outside the mouth.

Out of the mouth of a tupilak which belongs to the museum’s collection, you’ll find something animalistic; a piece of skin or the head of an animal. Is it on its way up or down? It is hanging – dangling – as if it is stuck. Additionally, the figure has gotten a supporting stick via the mouth, like a cane; in order for the figure to be able to stand without tipping over. There are deep wrinkles between the tupilaks brows. Maybe it is trying to swallow this creature; maybe the animal happens to be this tupilak’s tongue.

Ud af munden på en tupilak, som tilhører kunstmuseets samling, hænger noget dyrelignende; et skin og et hoved af et dyr. Er det på vej op eller ned? Det hænger dinglende, som sidder det fast. Desuden har figuren via munden fået en lang stav som støtteben; for at figuren kan stå uden at vælte. Der er rynker mellem tupilakkens bryn. Måske prøver den at sluge og synke dette væsen; måske hænger dyret ud af munden som tupilakkens tunge.



The tongue is called Oqaq in Greenlandic. An older word for sticking out your tongue is Mitaartaavoq which is connected 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 translation ’to tease and make fun of’.

Mitaartut, Epiphany (Holy Three Kings) has the same root as Mitaartaavoq – to stick out your tongue. Celebrating the Epiphany (the Christian holiday), people put on costumes in order to frighten and scare, scramble and make fun of other people – by making grimaces. This holiday and tradition of dressing in costumes seems to be connected to the pictorial tradition in the tupilaks; this at the same time silly and frightening – the tongue teases and threatens with swallowing and eating.

The mask and the mask dance with its distortionary faces and use of the tongue moves between silly and serious. The tongue is connected to the grotesque and the exaggerated, the scary and the silly.

A mythological figure which embodies this dualty of play and serious, silly and scary is The Gut Eater(ess). She tries to lure people on their way to the Moon Man’s house, and will try all grimaces and distortionary faces and teasing to make you laugh. If it works and you start laughing, she will cut up your belly.

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



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).



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.