2013.7.1: Tupilak Figure, 20th Cent.

Additional Images

2013.7.1: Tupilak Figure.
Image No. 3503 ; Photographer: Helen Kingsley

Object Description

Tupilak from Greenland of Shaman at work. A sperm whale or walrus ivory carved human figure with a separate ivory disk. The figure has an exaggerated grimace and an auxiliary head protruding from the stomach area.The disk is placed underneath second head to stabilise the figure in a standing position. The eyes on both faces have been infilled with a black material. The figure's arms are bent down in front and the hands have sockets in them. Incomplete, the part held by the hands is missing.

Object Classification

Accession Number: 2013.7.1
Collection: Ethnography
Date: 20th Cent.

Object Dimensions

  • Width: 5 cm
  • Depth: 7.5 cm

Object Parts

  • a) Figure
  • b) Disk

Object Materials

  • ivory,
  • unidentified material

Acquisition Detail

  • History of Use: In Greenlandic the word Tupilaq or Tupilak describes a wide variety of small figures which represent either an ancestor's soul or spirit or other mythical or spiritual creatures. Originally a tupilak spirit could be called upon to help against a foe by a shaman secretly creating a figure made from various bones or other parts of animals, human hair or other human parts. The figure was then inaugurated and made a home for the spirit by singing a spell over it. The tupilak was often put out to sea so that it could find the enemy itself and kill him. However, this course of action was not without risk because if the tupilak's victim had greater powers of witchcraft than its creator, he could repel its attack and instead send the tupilak back to kill its originator. Original tupilaqs have vanished, as they were made of peri-shable materials and, besides, they were not meant to be seen by others. When the first Europeans came to East Greenland and heard about tupilaqs, they were curious and wanted to know more about them, hence re-emergence of carving tupilaqs to show them what they looked like. From the early thirties until the late seventies the majority of tupilaqs were carved from sperm whale ivory.