Greenland - Encyclopedia Information
The Inuit were the first people to come to Greenland from what is now northern Canada. By 900 C.E. the Thule (wandering whale hunters from Alaska) had arrived in Greenland.
During the 10th century, Icelandic Vikings, the first Europeans to arrive in Greenland, settled on the southwest coast.
Eric the Red, a Viking who was exiled from Iceland after committing a murder, established a colony in Greenland in 985.
This colony soon grew to include 3,000 to 5,000 people.
It relied on trade with Europe, exchanging ivory from walrus tusks as well as rope, sheep, and seal and cattle hides for iron and timber. In 1126 a diocese was founded at Garl; it was subject to the Norwegian archdiocese in Trondheim. The population accepted the authority of the Norwegian king as well although it continued to have its own laws. In 1380 Greenland entered into a union with Denmark.
In 1536 Denmark and Norway were officially merged, and Greenland came to be seen as a Danish dependency rather than a Norwegian one. This was acknowledged by the inclusion of a polar bear in the Danish Coat of Arms in the 1660s. Although the whaling trade of the 17th century brought English, Dutch, and German ships to Greenland, where whales were sometimes processed ashore, no permanent settlement was made. Gradually Greenland was opened to Danish trading companies and closed to those from other countries. This new colony was centered at Godthab (“Good Hope”) on the southwest coast.
When Norway separated from Denmark in 1814 Greenland remained under Danish rule. The 19th century saw increased interest in the region on the part of polar explorers and scientists. At the turn of the 19th century northern Greenland was sparsely populated. During that period Inuit families emigrated from Canada to settle there. The last group from Canada arrived in 1864. In 1953 Greenland officially became a part of Denmark. An autonomous government was formed in 1979 with Denmark, currently ruled by Queen Margrethe II (b. 1940), retaining control of defense and foreign affairs.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The country dominates the North Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe. Greenland has the world’s second largest ice cap and its gradual slope covers all but a narrow, mountainous, barren, rocky coast. Most of Greenland’s terrain is flat. The sparse population is confined to small settlements along the coast, and nearly one-quarter of the population lives in the capital, Nuuk. The climate varies from arctic to subarctic with cool summers and extremely cold winters.
The economy remains critically dependent on exports of fish and substantial support from the Danish government. The public sector, including publicly owned enterprises and government offices, plays a dominant role in the economy. Several hydrocarbon and mineral exploration activities have produced coal, cryolite lead, molybdenum, uranium, and zinc, some of which is exported. Tourism has potential, but it is limited due to a short season and high costs.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Although modern life has caught up with the Inuit in the form of warm climate foods, computers, luxury cars, and outboard motors, as little as 40 years ago Greenlanders were still practicing a traditional way of life that revolved around the hunt. Harmony with the land and respect for the dead were the hallmarks of a good hunter.
Tupilak, originally carved out of bone, skin, and chunks of peat, are small grotesque figurines characteristic of Greenland. They were originally intended as talismans to ward off misfortune and death. These days tupilak are sold as souvenirs and are carved from caribou antler, soapstone, driftwood, narwhal tusk, and walrus ivory and bone.
The language of the Inuit belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut family of languages that construct sentences consisting of long strings of polysyllabic words.
Inuit has 17 phonemes (units of the phonetic system of a language) and 3 vowels. Conversation is complicated by the habit of spontaneously abbreviating the very large words to a more manageable length.
Christianity is the religion followed by presentday Greenlanders. On Christmas and New Year’s, carolers go from house to house singing carols and hymns, and are usually invited in for refreshments after their performances. In North Greenland the end of the polar night and the commencement of the sunny phase is a big occasion for celebration.
Traditional Greenlandic food featured meat from freshly killed animals: walrus, seal, and whale.
According to convention the meat is distributed according to social status, with the tastiest parts (the eyes, kidney, and heart) reserved for the lead hunter.
Every part of the animal is consumed. One traditional delicacy, described by Jean Malaurie (b. 1922) in The Last Kings of Thule (1982), consisted of narwhal fat and water, mixed with walrus brain and digested grass from the first stomach of a reindeer.
Despite the trend toward global cuisine, it would be a challenge for visitors to adjust to traditional Greenland fare. These days supermarkets have replaced the game hunt and even tropical fruits are available, but prepackaged whale steaks and seal meats are still stocked generously.
In Greenland the birth of a child is often looked upon as the revival of a dead soul. Following Norse tradition the father is expected to be present at the time of birth to provide moral support to the mother, who is experiencing labor pains. There is an old, long preserved tradition wherein the midwife lays the newborn on the floor or ground after birth and the father picks it up, affirming its legitimacy. In many Norse regions this has been incorporated into the naming rite held on the ninth day. Following the feast the parents host a short symbel in the baby’s honor.
The Inuit and other Greenlandic tribes believe that the soul stays in the body for three days after death.
Silence is observed after a death has taken place, so that the ghost is not tempted to return to the house.
Self-mutilation and silent weeping are traditional forms of mourning and lamentation.