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The flag of Greenland. Wikimedia.

Celebrating Greenland’s National Day at the Library of Congress

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The following post is by Troy Smith, Nordic Area Reference Librarian in the European Reading Room of the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division

Today is Greenland’s National Day. The holiday takes place on June 21 because that is the summer solstice, or the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere. In Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city, residents and visitors will enjoy over 21 hours of daylight. Although it is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland attained home rule in 1979, and, on June 21, 1985, National Day was celebrated for the first time, with the Greenlandic flag making its debut. Once the Act on Greenland Self-Government was passed on National Day 2009, Greenlandic became the official language, and Greenland assumed responsibility for the administration of its justice, labor, and finance. Crucially, the act also opened the door to possible negotiations for Greenland’s independence.

The First Peoples of Greenland, the Inuit, were migrating from North America to the island by 2500 BCE. They call it Kalaallit Nunaat or “Country of the Greenlanders.” The Norwegian Erik the Red stayed on in Greenland from 982 to 985, after having been exiled from Iceland. Upon his return to Iceland, he gave the northern island its deliberately attractive name of Grœnland. His son, Leif Eriksson, brought Christianity from Norway to the Norse in Greenland in the eleventh century, and a Greenlandic diocese was consecrated in 1126. In the next century, the first meetings between these Norse settlers and the indigenous Greenlanders took place, and the Norse on the island formally subjected themselves to the Norwegian crown. However, by the fifteenth century, the Norse inhabitants of Greenland had mysteriously disappeared. This enigma is the subject of a soon-to-be-published book.

The Kingdom of Denmark-Norway emerged as a political entity after the dissolution of the Kalmar Union in 1523, which had united the three Scandinavian kingdoms. It thus ruled the Norwegian colonies of the Faroe Islands, the Orkney Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. This meant that when Norway was ceded to Sweden at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1814, Denmark retained the remaining overseas possessions, including Greenland. (Orkney had been incorporated into Scotland in 1472.) While Iceland achieved its independence in 1944, the Faroes and Greenland remain Danish territories to this day.

Two titles in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress will be presented in this post: Kaladlit Okalluktualliat/Grönlandske Folkesagn, trans. R. Berthelsen (Godthaab [Nuuk]: 1859–1863); and Kaladlit Assilialiait/Grølandske Træsnit/Woodcuts, Drawn and Engraved by Greenlanders (Godthaab [Nuuk]: 1860). The former is a bilingual edition of Greenlandic folktales, in the original Kalâtdlisut or West Greenlandic, and in Danish translation. The translator, Rasmus Berthelsen (1827–1901, pictured below), was an indigenous Greenlandic newspaper editor, clergyman, and psalmist who led cultural life on the island in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Black and white photo of old man in front of closed door, hands crossed
“Rasmus Storm Josva Berthel Berthelsen.” The Royal Library. Creative Commons. 

The Library of Congress owns three copies of Kaladlit Assilialiait, one of which has an English-language title page and an additional two pages of descriptions of the illustrations in English. The first two woodblock prints, carved by Berthelsen, have been hand-colored in this copy, making it a bibliophilic rarity.

Multicolor woodcut of woman in native costume, full length, facing front
Berthelsen, R. “No.1. An Esquimaux Girl in holiday costume,” in Woodcuts, Drawn and Engraved by Greenlanders. Godthaab [Nuuk]: L. Møller and R. Berthelsen, 1860. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo by T.S.
Multicolor woodcut of woman in native costume carrying child, seated.
Berthelsen, R.  “No. 2. A Wife and Child,” in Woodcuts, Drawn and Engraved by Greenlanders. Godthaab [Nuuk]: L. Møller and R. Berthelsen, 1860. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo by T.S.
The Rare Book and Special Collections copy of the four-volume Kaladlit Okalluktualliat is incomplete, as only volumes one and four are extant. Those interested in the tales in volumes two and three should visit the Library of Congress’ European Reading Room, which has a 1972 reprinting of the complete set in its reference collection. Missing volumes aside, the Rare Book and Special Collections copy is well worth seeing for its beautiful hand-colored title page, which depicts an iceberg and a flock of seabirds between two Danish flags. The tales are also richly illustrated with woodcuts rendered by the indigenous Greenlander Âlut Kangermio or Aron fra Kangeq (1822–1869), among others.

Title page title page showing an iceberg and a flock of seabirds between two Danish flags
Âlut Kangermio [?], title page of Kaladlit Okalluktualliat/Grönlandske Folksagn, trans. R. Berthelsen, vol. 1. Godthaab [Nuuk]: L. Møller and R. Berthelsen, 1859.  Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo by T.S.
One of the aforementioned early encounters between an Inuit and a “Kablunak” (European or Scandinavian) is chronicled in the first story in the collection, “Okalluktuak Oungortomik / Fortælling om Oungortok” (Story about Oungortok). One of the shorter tales, “Ordlavarsumik / Om Ordlavarsuk,” has been translated from the Danish by the author of this post, and can be read below. Admittedly, this translation cannot match one from the West Greenlandic, nor can the Danish translation supplant the original, but readers of this blog will at least have the chance to discover one of these fascinating folktales for themselves, in honor of Greenland’s National Day.

About Ordlavarsuk

Transcribed by Albrekt Beck, Catechist at Holstensborg

Ordlavarsuk couldn’t be bothered to hear anything about shamans, did not enjoy necromancies, and would not partake in them; and if he heard them, he would not go there at all. One time, he was on a visit to a different place, and when it was evening, the people he was visiting began to perform tricks and commanded their shaman to practice witchcraft in order to have Ordlavarsuk join them. So they closed the windows of the house and extinguished the lamps, and now the shaman began to perform tricks, and the girls struck up the boisterous songs. When Ordlavarsuk had begun to join in, he also found enjoyment in it and thought that the girls’ song was so beautiful to hear, and when it came time for him to go home, he envied those who could perform tricks and wished that he was a shaman, but did not know how the shamans went about it. Finally, he went out for a stroll in order to see if he could conjure a helper spirit in the manner of the shamans, and when he was far away, he began to shout in a loud voice, like this: “A spirit! A spirit!” And when he had stood and shouted at the top of some small hillocks, he finally got an answer; he took joy in that and ran on to meet the voice, shouting again: “Where are you?”—“Here I am,” answered the voice. Ordlavarsuk began to run on to where the voice was coming from, but neither met nor saw anyone; finally, he noticed a very large man whose hood was as large as the bow of a boat. By the help of a staff, he reached Ordlavarsuk, and when he laid his large staff on the ground, it made an enormous boom. But when Ordlavarsuk had seen him, he became afraid and fled; while he fled, he was pursued, and since he was always being overtaken, he went steadily towards the sea, and when he came to the beach, he saw that there was a little island close by the land, which was connected with it at low tide but formed a channel at high tide; and since there was no other place to flee to, he began to go out into the water. Although he could not touch the bottom and was close to going under, he nonetheless wriggled up and saw that the other man could not get to the land. He, who could not make landfall, said: “Oh! I thought it was you who were begging for a helper spirit. Now, if you invoke someone like that a second time, do you think that you will be heard?” Once he had addressed Ordlavarsuk like this, he turned his back on him, but when he had gone, Ordlavarsuk began to regret that he had driven off the one who should have provided him with the means of magic, and, in repentance, waded back to land to get him to turn around. Running hastily, he came before the other and said: “Touch me with your staff!” But he walked past Ordlavarsuk without saying a word. See! Ordlavarsuk would placate the spirit, but he was angry and did not allow himself to placated, and from the time Ordlavarsuk came home, until the end of his life, he did not ask again for any helper spirit. Now that’s that!

 (“Ordlavarsumik/Om Ordlavarsuk,” in Kaladlit Okalluktualliat/Grönlandske Folkesagn, trans. R. Berthelsen, 36–41. Godthaab [Nuuk]: L. Møller and R. Berthelsen, 1859.)

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