Inuit mythology has many similarities to the religions of other polar regions. Inuit traditional religious practices could be very briefly summarised as a form of shamanism based on animist principles.
In some respects, Inuit mythology stretches the common conception of what the term “mythology” means. Unlike Greek mythology, for example, at least a few people have believed in it, without interruption, from the distant past up to and including the present time.
While the dominant religious system of the Inuit today is Christianity, many Inuit do still hold to at least some element of their traditional religious beliefs.
Inuit traditional cosmology is not religion in the usual theological sense, and is similar to what most people think of as mythology only in that it is a narrative about the world and the place of people in it.
The Inuit believed that all things have a form of spirit or soul (in Inuktitut: anirniq meaning breath; plural anirniit), just like humans. These spirits are held to persist after death — a common belief present in practically all human societies.
However, the belief in the pervasiveness of spirits — the root of Inuit myth structure — has consequences. According to a customary Inuit saying “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.”
By believing that all things have souls like those of humans, killing an animal is little different from killing a person. Once the anirniq of the dead animal or human is liberated, it is free to take revenge. The spirit of the dead can only be placated by obedience to custom, avoiding taboos, and performing the right rituals.
The harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived constantly in fear of unseen forces. A run of bad luck could end an entire community and begging potentially angry and vengeful but unseen powers for the necessities of day-to-day survival is a common consequence of a precarious existence.
For the Inuit, to offend an anirniq was to risk extinction. The principal role of the angakkuq in Inuit society was to advise and remind people of the rituals and taboos they needed to obey to placate the spirits, since he was held to be able to see and contact them.
The anirniit are seen to be a part of the sila — the sky or air around them — and are merely borrowed from it.
Although each person’s anirniq is individual, shaped by the life and body it inhabits, at the same time it is part of a larger whole. This enabled Inuit to borrow the powers or characteristics of an anirniq by taking its name.
Furthermore, the spirits of a single class of thing — be it sea mammals, polar bears, or plants — are in some sense held to be the same and can be invoked through a keeper or master who is connected with that class of thing.
In some cases, it is the anirniq of a human or animal who becomes a figure of respect or influence over animals things through some action, recounted in a traditional tale.