Upside Down with Arctic Art

The woman’s face is devoid of features, and she has no fingers or toes. Her legs extend from wide hips but taper into a V, and her arms taper into nothingness down her sides. Her stomach, breasts, and buttocks are full, even suggestive of steatopygous, a condition that this woman’s creators probably did not have. She was made hundreds of years ago, but figures similar to hers were made thousands of years ago. This is not a riddle: she is a pendant  Perhaps she hung alone on necklace or maybe she was one of many charms on a piece of jewelry, but in either case, her most intriguing feature is that she hung upside down, because the hole through which she was strung punctures her feet. This inverted-woman pendant is one of many described in Upside Down: Arctic Realities, edited by Edmund Carpenter.

The pendant is part of a collection of art made by ancient, aboriginal Arctic peoples, including: the Inuit of Canada and Greenland, the Inupiat of Northern Alaska, the Yup’ik of Southern Alaska, and the Siberian Yup’ik of Siberia and St. Lawrence Island. Calling the artifacts collected “art” is a bit of a misnomer, though, because there is no word for “art” or “artist” in Eskimo languages (Carpenter uses “Eskimo” because it is considered an adequate term by several of the tribes he describes.) Instead, elaborate carving techniques are essential to all Eskimo men, and there is no distinction “between utilitarian and decorative objects.” The inverted-woman pendant, then, also must have served a purpose.

Inverting a human figure in art is not unique to the Arctic aboriginals. It is an artistic construct that began in the Paleolithic era. (Paleolithic people would have carved the female figure from life, with steatopygous, and Eskimos probably copied their pendants from older art.) Carpenter theorizes that the reason various groups of people around the world have used this model is because all humans see death as the inversion as life. Therefore, when a human figure is carved upside down, it is meant to represent someone recently deceased or an ancestor. The living are right-side up, and the dead are upside-down—or, in their case, in the right position for their new life.

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