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Jun 18, 2020

I recently came across two works on peoples living on the northernmost reaches of human habitability. Both works claimed to be genuine ethnographies. Both were completed and distributed in temperate safety far south of the lands they depict. Both were consumed by curious audiences eager to devour tales of the mysterious, frigid edge of the known world. Separated by four centuries, they share a common agenda in selling an ostensibly authentic description of life in the mysterious north.

Nanook of the North (1922) left its mark in film history as the first full-length documentary. At just under 1 hour 20 minutes, the viewing experience would have demanded commitment on the part of its contemporary viewers, the early cinema-goers of the roaring twenties. The narrative follows the “Eskimo hunter” Nanook and his family—his two wives, three children, and pack of sled-dogs—as they wander through the snowy deserts of the Arctic in search of sustenance. With the skills inherited from his ancestors, the great huntsman Nanook deftly catches salmon with makeshift fishing stick and ropes, joyously biting their heads to death before bringing them to feed his children. He catches seals from holes carved through the ice. With his mates he harpoons a walrus, and after a long struggle they haul the massive “sea tiger” onto the frigid shore. The scene cuts to a written interjection, one of several scattered throughout the film. It reads: ‘They do not wait until the kill is transported back to camp, for they cannot restrain the pangs of hunger.’ The scene cuts back to Nanook. The walrus is but a hollowed-out carcass, and the triumphant hunters devour its raw flesh. Nanook licks the blade of his knife clean like a ravenous wolf. Nanook and his family build igloos, he plays with his children and teaches his son to shoot with a bow and arrow. After being assailed by a blizzard, Nanook’s fate is left unknown as the film fades out—is he sleeping or has he died?

Robert Flaherty is hailed as a pioneer and lambasted as a colonial fabricator. Nanook is not Nanook, his real name is Allakariallak. Allakariallak hunted with a gun, he knew what a gramophone was, the wives were not his own but actually Flaherty’s partners, and he did not have to aimlessly wander through barren tundra in search of the next meal. Yet he was depicted as a primitive, polygamous savage inhabiting a timeless place, cluelessly sinking his teeth into the white man’s music-machine and satiating a primeval craving for raw flesh to stay alive. Allakariallak perfectly played the role of Nanook, whom Flaherty’s civilised, western audience admired and fantasised about as the protagonist of their boreal imaginary.

What Flaherty gave to his 1920s consumers, Olaus Magnus had already done four hundred years earlier in Italy. Once a formidable priest in Catholic Sweden and the brother of the Archbishop of Uppsala, Olaus entered exile after the Lutheran takeover and spent his remaining life in Rome, under papal protection. In 1555 he published his great work, the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. With its fantastic woodcut illustrations and stories of the peoples and wonders of the mysterious north, the Historia quickly became a ‘best-seller’ by the standards of its time and was translated into various vernacular languages. In many ways its beautiful pictures stimulated readers more than its verbal descriptions. Image and word combined forces to tell stories of the unspeakable cold that ruled over the lands as sovereign, the freezing winds that left slash marks in the sky. Yet it also told of the hardy people who inhabited this seemingly inhospitable icy cap of the world and called it their home. The book’s detailed descriptions of the history, origins, language, and customs of these reindeer-riding northmen who battled giants, sea-creatures, ostriches, and all manner of unknown beasts struck its audience—both literate and not—with awe and wonder. It is imbued with both Olaus’ nostalgia and pride for an invented northern heritage and the seeds of prejudice shrewdly planted to incite the imaginations of pious Catholic southerners who viewed the extreme north as a wondrous yet unmistakably barbaric realm.

Barren. Impenetrable. Deadly. What is it about the North that so powerfully captivates the southern imagination? For Olaus’ readers, it was the depiction of a frosty wonderland teeming with life and culture alongside untameable perils. For Flaherty’s viewers, it was the vision of a final terrestrial frontier, the last surviving remnant of prehistory where the infinite white blurs any boundary between the human and natural. For us entering the third decade of the 21st century, the North conjures up a different image: it is a land at once vulnerable and menacing. Satellite images of the arctic laid bare, no longer covered in white but its innards exposed, instil fears of an irrevocable deviation from the natural order that will inevitably end with crisis and extinction. The Arctic is also a site of tragedy—we see photos of polar bears clinging desperately onto shrinking ice floats in a melted open sea, struggling to forestall their immanent death. The blistering airs contained by the polar jet stream wreaking havoc far south of their native region as the icy fortress’ walls collapse around them.

The North remains distant, mysterious, unclaimed. Yet it is now closer to us than ever. Its silent death brings the monsters to our doorstep.


The great huntsman Nanook enjoys his hard-earned meal.
The great actor Allakariallak plays his part Nanook.


Olaus Magnus on crabs and sea snakes.


The snow will keep you warm.


Fun and games today, real war tomorrow. Children training to become warriors.