Sermerssuaq was so powerful that she could lift a kayak on the tips of three fingers. She could kill a seal merely by drumming on its head with her fists. She could rip asunder a fox or hare. Once she arm-wrestled with Qasordlanguaq, another powerful woman, and beat her so easily that she said: ‘Poor Qasordlanguaq could not even beat one of her own lice at arm-wrestling.’ Most men she could beat and then she would tell them: ‘Where were you when the testicles were given out?’ Sometimes this Sermerssuaq would show off her clitoris. It was so big that the skin of a fox would not fully cover it. Aja, and she was the mother of nine children, too!
This short folktale is included in Angela Carter’s Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990). The text indicates that it’s an ‘Innuit’ tale. In Carter’s notes, from the end of the book, she gives the source of the tale: ‘Told as a joke at a birthday party, Innuit Point, Northwest Territories.’ Arctic Canada. A Kayak Full of Ghosts. Inuit tales ‘Gathered and Retold’ by Lawrence Millman (California, 1987), p. 140.
Carter’s The Virago book of fairy tales (1990) was complemented by her The Second Virago Book of fairy tales, which Carter was working on at the time of her death. She’d finished collecting the tales, but had not yet written an introduction for the second book or finished her annotations. Virago published the second collection posthumously, with the notes completed by Shahrukh Hussain, and an introduction by Marina Warner. You can buy both books together in the beautiful 2005 book Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, which includes stunning illustrations by Corinna Sargood. If I ever get a full body tattoo, this is what I’m going with.
Carter’s two collections are a treasure trove of tales of female characters who are vibrant, strange, energetic, wild, difficult and complex. The stories are, as Carter herself describes them in the introduction, ‘continually surprising’. Full of enigmatic but moving images, such as the following from the beginning of another Innuit tale in the collection, ‘Kakuarshuk’:
Long ago women got their children by digging around in the earth. They would pry the children loose from the very ground itself. They would not have to travel far to find little girls, but boys were were more difficult to locate–often they would have to dig extremely deep in the earth to get at the boys. Thus it was that strong women had many children and lazy women very few children or no children at all.
You can’t do much but adore these images of strong, capable, independent women with ENORMOUS clitorises and the strength (but not necessarily the will) to dig sons up from remote fields.
PS: The wonderful image of Sermerssuaq at the top of this post is from rejected princesses (“princesses too awesome, awful or offbeat for kids’ movies”), but interestingly the sculpture below can apparently be found in Nuuk the similar-sounding region of Semersooq in Greenland. To my eye, it resonates strongly with this little Innuit ‘joke’ about Sermerssauq and Qasordlanguaq, particularly with the image of them wrestling.