This was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.
I thought Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity was hugely overrated. Technically brilliant, with a few great action sequences, but scuppered by a paper-thin story, sub-par acting, and a painfully clichéd script. I thought it would be some good talent and budget thrown skilfully at the experience of genuinely confronting the abyss of deep space, at the edges of our planetary nest. Instead it was hackneyed references to little red shoes and George Clooney’s worst ever performance.
Alan Evans at The Guardian seems to agree. Happily, he also highlights a tiny gem which came into being alongside this big-budget fail. Aningaaq is a short (seven-minute) film, made by Alfonso’s son Jonas, depicting an Inuit fisherman in Greenland who is on the other end of a radio interchange with Sandra Bullock’s character. She’s trapped and believes she’s doomed, but then makes contact with someone — only to realise this someone speaks no English, and has no idea what’s going on. It’s a beautiful little piece, a lovely idea to accompany a feature film, and memorably poignant (certainly more than the original scene, which I can barely remember even after seeing this and reading about the relevant bit in Gravity).
There’s a special interest here for the story of North, too. This story sees the idea of the world’s axis as a focus and imaginal infrastructure for the ancient yearning for mystical ascent into the heavens, the soul climbing up the World Tree. The Copernican Revolution demolished this collective image, casting us adrift in an infinite cosmos with no centre, and no nested levels of heavens through which to ascend to merge with divinity. The World Tree was ruined — but shards of it fell at the base, at the axis of the Earth, the icy terrestrial poles. And strangely, Arctic space acted as a kind of segue back into the heavens, in the literal form of modern space exploration.
Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634), billed by many as the first sci-fi yarn, pictures the protagonist taking off for the moon from Iceland – and for various reasons, Kepler consciously wrought the bond between Iceland and the moon.1 The Arctic and Antarctic are regularly used by NASA and the Mars Society for training, as the best earthly approximations of off-planet conditions. These and other tidbits which form a bond between the poles and space are summed up with neat historical poetry by the fact that less than two months after explorer Wally Herbert completed the first surface crossing of the Arctic by way of the North Pole, Neil Armstrong made his famous step onto the moon’s surface. Significantly, Herbert titled his account of his trip Across the Top of the World: The Last Great Journey on Earth. After the poles were conquered, the only way was up, and these icy wastelands became imaginal launch-pads for our reaching into space. It seems to be no coincidence that the lunar missions were named after Apollo — the Greek God who was said to fly every year, on the back of a swan, to the land of the Hyperboreans — those ‘behind the north wind’. There are echoes here, of course, of the Arctic migrations of swans and geese; but also of the possible significance of the once-circumpolar constellation Cygnus in ancient cultures.2
But… icy wastelands? They may appear as the most barren possible places to us, but many — such as the Inuit — have crafted resilient cultures here, and made them home. I’ve sometimes wondered if NASA are missing a trick by not collaborating with Eskimos. Tough, incredibly resourceful people who are inured to barren conditions — would they be ideal Mars colonists?
There would be the question of whether they think it’s worth going or not. Many modern quests appear as foolish literalism to indigenous peoples, whose imaginal life hasn’t been decimated by religion and science. Marie Herbert, wife of Wally, lived between 1971 and 1973 with the northernmost group of Inuit in Greenland. One long moonlit night, she went for a walk with her Eskimo friend Maria.
She turned towards the moon and asked me about the Americans who had visited there. Had I heard about it? I told her I had watched their arrival on television. This fascinated her. Was it hot or cold, she wondered? I told her what I had remembered from the news, and tried to imitate the nebulous walk of the astronauts. She wondered if there was a flag there and asked me if I knew that really the moon belonged to the Eskimos. ‘How do you account for that?’ I asked. ‘Well, because the angakoks went there long before the Americans.’ I wondered how many of the Eskimos really believed this.
In the old days, it was the task of the angakoks, or witch doctors, to invoke spirits to help cure sickness, or lack of game. Sickness was considered to be an affliction of the body as a result of the soul being stolen. Sometimes the soul would be robbed by the ‘man in the moon’, and the angakoks would have to go on long and perilous journeys to retrieve it.3
There’s no question here of simplistically taking this indigenous stab at our technological prowess at face value, a crass call for ‘soul travel, not space travel’. But the more we grow to understand the psychological, social, and spiritual value of such inner, imaginal voyages, the more we should question the value of our rigid clinging to literal voyaging.
Aningaaq is made to look a bit foolish here in this short film, unaware of the high-tech drama unfolding above him. But perhaps much of the resonance of this little film emerges from being apart from the 3D IMAX spectacle — and sensing the drama above as being more than a little foolish itself.