Tiriaq — Ermine

Ermines, small but voracious predators of the tundra, do not figure greatly in the lives of the Inuit. Along with lemmings and insects, however, they were sometimes feared in conjunction with their ability to burrow inside things. Their poetic name, putuuqti, means "the penetrating one". Stories were told of people who had had an ermine crawl into their clothes with drastic results (Randa 1994).

Although ermines belong to the category of "walkers", they do not walk with strides like larger animals. Instead they are described as "ones who run in a little way", referring to their short rapid steps. Like the wolverine, the ermine has very clever front paws, capable of holding onto prey. A less admirable characteristic is its smell, which is likened to bad body odour. In spite of its bad smell and small size, however, the ermine is very self-confident, even rude – it often sits up and stares directly into the eyes of humans. It often adds insult to injury by sneaking into tents, caches and even graves, snacking on whatever it finds there. Its overwhelming characteristic in the eyes of the Inuit is its ability to slip into any crack or crevice, no matter how small, showing flexibility and lightning speed. It appears to be capable of slithering right under rocks, only to pop up somewhere else the next instant.

Tiriaq is an excellent hunter, able to catch not only lemmings and hares, but also birds much larger than itself. There are even stories which tell of ermines killing caribou by entering in the anus and devouring them from the inside out. When it gives birth, tiriaq does not dig its own den, but once again uses its abilities as a sneaky infiltrator to take over old lemming burrows, food caches or graves.

Because of its uncanny ability to penetrate in and out of any space, the ermine is assigned many supernatural powers. Ermine skins and skulls formed powerful amulets, harbouring the protective tiriaq spirit. The protective ermine was capable of defending the wearer by penetrating inside his opponents and eating their entrails. The domain of tiriaq extends beyond even its normal terrestrial habitat. The Inuit tell stories of ordinary ermines running across the surface of water, and fear a great sea spirit called imaup tiriaq, the "sea ermine". This creature is shaped like a typical ermine, and sometimes rises from the ocean, slips into the sleeve of a hapless kayaker, and proceeds to run around his body inspiring confusion and terror (Randa 1994).