Seventeenth century Western European researchers believed that miniature homunculi, tiny proto-humans, lived in male sperm cells and developed into babies. More recently, generations of American toddlers have lined up Fisher Price Little People, built castles around them, transported them on toy trucks, and imagined names for them. The colorful, two-inch boys, girls, men and women occupy many different professions, to judge by the lunch pails they carry or the clothing they wear, and they are accompanied by enough little animals to populate an African savannah, a Gobi Desert, or an Arctic ice flow.

Their essential function, for children, is to encourage imaginative play, which often reflects, and encourages kids to act out, real childhood situations. “Let’s build a castle, Grandpa—but let’s only put little girls in it.” “Why?” “Because boys are mean!” “Has some boy in nursery school been mean to you?”

Miniature figures play an important role in many societies in addition to our own, particularly in Inuit groups, as a recent journal article by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten explains. Among the Inuit, miniatures have many broader functions than just serving as toys for children. Figurines often have transformative powers; they play important roles in rituals and practices.

The most obvious use for Inuit miniatures is, of course, as toys. They are often implements that assist children in learning useful skills and attitudes so they can later fit into their society as adults. Many accounts of the Inuit, when they used to live on the land rather than in settled communities, describe their toys: dolls for the girls and lifelike, miniature carved animals such as seals for the boys plus the tiny spears that they would use to kill them. With miniature tools, implements, and weapons, the children could imagine they were participating in adult society.

Inuit adults assumed that the tiny implements their children made would give them the skills to make real tools when they grew up. They believed that the toys and dolls helped in the process of gradually transforming their children into functioning adults. But dolls could have a broader meaning for children than simply to serve as teaching tools. People had familiar spirits, often represented by figurines that could be helped, cared for—or beaten—depending on circumstances.

Laugrand and Oosten argue that clear distinctions can’t be made between toys, ritual objects, and ornaments in Inuit societies—the same object could take on different functions, depending on circumstances. A child might make a miniature lamp, for instance, while an adult made a real one. The tiny lamp might then be used as an ornament for a gravesite. The deceased, whenever it wished, could transform the miniature into a real object.

Games that attempted to divine the future employed a similar logic by substituting miniatures for real things. For instance, knuckle bones from the flippers of a seal could represent different hunters. When they were thrown, the bones that ended standing up would foretell the successful hunters. Or, Inuit adults might play games in which miniature figures were tossed and allowed to fall. The ways they fell would predict the outcome of events. But the people usually did not make distinctions between games and rituals. Contemporary Inuit continue wearing miniature objects, such as tiny knives and boots, as earrings or pendants. They often have symbolic importance—for enhancing fertility, continuing society, or transforming game animals into food.

Miniature objects were used as models to help preserve the real things. As long as the miniatures were protected, so too would the real objects be preserved from harm. The Inuit made amulets to protect themselves from evil spirits, and after they converted to Christianity, they would make crucifixes and medals for similar purposes, particularly for protection and healing.

Miniatures also figure in Inuit myths and their associated rituals. In the Sedna myth, for instance, which was discussed in a review here last year, Sedna flees from the evil petrel with her father in his boat, but he panics when a flock of angry petrels attack. He throws her into the sea to save his own life. She grabs the edge of the boat to keep from drowning, but he cuts off the end digits of her fingers for his own self preservation. The ends of the fingers fall into the water and become seals. When he chops off the second joints of her fingers, they become bearded seals and the third joints become walruses when they fall into the sea. The confusing aspect of the story is why the tiny finger parts became major prey animals. The answer is that the lengths of the finger joints appear to symbolize the appropriate sizes for the tarniqs, or shades, of the animals.

Tiny objects often represented helping spirits. According to the explorer Rasmussen, people used to believe that when a house was visited by evil spirits, dogs would bark. People might wave miniature knives through the air for protection. Even today, in Christian Inuit communities, people still tell stories about the powers of miniatures.

In sum, the Inuit thought, and to some extent still think, of miniatures as toys that help a young person become an adult and as implements that are used by the deceased—associations that suggest both the beginning and the ending of life. And, most critically, tiny objects allow people to transform beings from one level to another. Hunters could connect to game animals with their miniatures, and everyone could use them to protect their camps from evil spirits. To this day, small figurines are produced by artists: they are fabricated for sale, exchanged as gifts, and distributed at feasts. Western distinctions between toys, amulets, charms, and ornaments generally do not apply to Inuit culture.

The authors conclude that the Inuit believe miniatures have powers to transform, for better or for worse. The Little People that Western children play with may occasionally have some of those same powers, if the children are particularly imaginative, but Fisher Price probably sells few sets to adults for their own uses.

Laugrand, Frédéric and Jarich Oosten. 2008. “When Toys and Ornaments Come into Play: The Transformative Power of Miniatures in Canadian Inuit Cosmology.” Museum Anthropology 31(2): 69-84