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"Why, that medicine man," Ayaligak told me, "was so powerful he could thrust a harpoon into his chest and draw it out without leaving a scar!"
"Did you see it happen?" I asked.
"Well, no," Ayaligak confessed, "not exactly. But I heard about it. Everybody knows it's true."

January 1, 1951



Roger Buliard


If they are casual in their attitude toward God, they are more direct when dealing with spirits, and here become voluble and explicit. This is because they are on more familiar terms with the spirits, and because the shamans--the medicine men-- find it useful to keep the idea of spirits very much in the ordinary Inuk's mind. 

In the ancient religion they must once have had I have reached the conclusion that God was regarded as primary, but just too remote to be interested in the affairs of lowly mortals. He was happy by himself in His ethereal abode and bothered little with events below, leaving mundane matters entirely in the hands of lesser authorities, secondary gods that the Eskimos think of as spirits. We find the same kind of crude religion in Siberia and Mongolia, and the same assignment of intermediary power to a class of men, the shamans. The word "shaman" itself is Mongolian, and there is no doubt that the Eskimos brought the tradition of shamanism with them when they crossed the Bering Strait. 

Such is the Eskimo religion today--a rather debased and worldly religion that hardly merits being described as such, for there is in its concept nothing to adore or honor, but only spirits to propitiate. Are they angels or devils? According to the Eskimos, they are a little of both, a mixture of good and evil like human beings. "Since they deal with humans," the Inuk reasons, "must they not be like humans?" According to the Eskimo description, the spirits are something like the jinn of the Arabas, strange imps always looking for mischief, hiding behind corners in wait for human beings, like cranky poliemen who find their fun in picking quarrels with peaceful citizens. 

This shamanism is the only religion we have found among the Eskimos, and a certain body of tradition and formalism surrounds it. There are elements of animism in the Eskimo's vague beliefs. To him each object, be it rock, animal, or ice, is endowed with life. Even ideas, notions, the weather, sickness are thought either to be spirits or to be inhabited by spirits. A caribou is killed, for example. His flesh may be eaten, but his breath, his "soul," is just waiting around, perhaps nearby, and certain conventions are observed that the Eskimo believes will keep the caribou's spirit friendly. They will never, for instance, boil caribou meat, or sew the animal's skin during the months of darkness when the sun is gone. To do so would offend the caribou's "Anernek"--his "breath," "spirit", or "soul." A similar reasoning prompts them, when a relative dies, to give his name quickly to a dog, so that the spirit will have a place to rest until a child is born to inherit it. The Anernek is a fletting thing, easily lost, and every artifice must be brought to bear to prevent its prowling and creating trouble.

You may write it off as superstition, and of course in a way it is just that. Wasn't it Montaigne who observed that "since man has never been able to create a worm, he makes divinities every other day?" We have superstitions among our western peoples. Some otherwise rational and sensible humans in Paris, London, or New York are afraid to begin any venture on the thirteenth day of the month, especially if the thirteenth falls on a Friday. Others refuse to accept the third light from a match, even though the perfectly practical wartime origin of this custom has been explained to them. Some touch wood or cross their fingers, others carry favorite pennies. 

We must be indulgent toward Eskimo superstition, but we shouldn't forget that superstitions are signs of clouding faith, and that the spirits the Eskimos believe in are the last faint glimmers of an extinguished religion.

I once asked an Eskimo friend: "Tell me, now, you have so many evil spirits; aren't there any good ones?"

The old man grinned, considering this, then answered, "Well, Falla, of course there must be some good ones too, but we don't bother thinking about them. If they are good, they won't do us harm, eh? Whereas with the evil ones it is quite a different matter. They are always after us. Trouble? It's their middle name. So we have to coax them all the time, don't you see?"

Children's arithmetic? Maybe. But to the Eskimo it's just diplomacy.

In his serious dealing with the spirits the Eskimo never acts independently or makes a direct approach. He seeks a shaman whose function it is to act as intermediary, to intercede for him. The shaman is always a powerful fellow who is reported to have demonstrated his power in some dramatic fashion.

"Why, that medicine man," Ayaligak told me, "was so powerful he could thrust a harpoon into his chest and draw it out without leaving a scar!"

"Did you see it happen?" I asked.

"Well, no," Ayaligak confessed, "not exactly. But I heard about it. Everybody knows it's true."

One is reminded of the Soviet diplomatists who will describe the most atrocious falsehood as "that well-known fact." "It is a well-known fact," the Communist blandly announces, "that millions of people in the Unites States die each year from starvation." Loud applause from the gallery; perfect belief from the poor sheep. It must be true, you know. Isn't it a "well-known fact"?

So the power of the "Augatko"--the shaman--must be believed if only because it s well-known. Hitler must have had the Inuit in mind when he pronounced the doctrine of the Big Lie. For an Inuk will believe anything if it is stated boldly enough. And usually the Augatko backs up his claims to supernatural power with an act of hypnotism, autosuggestion, or sleight-of-hand. Once he has established himself he is absolutely secure and doesn't have to trouble much about window-dressing for his magic. He can take a piece of filthy caribou skin, roll it up, announce that it's a dog, and send it forth into the night to haunt the client's enemy. The poor Inuk is so completly impressed that he soon believes he is haunted himself and begins to see that awful dog lurking near his igloo.