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Eskimos are interviewed by Stefansson to learn about their religious beliefs and how magic and salvation were incompatible.

May 13, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 11

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Eskimo

After the meal was finished we sat and talked perhaps an hour, until a messenger came it was always the children who carried mes sages) to say that my companions had gone to the house that had been built for us, and that the people hoped I would come there, too, for it was a big house, and many could sit in there at once and talk with us. On arriving home I found that, although over half the village were already there, still we had plenty of room within doors for the four or five who had come along with me to see me home. The floor of the inner half of the house had been raised into the usual two-foot-high snow sleeping-platform, covered with skins, partly ours and partly contributed by various households for our comfort; a seal-oil lamp for heating and lighting purposes had been installed. It was a cozy place, heated by the lamp to a temperature of 60° Fahr in spite of the fact that it was well ventilated by a door that was never closed day or night, and a hole in the roof that was also always open. On the bed-platform there was room for twelve or fifteen persons to sit Turkish fashion, and on the floor in front another fifteen could easily stand. 


Although the house was full of guests at my home-coming, they merely stayed a few minutes, for some one suggested that we were no doubt tired and sleepy and would like to be left alone. In the morning, they said, we should have plenty of time for talking. When they were all gone, however, we did not go to sleep, but sat up fully half the night discussing the strange things we had seen. My Eskimo were considerably more excited over it all than I. It was, they said, as if we were living through a story such as the old men tell in the assembly-house when the sun is away in winter. What kindly, inoffensive- looking people these were, but no doubt they were powerful and dangerous magicians such as the stories tell about and such as my companions' fathers had known in their youth. My Mackenzie man, Tannaumirk, had, in fact , heard something to make this clear, for he had eaten supper in the house of a man who last winter had dropped his knife into a seal-hole through the ice where the sea was very deep, but so powerful was the spell he pronounced that when he reached into the water afterward the water came only to his elbow and he picked the knife off the ocean bottom. And this, Tannaumirk commented, in spite of the fact that the ice alone was at least a fathom thick and the water so deep that a stone dropped into it would no doubt take a long time to sink to the bottom. 


Did they believe all this, I asked my men, though I knew what answer I would get. Of course they did. Why should I ask? Had they not often told me that their own people were able to do such things until a few years ago, when they abjured their familiar spirits on learning from the missionary of the existence of heaven and hell, and of the fact that no one can attain salvation who employs spirits to do his bidding? It was too bad that salvation and the practice of magic were incompatible ; not that such trivial things as the recovery of lost articles were of moment, but in the cure of sickness and the control of weather and ice conditions, prayers seemed so much less efficient than the old charms. Still, of course, they did not really regret the loss of the old knowledge and power, for did they not have the inestimable prospect of salvation which had been denied their forefathers through the unfortunate lateness of the coming of the missionaries? It was mere shortsightedness to regret having renounced the miraculous ability to cure disease, for God knows best when one should die, and to him who prays faithfully and never works on Sunday, death is but the entrance to a happier life.