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When in a trance the shaman is the mouth-piece of a spirit, and at any time, by the use of the formulæ by which the spirits are controlled, he can get them to do his bidding, be it good or ill.

February 18, 1911

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

A shaman among the Eskimos is in his own person no wiser than you or I. In every -day life he is quite as likely to do foolish things, quite as liable to be wrong ; but when he goes into a trance his own spirit is superseded by the familiar spirit which enters his body, and it is the familiar spirit which talks through the mouth of the shaman. It is only then that his words become wisdom, on which you may rely unthinkingly. When in a trance the shaman is the mouth-piece of a spirit, and at any time, by the use of the formulæ by which the spirits are controlled, he can get them to do his bidding, be it good or ill. For that reason the shaman is deferred to, irrespective of whether you like him personally or not, and without regard to what you may think of his character and natural abilities, except that the more you fear he may be disposed to evil actions, the more careful you are not to give him offense, and to comply with everything he commands or intimates, for (being evilly disposed) he may punish you harshly if you incur his displeasure. 


Just as in Rome the priests of the new religion took the place of the priests of the old, so among the Eskimo the missionary under the new dispensation takes the place of the ancient shaman of the old régime. When he speaks as a missionary, he speaks as the mouthpiece of God, exactly as the shaman was the mouth-piece of the spirits. The commands he issues at that time are the commands of God, as the commands of the shaman were not his own but those of the spirit which possessed him. And as in the old days the evilly disposed shamans were the most feared, similarly that one of all the missionaries known to me who is personally the most unpopular among his Eskimo congregation is also the one whose word is the most absolute law and whom none would cross under any circumstances. “ For,” think the Eskimo, " being a bad man, he may pray to God to make us sick or do us some harm."