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On the religion of the Eskimo - The Eskimo don't have clear religious beliefs, but they do have enforced taboos and find religious significance in every act of life. They also trade for spirits they find useful.

January 1, 1912

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 26

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Religion
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

One often hears the statement that there never have been discovered people so low that they do not have some form of religion. This is stating a true thing in such a way that it implies an untruth. The case is put rightly and the exact facts are truly implied, in saying that the lower you go in the scale of cultural development the more religion you find until, when you get to the people that are really toward the bottom of the scale of social and intellectual evolution, religion begins to cover practically all the activities and phenomena of life. There is a religious significance in every act and accident and a religious formula for every eventuality in life. 


The Eskimo are people whose intelligence is keen with reference to the facts of their immediate environment; but that environment is so monotonous, the range of possible experiences is so small, that no matter what the fiber of their minds may be at bottom, the exercise is wanting that might lead to a broad mental development. 


There was a time when I used to think I knew what the word "savage” meant. Since then I have associated with people who dress in skins, who live largely on raw meat, who had never seen white men until they saw me, who were as strange to our ideas and ways as any people on this earth can be to -day ; and the net result is that the word " savage” has quite lost its meaning. Like the word “ squaw, ” or “ half-breed,” the word “ savage ” is reprehensible because it carries a stigma which the facts do not justify. I should prefer to describe the peoples ordinarily referred to as “ savage,” as “ child -like, ” because the word is truthfully descriptive and not odious. It is the purpose of the present chapter to describe some phases of the religion of one of the child -like peoples. 


To begin with, the Eskimo are very unclear in their religious thinking, a fact which does not, however, differentiate them abysmally from our own race. Scepticism in religious matters is unknown.. If they are acquainted with my private character and find me in the ordinary relations of life reliable ; if I don't tell lies concerning the number or the fatness of the caribou I have killed, nor about the distance at which I shot them, nor the difficulty I had in stalking them, they will believe anything I say about any subject. They will assume as unquestioningly the truth of any metaphysical statement I make if they have once learned to rely on my statements regarding the thickness of the back - fat of the bull caribou I shot during the summer. On the other hand, if I told them there were ten caribou in a band I saw and they later on discovered there were only five, they would be disinclined to believe me if I told them there was but one God. The reasoning would simply be this : he did not tell us the truth about the number of caribou, therefore how can we rely on the truth of his statements about the number of the gods ? 


There are among all Eskimo certain persons whom we call “ shamans” and they call “ angatkut.” These persons hold com munion with the spirits and are familiar with the things of the other world ; they are the formulators of religious opinion. The days of miracles are not yet past among any primitive people, and new miracles happen on the shores of the polar sea daily, but more especially in the dark of winter. The miracles usually happen at the behest of the shamans, and invariably it is the shaman who tells about them ; but while new revelations are frequent, they are always revelations of the old sort. There is little originality in the minds of primitive people ; their daily experiences are uniform, and their thoughts are uniform, too. 


The most fundamental thing in Eskimo religion is that all phenomena are controlled by spirits and these spirits in turn are controlled by formulæ, or charms, which are mainly in the possession of the medicine-men, although certain simple charms may be owned and used by any one. It Follows from this fundamental conception that nothing like prayer or worship is possible. Supplication will do no good, for why should you beg anything from spirits that you can command ? All spirits can be controlled, and in fact are controlled, by charms; but certain spirits are especially at the service of certain men, and these men are the shamans. They may be male or female, and in fact some of the greatest shamans known to me are women. 


As we have said, the religious thinking of the Eskimo is unclear. There seems no agreement, and in fact no settled opinion on the subject of whether there are spirits of the class susceptible of becoming familiar spirits, which are not already in the service of some shaman. The general feeling seems to be that every one of these spirits has its master. For that reason, among the Mackenzie River people, at least, when a young man wants to become a shaman he must, in one way or another, secure a spirit from someone who is already a shaman, or else secure a spirit that has been freed by the death of a shaman. 


The ordinary Mackenzie River shaman has about half a dozen familiar spirits, any of which will do his bidding. When engaged in some such thing as the finding of a hidden article, the shaman will summon these spirits, one after another, and send them out separately in search of the lost article. Evidently a man may be able to get along fairly well with five familiar spirits, though he may be in the habit of employing six, exactly as we can dispense with an extra servant. A shaman may be old and decrepit or for some other reason may be what we should call “ hard up. ” This is a propitious occasion for some ambitious young man to obtain a familiar spirit. He will go to the old shaman and some such conversation as this will take place : 


“Will you sell me one of your keyukat?” ( that being the Mackenzie River name for familiar spirit). “ Yes. I don't see why I might not. I am getting to be an old man now and shall not need their services much longer ; besides, I have had my eye on you for a long time and shall be glad to have you for my successor. I think I might let you have my Polar Bear spirit.” 


“ That would be kind of you, but don't you think you could spare your Tide Crack spirit ? ” 


“ Well, no ; that is the one that I intend to keep to the very last. It has been very faithful to me and useful, but if you don't like the Polar Bear spirit you might have my Indian spirit.” 


And so the bargaining goes on, until finally it is decided that the young man buys the Raven spirit for an umiak freshly made of five beluga skins, twenty summer-killed -deer skins, two bags of seal oil, a green stone labret, and things of that sort without end —giving a newboat, in fact, loaded with all sorts of gear.


The young man now goes home, and presently, using the appropriate formula given him by the shaman, he summons his familiar spirit, but the familiar spirit refuses to appear. The young man then goes back to the old shaman and says to him : “ How is this ? The spirit which you sold me has not come.” And the old man replies : “Well, I cannot help that ; I transferred him to you in good faith, and if you are one of those persons with whom spirits refuse to associate, that is a thing which I cannot help. I did my part in the matter. That is the consensus of opinion in the community. The shaman has transferred the spirit in good faith and has kept his part of the contract and consequently keeps the boat and everything else with which the young man has paid for the spirit. Further, when it becomes noised about that this young man is the sort of a man with whom spirits will not associate, he loses social standing, for it becomes evident not only that he will never become a great shaman, but also that he is lacking in those essential personal qualities which commend him to the spirits, and which therefore commend him to his fellow - countrymen also. 


In our hypothetical case we have supposed the young man to go back to the shaman to complain over the non-arrival of the spirit. As a matter of fact it is only once or twice in a generation that such a thing takes place. When he has once publicly paid for the spirit, the young man has everything to lose by admitting that he did not receive it. He cannot get back what he paid for it ; he cannot have the advantage of being considered a shaman ; and he will lose social standing through the publication of the fact that the spirit refuses to associate with him. As a matter of practice, therefore, the purchaser will pretend that he received the spirit, and he will announce that fact. Some time later sickness occurs in a family or a valuable article is lost. The young man is appealed to, and in order to keep up the deception which he has begun by pretending to have received the spirit, he goes into as good an imitation of a trance as he can manage, for he has from childhood up watched the shamans in their trances. If he succeeds in the cure or whatever the object of the seance may be, his reputation is made; and if he does not succeed nothing is lost, for it is as easy for an Eskimo to explain the failure of a shamanistic performance as it is for us to explain why a prayer is not answered. It may have been because some other more powerful shaman was working against him, or it may have been for any one of a thousand reasons, all of which are satisfactory and sufficient to the Eskimo mind.