Historical Events

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Shamans of the Eskimo are said to able to spirit fly and Stefansson walks us through a typical performance while explaining the deep confidence in such miracles.

February 8, 1912

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 26

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

The fact that most things have a religious or supernatural explanation implies that few things have natural ones. The miracles of the Eskimo are like ours in being of supernatural origin, but they differ from ours in being of more frequent occurrence. It would surprise most of us to see miracles happening all around us. It is not so with the Eskimo. They expect them continually, and when any one tells of having seen or heard of a miraculous thing, there is only unquestioning belief, for it is but the narration of an expected occurrence and an ordinary one. 


Apparently miracles may happen at the instigation of uncontrolled spirits, but certainly over ninety per cent of them are directly ascribed to the activities of a spirit controlled by some shaman. 


The list of the different kinds and characteristics of miracles would be too long to recite. We shall describe merely what, among Mackenzie River Eskimo at least, is the commonest of all miracles, the best understood and most universally vouched for — the spirit flight in which the actual body of the shaman flies to some distant place, sometimes to a neighboring village, often to a far country, and most frequently of all, to the sun, to the moon, or to the bottom of the sea. There is also another kind of spirit flight in which the body remains in its place and the soul alone goes abroad. These two sorts of spirit flights differ essentially in this : that while the first must be performed in darkness, the second can be managed in daylight. 


The bodily shamanistic flight takes place usually at night in winter and in the dark of the moon. The event is announced beforehand and all those who desire to be present gather in the clubhouse or the largest available private residence. As is always the case in the Mackenzie River houses, there is one window at the peak of the cottage ” -shaped roof, and directly under this, near the center of the floor, sits the shaman, usually wearing no clothes except knee breeches, although he may be fully dressed. Two or three men who are skilled in the manipulation of ropes take a long thong and tie and truss the shaman until, humanly speaking, it is impossible for him to move. Usually one feature of the tying is that a bight of the rope is passed under his knees and over the back of his neck and the rope drawn tight until his chin rests between his knees. When the tying is done, there is always left over a loose rope -end about three inches long to which is attached a stone or other heavy object, such as a hammer or an ax -blade. Before the beginning of the performance the window has been covered with a thick skin or blanket. All the people take their seats in a circle about the shaman as far away as possible from the center of the house, leaving him in an unoccupied circle of perhaps ten feet diameter. The lights are put out and the house is so dark that one can see absolutely nothing. Nevertheless every one leans forward and closes his eyes tightly. If there are any children present, an older person sits behind each child and holds his hands over the child's eyes. 


The moment after the light goes out the shaman begins to chant a magic song. Presently he says : “ I do not feel so heavy now as I usually do. Somehow it seems as if I were not sitting very heavily upon the floor. Now I am becoming as light as a feather. Now I am beginning to want to rise like a dry stick in water.” All these things he says in a low and indefinite tone of voice, speaking well in his throat so that it is difficult to judge just how far away he is, but of course thus far every one knows exactly where he is, for he remains (by his own account) in the center of the circle where he was when the lights were put out. 


The next stage of the performance is that the shaman, still speaking in the manner of a ventriloquist, says : “ Now I am beginning to rise; now I am going to fly in circles slowly just above the floor ; now I am flying fast; now I am flying faster.” Presently the people begin to hear a whizzing noise. This is the stone or ax which was attached to the loose rope-end. The shaman is now flying in circles so fast that the centrifugal force makes the hammer on the rope -end produce a whizzing noise. If any one were to open his eyes even a little to try to see what was going on, the hammer would strike him in the head, killing him instantly. Consequently, the louder the whizzing noise the more tightly is every eye squeezed shut, and the more firmly are the hands of the parents held over the eyes of their children. 


While the hammer still continues the whizzing noise the voice of the shaman is heard to say : " Now I am rising above your heads ; now I am getting near the roof; now I am about to pass out through the window. ” Then the voice grows actually fainter and fainter as the shaman rises toward the roof and flies out through the window, and finally the whizzing noise dies away in the distance. 


For half an hour or more the audience sits in absolute silence with eyes shut, and then is heard again the shaman's voice : “ Now I am coming in through the window ; now I am settling down ; now I am down on the floor ; now you may open your eyes and light the lamps.” The lamps are lighted, and, lo! there sits the shaman exactly where he was when the lights were put out three -quarters of an hour before. 


Some one now unties the shaman and he relates to an attentive audience his adventures on the spirit flight. He went to the moon and approached the house of the man in the moon. He did not dare to enter, but waited outside until the man in the moon's wife came out, saw him, and invited him in. Shortly after, the man in the moon himself came home from a caribou -hunt, bringing with him a back load of meat and a number of marrow bones. A meal was prepared of caribou meat, and after that the three of them cracked marrow -bones until the broken bones lay in a large heap on the floor. The man in the moon said that last year the caribou-hunt had not been very good in the moon, but this year it was much better ; the caribou in the moon this year were fatter than usual, which was no doubt due to the fact that the summer had been cool and there had not been very many mosquitoes. The man in the moon's wife also joined in the conversation, saying that they had already secured an abundance of skins for clothing for the coming winter, and that as for sinew with which to sew, they had enough already for two years. She inquired for the shaman's wife, whether his little boy had begun yet to kill ptarmigan, whether the people in the shaman's village care fully kept all the taboos, and who it was that had broken some, for she knew from the vapor rising from the village that something was amiss. 


The shaman had answered her questions to the best of his ability. He regretted that a certain young woman had been very careless in sewing caribou skin soon after the killing of white whales, and various other things of this sort the shaman was compelled reluctantly to tell, for he was a truthful man ånd must speak out, although he was ashamed of his fellow -countrymen and would gladly have been able to conceal the facts from the moon people. 


Time is not measured the same way in the moon as upon earth, the shaman tells, and really he had been in the moon a long time, although on earth it seemed but a short while that he was away. He had lingered, feasted, and talked, but finally his visit was at an end, and he started off, promising the man in the moon to visit him again next year. 


When the shaman's narrative is over, a general discussion takes place, in which both men and women join, and finally when the crowd gets tired and sleepy they disperse to their own homes. 


This that we have described is not one of the most wonderful miracles, but merely the commonest one and the best attested. Some miracles, such as the walking on water, are of rare occurrence, and only a few people have seen them. Raising people from the dead is also a seldom thing. But every man and woman you meet can attest the genuineness of the spirit flight, for they have all been present when it was done. Besides that, such things are a matter of common knowledge among the people. You might as well try to convince an Englishman that balloon flights have never been taken in the British Isles as an attempt to persuade an Eskimo that spirit flights have never occurred in the Mackenzie delta. 


One day when I was explaining to my Eskimo that there were mountains on the moon and going into details of the moon's physical characteristics, the account I gave did not coincide with the opinion held by my Eskimo listeners, and they asked me how I knew these things were so. I explained that we had telescopes as long as the masts of ships and that through them we could see the things on the moon's surface. “ But had any white man ever been to the moon? ” I was asked, and when I replied that no one ever had, they said that while they did not have any telescopes as long as ship's masts, yet they did have men, and truthful men, too, that had been to the moon, walked about there and seen everything, and they had come back and told them about it. With all deference to the ingenuity of white men, they thought that under the circumstances the Eskimo ought to be better informed than the white men as to the facts regarding the moon. 


It may seem to you that these that we have described are extraordinary and untenable views, and that it ought to be an easy thing to undeceive the men who hold them, but if you have ever tried to change the religious views of one of your own countrymen so as to make them coincide with yours, you will know that the knowledge that comes through faith is not an easy thing to shake, and if you want to appreciate such an attitude of mind as that of the Eskimo and cannot find an analogy among your own neighbors, I would recommend the reading of Mark Twain's A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. It is one of the remarkable things about Mark Twain that he understood the minds of the intellectually primitive as few others have done -even of those who have made a study of such things. Mark Twain's Englishmen of King Arthur's time think such thoughts as I have found the Eskimo thinking in our own generation, and justify them in the manner in which the Eskimo justify theirs. If you were to try to displace from the minds of the Eskimo such beliefs as we have described, you would find (as I have found upon occasion) that you would succeed no better than did Mark Twain's Yankee in his crusade against Merlin. But if you concern yourself not with the unteaching of old beliefs but with the teaching of new ones, you will find an easy path before you. The Eskimo already believe many mutually contradictory things, and they will continue believing them while they gladly accept and devoutly believe everything you teach them. They will ( as the Chris-tianized Arctic Eskimo are in fact doing) continue believing all they used to believe and will believe all the new things on top of that. The belief in the spirit flight is as strong at Point Barrow after more than ten years of Christianity as the belief in witchcraft was in England after more than ten centuries of Christianity.