Among The Eskimos

The success which has attended the labours of the Lutheran and Moravian Missionaries among the Eskimos has been well deserved by their self-denying devotedness. Few of the Arctic tribes are now outside the pale of Christianity; and all have been more or less directly influenced by its elements of purification and elevation.

But prior to the coming of the pioneers of the Cross, the moral code of the Eskimo was curiously imperfect, and did not recognise murder, infanticide, incest, and the burial of the living among its crimes. Woe to the unfortunate vessel which touched upon the coast! The Eskimos were not less treacherous than the Polynesians of the Eastern Seas. And Krantz relates the story of a Dutch brig that was seized by the natives at the port of Disco in 1740. The whole crew were murdered. Two years later a similar fate befell the crew of another vessel that had accidentally stranded.

The religion or creed of the aborigines seems to have been very vague and imperfect. It is certain, however, that they believed in the immortality of the spirit, and in a heaven and a hell. It was natural enough that their conception of the latter should be affected by the conditions under which they lived; that their experience of the miseries of an Arctic climate should lead them to think of hell as a region of darkness and of ice, traversed by endless snow-storms, and without any seals.

They placed implicit confidence in their angekoks, or angekos, or “medicine-men,” ascribing to them almost unlimited powers over the things of earth and sea, this world and the next. When setting out for the chase, or prostrated by illness, they always sought the assistance of the angekoks, who, on such occasions, indulged in a variety of strange ceremonies. The nature of these may be inferred from what was witnessed by Captain Lyon, who, during his famous Arctic voyage, bribed an angekok, named Toolemak, to summon a Tomga, or familiar demon, in the cabin of his ship.

All light having been carefully excluded from the scene of operations, the sorcerer began by vehemently chanting to his wife, who, in her turn, responded with the Amna-aya, the favourite song of the Eskimo. This lasted throughout the ceremony. Afterwards, Toolemak began to turn himself round very rapidly, vociferating for Tomga, in a loud powerful voice and with great impatience, at the same time blowing and snorting like a walrus. His noise, agitation, and impatience increased every moment, and at length he seated himself on the deck, varying his tones, and making a rustling with his clothes.

Suddenly the voice seemed smothered, and was so managed as to give the idea that it was retreating beneath the deck, each moment becoming more distant, and ultimately sounding as if it were many feet below the cabin, when it ceased entirely. In answer to Captain Lyon’s queries, the sorcerer’s wife seriously declared that he had dived and would send up Tomga.

And, in about half a minute, a distant blowing was heard approaching very slowly, and a voice differing from that which had first been audible was mixed with the blowing, until eventually both sounds became distinct, and the old beldame said that Tomga had come to answer the stranger’s questions. Captain Lyon thereupon put several queries to the sagacious spirit, receiving what was understood to be an affirmative or a favourable answer by two loud slaps on the deck.

A very hollow yet powerful voice, certainly differing greatly from that of Toolemak, then chanted for some time; and a singular medley of hisses, groans, shouts, and gobblings like a turkey’s, followed in swift succession. The old woman sang with increased energy, and as Captain Lyon conjectured that the exhibition was intended to astonish “the Kabloona,” he said repeatedly that he was greatly terrified. As he expected, this admission added fuel to the flame, until the form immortal, exhausted by its own might, asked leave to retire. The voice gradually died away out of hearing, as at first, and a very indistinct hissing succeeded. In its advance it sounded like the tone produced by the wind upon the bass cord of an Æolian harp; this was soon changed to a rapid hiss, like that of a rocket, and Toolemak, with a yell, announced the spirit’s return. At the first distant sibilation Captain Lyon held his breath, and twice exhausted himself; but the Eskimo conjuror did not once respire, and even his returning and powerful yell was uttered without previous pause or inspiration of air.

When light was admitted, the wizard, as might be expected, was in a state of profuse perspiration, and greatly exhausted by his exertions, which had continued for at least half an hour. Captain Lyon then observed a couple of bunches, each consisting of two strips of white deerskin and a long piece of sinew, attached to the back of his coat. These he had not seen before, and he was gravely told that they had been sewn on by Tomga while he was below.

During his absence, the angekok professes to visit the dwelling-place of the particular spirit he has invoked, and he will sometimes astonish his audience with a description of the nether-world and its inhabitants. For instance, there is a female spirit called Aywilliayoo, who commands, by means of her right hand, all the bears, whales, seals, and walruses. Therefore, when a lack of provisions is experienced, the angekok pays a visit to Aywilliayoo, and attacks her hand. If he can cut off her nails, the bears are immediately released; the loss of one finger-joint liberates the small seals; the second joint dismisses the larger seals; the knuckles place at liberty the whole herds of walruses, while the entire hand liberates the whale.

Aywilliayoo is tall, with only one eye and one pigtail, but as this pigtail is as large as a man’s leg, and descends to her knee, she may well be contented with it. She owns a splendid house, which, however, Toolemak refrained from entering, because it was guarded by a huge dog, with black hindquarters and no tail. Her father, in size, might be mistaken for a boy of ten years old; he has but one arm, which is always encased in a large bear-skin mitten.

Dr. Kane considers it a fact of psychological interest, as it shows that civilised or savage wonder-workers form a single family, that the angekoks have a firm belief in their own powers. “I have known,” he says, “several of them personally, and can speak with confidence on this point. I could not detect them in any resort to jugglery or natural magic: their deceptions are simply vocal, a change of voice, and perhaps a limited profession of ventriloquism, made more imposing by the darkness.” They have, however, like the members of the learned professions everywhere else, a certain language or jargon of their own, in which they communicate with each other.

While the angekoks are the dispensers of good, the issintok, or evil men, are the workers of injurious spells, enchantments, and metamorphoses. Like the witches of both Englands, the Old and the New, these malignant creatures are rarely submitted to trial until they have suffered punishment—the old “Jeddart justice”—castigat auditque. Two of them, in 1818, suffered the penalty of their crime on the same day, one at Kannonak, the other at Upernavik. The latter was laudably killed in accordance with the “old custom” … custom being everywhere the apology for any act revolting to moral sense. He was first harpooned, then disembowelled; a flap letdown from his forehead “to cover his eyes and prevent his seeing again”—he had, it appears, the repute of an evil eye; and then small portions of his heart were eaten, to ensure that he should not come back to earth unchanged.

When an Eskimo has injured any one of his countrymen,—has cut his seal-lines, or lamed his dogs, or burned his bladder-float—or perpetrated some equally grievous offence—the angekok summons him to meet the countryside before the tribunal of the hunapok. The friends of the parties, and the idlers for miles around, assemble about the justice-seat; it may be at some little cluster of huts, or, if the weather permit, in the open air. The accuser rises, and strikes a few discords with a seal-rib on a tom-tom or drum. “He then passes to the charge, and pours out in long paragraphic words all the abuse and ridicule to which his outrageous vernacular can give expression. The accused meanwhile is silent; but, as the orator pauses after a signal hit, or to flourish a cadence on his musical instrument, the whole audience, friends, neutrals, and opponents signalise their approval by outcries as harmonious as those we sometimes hear in our town meetings at home. Stimulated by the applause, and warming with his own fires, the accuser renews the attack, his eloquence becoming more and more licentious and vituperative, until it has exhausted either his strength or his vocabulary of invective. Now comes the accused, with defence, and counter-charge, and retorted abuse; the assembly still listening and applauding through a lengthened session. The Homeric debate at a close, the angekoks hold a powwow, and a penalty is denounced against the accused for his guilt, or the accuser for his unsustained prosecution.”


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