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February 7, 1912

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Stefansson describes the deeply fascinating religious theories of the Eskimo as it concerns their souls. Essentially, when people die, babies born nearby acquire the souls, habits, names, familiar relations and personalities of the dead.





My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 26

Vilhjalmur Stefansson


Important Text:

In general, among the Mackenzie Eskimo there are two main theories of disease : either a man's soul has been stolen, in which case the symptoms are chills, shivering, and a general lassitude; or a spirit may have been sent by an ill-disposed shaman into another person to make him sick. In this latter case the symptoms will be anything at all and the treatment is exorcism, to drive out the evil spirit that has taken possession - or not really an evil spirit, for according to Eskimo ideas the spirits are neither good nor evil in themselves, but merely perform the good or evil bidding of those who send them.

There are various methods of exorcism, usually including chanting, drum -beating, conjuring tricks, ventriloquism, and the like, on the part of the shaman, and the observance of taboos on the part of the sick man and his relatives, and occasionally on the part of an entirely unrelated person arbitrarily designated by the shaman. A child will be eventually cured if its mother refrains from changing her socks as long as the illness lasts, or the disease will be aggravated if the sick man's brother should eat any portion of the left side of caribou.

The procedure in the case of a soul being stolen is a simpler one. The problem is merely to find the soul and restore it to the sick person, and all the shaman has to do is to summon his familiar spirits and send them out over all the earth in search of the place where the soul has been forcibly confined. Eventually one of the spirits will find the soul, unless indeed it has been craftily placed in some cavity or hole the mouth of which has been greased with seal or whale oil, for in that case neither will the soul be able to pass out of such a confinement nor will the spirit which is searching for the soul be able to enter in order to find it. When a shaman steals a man's soul and wants to be sure that no other shaman shall be able to recover it for him, the favorite hiding- place is one of the foramina of the lower maxillary bone of the bow-head whale.

Most travellers who have visited the Arctic lands have commented upon the fact that Eskimo children are never punished, or, in fact, forbidden anything. The explanations offered have been various, and usually such offhand ones as the “ common sense” of the observer has suggested to him. In dealing with primitive people, however, common sense ” is an exceedingly dangerous thing. It is a frail reed indeed to rely upon, for scarcely anything that the primitive man does is done without a religious motive, and we in these later days are so prone to neglect the religious aspect of things that the chances are necessarily small of the right reason being divined. We count it as one of the chief triumphs of the four-year expedition of the American Museum of Natural History to the Eskimo that we discovered why it is that children are not punished —for such immaterial things is the money of scientific institutions expended!

One family of Eskimo were the servants of the expedition for its whole four years and I had known them also on a previous expedition. This family consists of the man Ilavinirk, his wife Mamayak, and their daughter Noashak. When I first knew Noashak I formed the opinion that she was the worst child I had ever known and I retained that opinion for over six years, or until she was a young woman of perhaps twelve years. (Some Eskimo girls are fully developed at the age of twelve or thirteen.) In spite of her badness Noashak was never punished.

The two stock explanations of why Eskimo do not punish their children are : first, that the children themselves are so good that they do not need being punished (but that scarcely applied to Noashak's case ); or that the Eskimo are so fond of their children that they cannot bear to punish them, which is not true, either, for they show in many ways that they are no fonder of their children than we are.

During the entire time that Noashak's family was with us she was the undisputed ruler of our establishment. My plan of work was such that I could not get along without the help of Eskimo, and I had continually before me the choice of doing as Noashak wanted or thirteen). else losing the services of her parents. They were both excellent people of whom I was personally very fond, and they were more useful to me than anyone else whom I could hope to secure in their places; besides, most Eskimo families have children, and to dispose of the family of which Noashak was head would only have compelled me to engage some other family of which some other child was master. True, I was allowed to decide upon the broad policy of the expedition, but any little details were liable to change without notice at Noashak's option.

It was during the absence of the sun in December, 1909, that this family and I were travelling up Horton River. We had been several days without anything to eat except sea -oil; our dogs were tired and weak from hunger and had ceased pulling. Ilavinirk and I were harnessed to the sled on either side, breaking our backs to pull it forward, and Mamayak was walking ahead breaking trail for the sled. Noashak, then a fat and sturdy girl of eight, was on top of the load, which was heavy enough in all conscience without her. Whenever we stopped to rest she would immediately jump off the sled, run up some cut-bank and slide down it, run up again and slide down again, and so on as long as we stayed. The moment we started she would jump on the load and ride.

One day when her father and I were more tired than usual and getting weaker from long fasting, I asked Ilavinirk whether he did not think it would be a good idea if Noashak got off and walked a little (we had, by the way, saved food for Noashak so that she had something to eat when the rest of us did not). He put the matter to her, telling her that it was his opinion that walking would really do her good; he told her how tired he and I were getting, and wanted to know if his dear daughter was not willing to walk now and then so as to enable us to travel a little farther each day and to reach our destination, where plenty of food waited for us, that much sooner. But she said she did not feel like walking, and that ended the discussion.

Later on when we stopped to rest again and Noashak started her old tactics of running uphill and sliding down, I again suggested to her father that she might rest while we rested and then she would no doubt feel like walking when we started travelling again. He put the case to her as before. Evidently his sympathies were on my side and he was as anxious to have her walk as I was, but her curt decision that she would rather slide downhill than walk beside the sled settled the matter.

I am unable to remember now whether I had any theory by which I explained to myself why it was that Noashak was never forbidden anything and never punished, but I know now that if I had a theory it must have been a wrong one. As a matter of fact, I do not think I had one. I am afraid I took Noashak for granted, as a sort of necessary evil, like mosquitoes. It was only in February or March, 1912, that I got the key to the situation, and I found it then to involve also that most interesting question of how it is that Eskimos get their names.

I had noticed ever since I knew them that Mamayak in speaking to Noashak always addressed her as “ mother.” When one stops to think of it, it was of course a bit curious that a woman of twenty - five should address a girl of eight as “ mother.” I suppose, if I thought about the matter at all, I must have put this practice of theirs in the same category with that which we find among our own people, where we often hear a man addressing his wife as “ mother. ”

One day another Eskimo family came to visit us, and strangely enough, the woman of the family also spoke to Noashak and called her “ mother. ” Then my curiosity was finally aroused, and I asked : “Why do you two grown women call this child your mother? ” Their answer was : “Simply because she is our mother, ” an answer which was for the moment more incomprehensible to me than the original problem. I saw, however, that I was on the track of some thing interesting, and both women were in a communicative mood, so it was not long until my questions brought out the facts, which (pieced together with what I already knew ) make the following coherent explanation, which shows not only why these women called v Noashak “ mother," but shows also why it was that she must never under any circumstances be forbidden anything or punished.

When a Mackenzie Eskimo dies, the body is taken out the same day as the death occurs to the top of some neighboring hill and covered with a pile of drift -logs, but the soul (nappan ) remains in the house where the death occurred for four days if it is a man, and for five days if it is a woman. At the end of that time a ceremony is performed by means of which the spirit is induced to leave the house and to go up to the grave, where it remains with the body waiting for the next child in the community to be born.

When a child is born, it comes into the world with a soul of its own (nappan ), but this soul is as inexperienced, foolish, and feeble as a child is and looks. It is evident, therefore, that the child needs a more experienced and wiser soul than its own to do the thinking for it and take care of it. Accordingly the mother, so soon as she can after the birth of the child, pronounces a magic formula to summon from the grave the waiting soul of the dead to become the guardian soul of the new -born child, or its atka, as they express it.

Let us suppose that the dead person was an old wise man by the name of John. The mother then pronounces the formula which may be roughly translated as follows : " Soul of John, come here, come here, be my child's guardian ! Soul of John, come here, come here, be my child's guardian !” (Most magic formulæ among the Eskimo must be repeated twice. )

When the soul of John, waiting at the grave, hears the summons of the mother, it comes and enters the child. From that time on it becomes the business of this acquired soul not only to do the thinking for the child, but to help in every way to keep it strong and healthy : to assist it in learning to walk, to keep it from becoming bow-legged, to assist it in teething, and in every way to look after its welfare, things which the child's own soul with which it was born could not possibly do for the child, on account of its weakness and inexperience.

The spirit of John not only teaches the child to talk, but after the child learns to talk it is really the soul of John which talks to you and not the inborn soul of the child. The child, therefore, speaks with all the acquired wisdom which John accumulated in the long lifetime, plus the higher wisdom which only comes after death. Evidently, therefore, the child is the wisest person in the family or in the community, and its opinions should be listened to accordingly. What it says and does may seem foolish to you, but that is mere seeming and in reality the child is wise beyond your comprehension.

The fact that the child possesses all the wisdom of the dead John is never forgotten by its parents. If it cries for a knife or a pair of scissors, it is not a foolish child that wants the knife, but the soul of the wise old man John that wants it, and it would be presumptuous of a young mother to suppose she knows better than John what is good for the child, and so she gives it the knife. If she refused the knife (and this is the main point), she would not only be preferring her own foolishness to the wisdom of John, but also she would thereby give offense to the spirit of John, and in his anger John would abandon the child. Upon the withdrawal of his protection the child would become the prey to disease and would probably die, and if it did not die, it would become stupid or hump-backed or otherwise deformed or unfortunate. John must, therefore, be propitiated at every cost, and to deliberately offend him would be in fact equivalent to desiring the child's misfortune or death and would be so construed by the community; so that a man is restrained from forbidding his child or punishing it, not only by his own interest in the child's welfare, but also by the fear of public opinion, because if he began to forbid his child or to punish it, he would at once become known to the community as a cruel and inhuman father, careless of the welfare of his child.

We can see here how much there is in the point of view. On the basis of this explanation it is easy to understand how a man, tired and hungry and at the limit of his strength, would still haul his daughter on top of the sled load rather than compel her to get off and walk, for to compel her to do so would have been equivalent to desiring to bring upon her serious misfortune, if not death, through giving offense to her guardian angel.

Among the Mackenzie River Eskimo, if you see a man who is bow -legged, or hump-backed, or whose ears are big, and if you ask any one why he is bow-legged or hump-backed, the answer will usually be : " It is because his parents forbade him things when he was young and offended his guardian spirit.'

As the child grows up the soul with which he was born (the nappan) gradually develops in strength, experience, and wisdom, so that after the age of ten or twelve years it is fairly competent to look after the child and begins to do so; at that age it therefore becomes of less vital moment to please the guardian spirit (atka), and accordingly it is customary to begin forbidding children and punishing them when they come to the age of eleven or twelve years. People say about them then: “I think the nappan is competent now to take care of him and it will be safe to begin teaching him things.”

In the case of Noashak the transition period arrived in February, 1912. For four or five months before that it had been known to her parents and to all of us that she was beginning to chew tobacco. She used to steal it wherever she could find it. Her parents and I moralized with her on the subject; we told her that the white people were now increasing in number in the community, that white men did not approve of girls chewing tobacco, and that she would be looked down upon for doing it. But she said she did not care what white men thought of her. The matter gave her parents a good deal of concern; they tried in every way to hide the tobacco so that she could not find it; but she was ingenious, and considered it a personal triumph whenever she was able to assist any one toward the apparently accidental discovery of tobacco stains on her lips, for that was an evidence that she had outwitted her parents again.

One day her parents discussed the matter with me, saying that I understood their point of view and that they therefore wanted my advice. I refrained from interfering much, however. They eventually decided that Noashak's nappan was now approximately fully developed (Noashak was as big as her mother already) and so they thought they would try punishing her. The next time that she was caught chewing tobacco her father gave her another lengthy talk, urging her to stop the practice, but she only laughed at him, upon which he slapped her. To be struck was an undreamt-of thing in her philosophy. At first she was speechless with astonishment and then she started crying with rage and kept on crying all day, at the end of which she seemed to have thought the matter over carefully and to have realized that she was no longer ruler of the family. She accordingly stopped chewing.

The natural consequence of the fact that it is the spirit of John that does the thinking and talking for the child is that the child is addressed as a relative by all the relatives of John ( for it is indeed to John that they are talking). If John was my father and your uncle, then I speak to the child as father and you speak to it as uncle, irrespective of the child's age or sex. There was, for instance, a couple I knew who had for a child a boy of seven years, whose father called him stepmother and whose mother called him aunt, for those were their respective relationships to the woman whose soul was the boy's guardian, or atka.

As Eskimo communities are small and the people are necessarily usually related in one way or another, it is common to find a child addressed as a relative by every person in the village. It is one of the child's earliest tasks to learn to recognize all these people and to address them by the proper terms of relationship, dealing with them in this matter entirely with reference to their relation to his guardian spirit.

Still, as in other matters, the thinking of the Eskimo is unclear here, and there is no absolute mutual exclusion of the two relationships —the child's relationship as we see it, on the one hand, and the relationship to the guardian spirit on the other, so that in speaking to you a man will say, “ This is my daughter, " although in speaking to her he may call her “ nephew. ” He may also call her “ daughter” and “ nephew ” alternately. A boy may therefore find himself in the position of being at once his father's son and his father's mother, which relationship he will of course find perfectly natural, being the one he has been brought up to recognize.

The fact that children address all the other people of a village by terms of relationship has often been noted and has usually been explained in a common - sense way by saying that Eskimo children are taught to be respectful to their elders and that as a sign of this respect they are instructed to address them by terms of relationship. This explanation is an eminently reasonable one to our minds, but does not happen to be true to the facts.

A person may continue through his entire lifetime to address certain individuals by the terms of relationship required by their position with regard to his guardian spirit, but as a usual thing the older a man gets the more this wears off and the more the real blood relationship begins to come forward.

It appears from the foregoing that every man has two souls, the one with which he was born and the one he acquired immediately after birth. He may, in fact, have more souls than that. If three people, or thirteen, have just died before the child was born, then he gets three guardian spirits, or thirteen, according to the circumstances. But when he dies it is none of these acquired souls, but the soul that he was born with, which in its turn remains for four or five days in the house after death, which is then ceremonially driven out to the grave, and which waits there until it is summoned to become the second soul of a new-born child. No one knows what becomes of the guardian soul after the death of the persons whose guardians they have been. I have repeatedly asked about it, but no one seems to have ever heard the matter discussed and no one seemed to think the question was of great importance.

This answers, then, the commonly asked questions : " What is the Eskimo's idea of a future life? ” “ What has he that corresponds to heaven and hell? ” He has nothing which corresponds to either heaven or hell. For four or five days after death the spirit remains in the house where the death occurred; from then on it remains by the grave until it is summoned to enter a new -born child; and from that time on until the death of the child the soul remains with it, unless it has been compelled to abandon it earlier, as would happen if the child were habitually punished. It is not known to the Mac kenzie Eskimo what would happen to a soul in case it abandoned the person it was guarding. (As the guardian spirit is the atka of the child, so the child is the saunirk of the guardian spirit. )

It happens sometimes that between the occurrence of one death and the occurrence of the next several children are born. Each of them can and does receive the soul of the dead man as his guardian. This is another case of the Eskimo's unclearness of thinking, for they seem to look upon each child as being the abode of the soul of the dead. How a single soul of a single man can, after his death, become three souls or thirteen, inhabiting simultaneously three children or thirteen children, is a metaphysical question in Eskimo theology. They cannot explain the fact, but they know it is so, which, after all, allies their metaphysics to those of other and more highly developed races.

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Pre-civilization races
The Inuit lived for as long as 10,000 years in the far north of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland and likely come from Mongolian Bering-Strait travelers. They ate an all-meat diet of seal, whale, caribou, musk ox, fish, birds, and eggs. Their nutritional transition to civilized plant foods spelled their health demise.
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