Eskimo Shamanism 1910

2 eskimo

The following is an account by Peter Freuchen from among the Greenland Eskimos, circa 1910-15. Freuchen spent 15 years in Greenland in exploration, running a trading post, being the first to traverse the full width of Greenland’s ice cap, and in exploring Northern Canada and islands. Before the following account there had been several deaths in the community of Thule, and the shaman (angakok) Sorqaq decided to attempt to commune with the spirits to find the reason for all the deaths.

The old man, Sorqaq, who was also hunting in the district, announced that he would attempt a journey to the nether world to ascertain the reason for the tragedies. Sorqaq was believed to have put an end to the last epidemic before it had destroyed the whole tribe. He had met the devil and conquered him – perhaps he could do it again.

At any rate, his preparations for the descent proved his honesty. He fasted until his interior was completely cleaned out, examining his excrement until he was satisfied with his state. After three days he announced himself ready for the journey, and the time of departure was set for the following night. The old man meanwhile climbed high into the mountains seeking solitude to formulate his speech to the spirits and to train himself to swim through the rocks – which he would most certainly have to penetrate in order to meet the devil.

A huge igloo was constructed by adding many blocks of snow to the largest house in the settlement. Several men worked at it, and the snowblocks were cut by the elders who realized the seriousness of the undertaking. After it was finished the inside was draped with a tapestry of old tent skins. Sorqaq inspected the stage which was to witness his marvels, said nothing, and departed for further meditation.

Presently the natives were requested to gather and were led to their places by Krilerneq, Sorqaq’s assistant. Krilerneq himself was an old man, but with the aid of a cane he was as strong and spry as anyone. His eyes burned with his fervor, his gestures were quick, his walk nervous.

Like a stage star making an appearance in an ancient vehicle, Sorqaq was the last man to enter the house, and he was announced three times before he finally arrived. He greeted us all by saying that we were a pack of fools to have come: what he proposed to do was nothing, and furthermore he could not even do it.

We all accepted this as the modesty it undoubtedly was; then he walked up to me and asked me to leave:

“This is nothing for a man like you to look at. I am only a big liar, and even if these idiots are stupid enough to believe in me, I never expected you to stand for it. I am only a foolish old man, and what happens here has nothing to do with the truth.”

“Even so, I should like to listen to your wisdom.”

“Well, well,” he replied, “if a man is born white he may still be born stupid.”

I assured him of the truth of that statement, but he shook his head sadly and went over to the ledge.

“Oh, only a little lie is on my tongue,” he murmured. “A funny little lie that I may give sound to and try to fool you with!”

He peeled off his clothes, which were taken by Krilerneq, and sat stark naked. Krilerneq then took up several sealskin lines and bound him tight, tying his arms beside his body and binding his legs together, the thongs cutting deep into his muscles. The old man held himself rigid during this process. Occasionally a deep sigh escaped him.

When there were no more lines at hand, Krilerneq placed his drum and a large section of dried sealskin beside him on the ledge. The lights were extinguished, and the only illumination came from one tiny flame. We could barely make out each other’s faces; we could see nothing distinctly.

Then Krilerneq took his place among us to make sure that no one approached the angakok, for it would mean death.

After a few minutes of utter silence we heard Sorqaq’s voice in song. It was weak and quavery, but slowly grew stronger and seemed to emanate from different parts of the igloo. After a moment we heard the voice of the drum, as if beaten by a padded stick, and slowly its sound, too, grew in volume, until the house was filled with the song, the crashing of the drum and the rattling of the dry skin, now over our heads, now beneath our feet.

The noise was almost unbearable and I took hold of Krilerneq’s arm, pretending fright. Actually I wanted to ascertain whether or not he was contributing to the noise. Obviously he was not.

How long the din lasted I am unable to tell. I remember that when it finally calmed I felt as if I had been dreaming. By now all of us had joined in Sorqaq’s song, but slowly it seemed that the voice of the angakok was fading away. At last I definitely felt that it reached us through the walls of the igloo, perhaps from above or below. And then suddenly we could hear him no more.

None of us realized what had happened or when it had happened, but when Krilerneq turned up the flame so that it was possible to see a little clearer – there was no Sorqaq on the ledge.

The drum was there and the skin was there, but that was all. I was intoxicated by the heat and the odor of bodies and the song, and perhaps I did not examine the igloo carefully enough. But I did look at the tapestry to see if he could be hidden behind it, and he was not.

All of us sat there singing as we had before. Ecstasy was upon the face of every man and woman. Their cheeks were swollen, their eyes bright and shining. Their mouths hung open, and their bodies were naked from the waist up in order to endure the heat. They swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the song, and their heads marked the double beats. No one seemed to see anything, but merely to use his eyes as beacon lights. In the middle of the floor was Krilerneq writhing and twisting like a dancer.

Beside me sat a young girl, Ivaloo. Her naked body was pressed against mine, and her strong young scent swept over me. I tried to speak to her, but she did not hear. Instead, her eyes followed Krilerneq directly in front of us. Her long hair sprayed loose from the knot on her head, and swung from side to side as she sang. The rhythmic swish of her hair made me as senseless as the rest of them.

Ivaloo was married to a clever young hunter, and while he was away she played the whole day long with her friends. Now she was no longer a child, but a grown woman endowed with the
witchcraft of her tribe. Her face was a mask, and occasionally her voice rose above the song in a wild screech, her eyes always upon the swaying Krilerneq whose madness drove the audience into the hysteria of cattle before a pack of wolves.

When I looked into the faces of these people I could scarcely recognize them as the calm, quiet friends who came down to Thule to trade with us. Whence has come this leaning toward mysticism? No one knows the origin of the Eskimo, but it is not difficult to trace them to a moderate climate; many of their traditions derive from the worship of trees, snakes and frogs. Perhaps they were Asiatics originally and have drawn from the Far East their reliance upon the supernatural. Here I saw them caught up by a spirit which they could not possibly understand, the prey to emotions and passions which in everyday life would puzzle them.

Suddenly one of the men, Krisuk, went out of his head. Unable to contain himself to the regular rhythm of the service he leapt to his feet, crying like a raven and howling like a wolf. He ran amuck, and the audience had to defend itself against his attacks. He rushed at me, I pushed him away and he fell over Ivaloo. With a quick move of his hands he tore her boots and pants completely off, but she, almost as wild as the man, screamed not in fear but in ecstasy. They began to yell in a tongue I could not understand – certainly it was not the usual Eskimo language. Angakoks are not permitted to employ the commonplace terms for things and people, for it would bring disaster upon the objects mentioned. But everyone seemed to understand what was said – and if there is such a thing as speaking in tongues I heard it then.

No longer able to bear the confinement, Krisuk dove straight through the wall of the igloo, leaving a hole for air which was much needed. We could hear his shrill voice far out on the ice. Someone shut the door, and soon everyone in the room was stripped.

The song continued and I fell completely under the power of the spirit. No longer was I able to observe dispassionately what occurred. Ivaloo lay naked across me, and I could feel someone else chewing my hair, clawing my face. The noise, the odor of bodies and the mystery of the moment caught me completely unprepared.

Then suddenly all was changed. Krilerneq, who had been the leader of the madness, announced that Sorqaq was trying to return.

He beseeched us all to take our original positions and told us to sit up and sing. No thoughts should concern us but those of the angakok who was at this moment fighting his way up through the granite beneath the igloo. We were as yet unable to hear him, but Krilerneq, who had himself made the pilgrimage a number of times, said that he could feel his imminent arrival, and complained over the suffering he was undergoing. Krilerneq, being the assistant, shared the travail of his friend who had to swim through the rocks as if they were water.

During this interval Krisuk returned – a quite different and chastened Krisuk. He was naked and shivering, and his ecstasy of a few minutes ago dissipated. Looking for the warmest spot in the igloo, he dived between two fat, perspiring women, causing them to squeal when his body touched their hot bellies. Ivaloo, crawling over me, complained because the intruder had returned, and called him all the names she could think of, but was interrupted by Krilerneq who suddenly declaimed in a sonorous and terrible voice:

“Quiet! Quiet! The shadow is ripened. The shadow is ripened.”

Angakoks are not permitted to pronounce the word “man” – in their mouths the term must be “shadow.” They must also say “ripen” instead of “come” or “arrive.”

We all listened, and as from afar off we could hear Sorqaq’s voice. Krilerneq extinguished the light completely, since no one must look upon the angakok “muscle naked” – he has been forced to leave his skin when descending into the ground – lest he die.

And now there was pandemonium. None of us knew which was up and which was down. I remember it all as a black fog which engulfed me.

Krilerneq told us that Sorqaq was coming closer and closer, and we, too, could hear the angakok’s voice. Krilerneq explained to us that Sorqaq was having difficulty in finding the house as someone had left it in his absence and returned.

But magically we knew at last that he had returned – from the sky or from the depths his “shadow” had “ripened.” The igloo reverberated with the noise of his drum and the rattle of the crackling sealskin sometimes over our heads, sometimes under our feet. I raised my hand to try to grasp the skin and received such a blow on my arm that the bone was almost shattered. Hell itself had suddenly come to earth.

And then it all stopped. Krilerneq murmured a lorg rigmarole, and the igloo was quiet save for the crying of the children. They may have been crying the whole time, but no one had known it. Krilerneq’s droning voice prayed to the supposedly present angakok to learn what secrets he had learned concerning the cause of the accidents.

Sorqaq’s voice answered: “Three deaths are still to come. The Great Nature is embarrassed by the white men who have come to live with us, and refuses to betray the real reason for its anger. But no great disaster will come to us if the women of the tribe refrain from eating meat of the female walrus until the sun sets again in the fall.”

The angakok had done his duty and the performance was over. I have no idea how long it had lasted. Someone brought fire from the next igloo and lighted the lamps.

There was Sorqaq sitting on the ledge still wrapped in his many strands of sealskin. I did not have the opportunity of examining him to see whether he had been free and bound again. He was extremely weak, covered with sweat, and spittle ran down his chest. Krilerneq warned me not to touch Sorqaq as the fire from the earth was still in him, and would be until he moved again.

He sat quiet until Krilerneq removed the lines, then fell back and lay in a coma. At last he opened his eyes. His voice was weak and his mouth dry. He tried to smile as he saw me.

“Just lies and bunk, the whole thing!” he said. “Do not believe in anything. I am no angakok. I speak nothing but lies. The wisdom of the forefathers is not in me!”

He fell back again, and we all assured each other that we had indeed witnessed an amazing thing and been in the presence of truth itself.

Next day I tried to talk with the natives about yesterday’s performance, but they were mute. Ivaloo and my hostess, Inuaho, said it made them realize I was a white man – an Eskimo would not want to discuss things which were never mentioned, only done.

– from “Artic Adventure, My Life in the Frozen North,” by Peter Freuchen, Farrar & Rinehart, New York, 1935, pp. 132-37


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