- Historic Sites
A Far-flung People
The unique, durable culture of the Eskimo included settling arguments with song and sharimong friends
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Someone reared in the context of Western civilization will also find the spiritual beliefs of the Eskimo considerably different from the religions he is used to. Eskimo belief was among the simplest known, and it incorporated the two common denominators of all religions everywhere—spirits and magic. It completely lacked all the other ideas of religion found in advanced societies: revelation, a redeemer, a priesthood, orthodox rituals, articles of faith, and so on. Probably the Eskimo spiritual beliefs did not differ much from man’s earliest gropings toward religion, but that will never be known for sure.
The debate as to where “magic” ends and “religion” begins is an old one that seemed settled some decades ago when scholars concluded that there was no discernible boundary between them. As a result, the two were often lumped together as “magico-religious,” in much the same way that the compromise word “sociocultural” originated. Nevertheless, at least one distinction must be made between magic and religion. In magic, the practitioner believes that he can directly affect other humans and nature, either for good or for ill, by performing certain steps. Magic is therefore instrumental—and some of these instruments are witchcraft, sorcery, oracles, divination, and various kinds of curing. Although many “religious” people do use religion for instrumental ends, the primary emphasis in religion is on broad social and cosmological relationships.
Eskimo magic differed from Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedanism, and Buddhism in that it did not attempt to regulate behavior in the society as a whole or to propagate a code of conduct and belief. It was not interested in the totality of the invisible world, but was instead limited to the individual’s relationship to his food supply and to his physical environment. The Eskimo’s magic operated through an elaborate system of hundreds of taboos that constrained his every action. Knud Rasmussen once asked a wise Igulik Eskimo, “What do you believe?” “We don’t believe,” he answered. “We only fear.” This sums up the attitude of the Eskimo as well as of other peoples in simple societies. They lived in a world of anxiety, frustration, inadequacy, and vulnerability, in which the spirits controlled everything that could not be explained rationally. The modern American, of course, does not suffer the same kind of anxiety, since he has exerted technological control over many of the things that make the Eskimo fearful. In place of science, the Eskimo had only magic to bridge the gap between what he could and could not understand. Without magic, his life would have been one long panic.
The taboos had to be scrupulously observed. To violate one was a sin. However, the Eskimo feeling about sin was notable in that it lacked any holier-than-thou attitude. The group did not revel in an upwelling of indignation; there were no righteous lectures, no public stonings of miscreants. Instead, the community united in compassion and tolerance around the sinner. He was encouraged to purge his sin, and he did so by hiring a part-time religious practitioner known as a shaman, who drew forth from the sinner’s mouth the details of each taboo violation. The villagers sat in the background, chanting cries of forgiveness.
Illness in the soul of the wrongdoer was usually the result of sin—but the Eskimo also believed that illness might result from the witchcraft of a malevolent shaman. Witchcraft was not head-to-head butting or even murder by stealth, but evil worked in the privacy of one’s own igloo. Social scientists used to think that witchcraft was correlated with the food supply: the more precarious a group’s food supply, the more prevalent the fear of sorcery. But this is not true. Compared with the Eskimo, the Navaho of Arizona and New Mexico lived in luxury, yet they were even more haunted by witchcraft. When an Eskimo fell sick and attributed his sickness to witchcraft by a hostile shaman, he felt that he had probably done something to the shaman that could not be settled publicly by a song duel or even by murder. In such a case, the ill person had to fight poison with poison, so he hired a friendly shaman to locate the secret attacker and nullify his power.
Eskimo belief provides an explanation of what witchcraft is really all about: it is aggression for which a society has not provided channels. In fact, an examination of witchcraft in primitive societies around the world shows that it appears when people attempt to handle their vital problems in the absence of legitimate social controls. What is surprising about witchcraft in Eskimo society is not that it existed, but that it was not much more prevalent. This was due to the various social constraints mentioned earlier: public ridicule, prestige, the use of kinsmen in settling quarrels, a public executioner, and so forth. Although these are not our familiar social controls of law, courts, and the police, they served somewhat the same function.
The only division of labor in many Eskimo bands was by age or by sex—except for the role of shaman. The word shaman comes from the Tungus language of Siberia, but the shaman was important among all the Eskimo bands and among many American Indian groups, particularly in the West (where he was usually called a “medicine man” by whites). Wherever he existed, the shaman moved with ease in the supernatural realm. He was in the business of going to the invisible world and contending with the spirits on their own ground. An Eskimo believed that spirits must be coerced; a widespread myth told how the sea spirit Sedna had to be harpooned to force her to release sea mammals for the hunt.