- 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
There is a vast difference between a shaman and a priest. A priest is a legally constituted specialist; he belongs to a special group set apart from the rest of the social organization. An Eskimo shaman, on the other hand, dressed no differently from anyone else, and he lived like the rest of the community. He hunted, or he joined a whaling crew; he could marry and sire children. He had no special privileges or insignia, except the tambourine, a skin drum open on one side, that all Eskimo shamans used while singing.
There were, however, ways to recognize him. Search out the least skilled hunter in the group, one who was also physically or mentally handicapped and who made nervous movements with his hands or feet. This was undoubtedly the man. The shaman actually was different from everybody else, and the Eskimo was smart enough to recognize this and put it to work in his society. Some Eskimo maintained that they could identify a future shaman, even while he was still a child, by certain signs. He was meditative and introverted; he might have been subject to fits or fainting spells; he was disturbed by dreams and he suffered from hallucinations and hysteria. The shaman was a psychological type known as the neurotic, borderline schizoid—which was perfectly all right with the Eskimo, who believed the shaman needed extraordinary abilities in his traffic with the supernatural. The shaman came to the fore because Eskimo culture encouraged his hallucinations, created such situations as the curing ceremonies in which he could flourish, and even rewarded him when his symptoms appeared.
Some anthropologists have stated that the shaman filled an important function by draining off the potential “arctic hysteria” of the group. But it was not so simple as that, and the shaman may have actually represented the element of hostility in Eskimo culture. The person who became a shaman was almost always more misanthropic, more covertly aggressive, and less physically skilled than the ordinary man. The things the shaman himself hated—the successful hunter, the virile man with many women, the boatowner with his prestige—were things the rest of the group envied also. Unlike the ordinary Eskimo, the shaman could do something about his malevolence: he could call down sickness upon the envied one. If a skilled hunter suddenly was unable to find game, he might attribute his misfortune not to chance but to the malefic influence of some shaman or other. He then employed his local shaman to perform an emotional ceremony that removed the evil influence. The hunter emerged from the experience a more humble man; he was careful to stop boasting of his hunting skill, to leave game for others, to share more. The shaman and the rest of the Eskimo group had the satisfaction of seeing the mighty brought low.
Were the shamans frauds? Shamans used many tricks to heighten the effects of their performances: ventriloquism, hypnosis, legerdemain, and general stage magic. Houdini-like escapes were a specialty. A shaman often impressed his audience by vomiting blood; he did this by previously swallowing a bladder filled with animal blood, then breaking it with his stomach muscles at the appropriate moment. Although the shaman was perfectly aware that he was at times merely performing tricks, he nevertheless was firmly convinced of his power to deal with spirits. When he fell into a trance, it was a real trance; when he had a fit, it was a real fit. He regarded his ultimate purpose as an honest one, and if he could intensify the supernatural experience by slightly hoodwinking his audience, then he went ahead and hoodwinked them. So convinced of their own efficacy were the shamans that when they themselves were sick in spirit they called in a fellow practitioner to administer treatment.
The life of the Eskimo was hedged an by numerous taboos that appear ridiculous to us and that would seem to have handicapped the Eskimo in his struggle for survival. One taboo, for instance, prohibited any work during a time of mourning; so if someone died during the long winter of privation, hunger invariably resulted. Another taboo prohibited using whaling tools for more than one season, despite the scarcity of raw materials. Such prohibitions appear to run counter to the best interests of the Eskimo. Was there some hidden value in these ridiculous taboos, or did the Eskimo manage to survive despite them?
No doubt many of the Eskimo’s religious observances worked to his detriment. Yet they continued to be observed because they afforded certain social benefits that could not be achieved by other methods, although the Eskimo himself undoubtedly had no conscious understanding of these benefits. Note that all the taboos were concerned with rather ridiculous matters, and they were all very demanding, just as the hazing of freshmen on some college campuses demands careful observance of trivial customs. Actually taboos had much the same result as hazing. They promoted cooperation because all the people were made to suffer together. In the simple society of the Eskimo, the sharing of fears and the scrupulous attention to details of conduct created a social bond. The Eskimo’s compliance with folkways, no matter how seemingly foolish, afforded him a better unifying social mechanism than he probably could have devised rationally.