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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/637

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627
RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF THE CENTRAL ESKIMO.

The souls of the sea animals are endowed with greater powers than those of ordinary human beings. They can see the effect of the contact with a corpse, which causes objects touched by it to appear of a dark color; and they can see the effect of flowing blood, from which a vapor rises that surrounds the bleeding person and is communicated to every one and every thing that comes in contact with such a person. This vapor and the dark color of death are exceedingly unpleasant to the souls of the sea animals, that will not come near a hunter thus affected. The hunter must therefore avoid contact with people who have touched a body, or with such as are bleeding. If any one who has touched a body or who is bleeding should allow others to come in contact with him he would cause them to become distasteful to the seals and therefore also to Sedna. For this reason the custom demands that every person must at once announce if he has touched a body or if he is bleeding. If he does not do so, he will bring ill luck to all the hunters.

These ideas have given rise to the belief that it is necessary to announce the transgression of any taboo. The transgressor of a custom is distasteful to Sedna and to the animals, and those who abide with him will become equally distasteful through contact with him. For this reason it has come to be an act required by custom and morals to confess any and every transgression of a taboo, in order to protect the community from the evil influences of contact with the evil-doer. The descriptions of Eskimo life given by many observers contain records of starvation which, according to the belief of the natives, was brought about by some one transgressing a law and not announcing what he had done.

I presume this importance of the confession of a transgression with a view to warning others to keep at a distance from the transgressor has gradually led to the idea that a transgression, or we might say a sin, can be atoned for by confession. This is one of the most remarkable religious beliefs of the Central Eskimo. There are innumerable tales of starvation brought about by the transgression of a taboo. In vain the hunters try to supply their families with food; gales and drifting snow make their endeavors fruitless. Finally the help of the angakok[1] is invoked, and he discovers that the cause of the misfortune of the people is due to the transgression of a taboo. Then the guilty one is searched for. If he confesses, all is well, the weather moderates, and the seals will allow themselves to be caught; but if he obstinately maintains his innocence, his death alone will soothe the wrath of the offended deity.

While thus the reason appears clear why the taboos are rigorously


  1. The medicine-man or shaman of the Eskimo.