Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/October 1900/Religious Beliefs of the Central Eskimo

Popular Science Monthly Volume 57 October 1900  (1900) 
Religious Beliefs of the Central Eskimo by Franz Boas


By Professor FRANZ BOAS.

THE Eskimo who inhabit the coasts of Arctic America subsist mainly by the chase of sea-mammals, such as seals of various kinds, walruses and whales. Whenever this source of supply is curtailed, want and famine set in. The huts are cold and dark—for heat and light are obtained by burning the blubber of seals and whales—and soon the people succumb to hunger and to the terrors of the rigorous climate. For this reason the native does everything in his power to gain the good-will of the sea-mammals and to insure success in hunting. All his thoughts are bent upon treating them in such a manner that they may allow themselves to be caught. On this account they form one of the main subjects of his religious beliefs and customs. They play a most important part in his mythology, and a well-nigh endless series of observances regulates their treatment.

The mythological explanation of all the prevailing customs in regard to sea-mammals is contained in a tale which describes their origin:

"A girl named Avilayuk refused all her suitors, and for this reason she was also called 'She who does not want to marry.' There was a stone near the village where she lived. It was speckled white and red. The stone transformed itself into a dog and took the girl to wife.

"She had many children, some of whom became the ancestors of various fabulous tribes. The children made a great deal of noise, which annoyed Avilayuk's father, so that he finally took them across the water to a small island. Every day the dog swam across to the old man's hut to get meat for his family. His wife hung around his neck a pair of boots that were fastened to a string. The old man filled the boots with meat, and the dog took them back to the island.

"One day, while the dog was gone for meat, a man came to the island in his kayak[2] and called the young woman. 'Take your bag and come with me,' he shouted. He had the appearance of a good-looking, tall man, and the woman was well pleased with him. She took her bag, went down to the kayak, and the man paddled away with her. After they had gone some distance, they came to a cake of floating ice. The man stepped out of the kayak on to the ice. Then she noticed that he was quite a small man, and that he appeared large only because he had been sitting on a high seat. Then she began to cry, while he laughed and said, 'Oh, you have seen my seat, have you?' [According to another version, he wore snow-goggles made of walrus-ivory, and he said, T)o you see my snow-goggles?' and then laughed at her because she began to cry.] Then he went back into his kayak, and they proceeded on their journey.

"Finally they came to a place where there were many people and many huts. He pointed out to her a certain hut made of the skins of yearling seals, and told her that it was his, and that she was to go there. They landed. The woman went up to the hut, while he attended to his kayak. Soon he joined her in the hut, and staid with her for three or four days before going out sealing again. Her new husband was a petrel.

"Meanwhile her father had left the dog, her former husband, at his house, and had gone to look for her on the island. When he did not find her, he returned home, and told the dog to wait for him, as he was going in search of his daughter. He set out in a large boat, traveled about for a long time, and visited many a place before he succeeded in finding her. Finally he came to the place where she lived. He saw many huts, and, without leaving his boat, he shouted and called his daughter to return home with him. She came down from her hut, and went aboard her father's boat, where he hid her among some skins.

"They had not been gone long when they saw a man in a kayak following them. It was her new husband. Soon he overtook them, and when he came alongside he asked the young woman to show her hand, as he was very anxious to see at least part of her body, but she did not move. Then he asked her to show her mitten, but she did not respond to his request. In vain he tried in many ways to induce her to show herself; she kept in hiding. Then he began to cry, resting his head on his arms, that were crossed in front of the manhole of the kayak. Avilayuk's father paddled on as fast as he could, and the man fell far behind. It was calm at that time and they continued on their way home. After some time they saw something coming from behind toward their boat. They could not clearly discern it. Sometimes it looked like a man in a kayak. Sometimes it looked like a petrel. It flew up and down, then skimmed over the water, and finally came up to their boat and went round and round it several times and then disappeared again. Suddenly ripples came up, the waters began to rise, and after a short time a gale was raging. The boat was quite a distance away from shore. The old man became afraid lest they might be drowned; and, fearing the revenge of his daughter's husband. he threw her into the water. She held on to the gunwale; then the father took his hatchet and chopped off the first joints of her fingers. When they fell into the water they were transformed into whales, the nails becoming the whalebone. Still she clung to the boat; again he took his hatchet and chopped off the second joints of her fingers. They became transformed into ground seals. Still she clung to the boat; then he chopped off the last joints of her fingers, which became transformed into seals. Now she clung on to the boat with the stumps of her hands, and her father took his steering-oar and knocked out her left eye. She fell backward into the water and he paddled ashore.

"Then he filled with stones the boots in which the dog was accustomed to carry meat to his family, and only covered the top with meat. The dog started to swim across, but when he was halfway the heavy stones dragged him down. He began to sink and was drowned. A great noise was heard while he was drowning. The father took down his tent and went down to the beach at the time of low water. There he lay down and covered himself with the tent. The flood tide rose and covered him, and when the waters receded he had disappeared."

This woman, the mother of the sea-mammals, may be considered the principal deity of the Central Eskimo. She has supreme sway over the destinies of mankind, and almost all the observances of these tribes are for the purpose of retaining her good-will or of propitiating her if she has been offended. Among the eastern tribes of this region she is called Sedna, while the tribes west of Hudson Bay call her Nuliayuk. She is believed to live in a lower world, in a house built of stone and whale-ribs. In accordance with the myth, she is said to have but one eye. She cannot walk, but slides along, one leg bent under, the other stretched forward. Her father lives with her in this house, and lies covered up with his tent. The dog watches the entrance, being stationed on the floor of the house.

The souls of seals, ground seals and whales are believed to proceed from her house. After one of these animals has been killed its soul stays with the body for three days. Then it goes back to Sedna's abode, to be sent forth again by her. If, during the three days that the soul stays with the body, any taboo or prescribed custom is violated, the violation becomes attached to the animal's soul. Although the latter strives to free itself of these attachments, which give it pain, it is unable to do so, and takes them down to Sedna. The attachments, in some manner that is not explained, make her hands sore, and she punishes the people who are the cause of her pains by sending to them sickness, bad weather and starvation. The object of the innumerable taboos that are in force after the killing of these sea animals is therefore to keep their souls free from attachments that would hurt their souls as well as Sedna.

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[3] 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 enforced by public opinion, the origin of the taboos themselves is quite obscure. It is forbidden, after the death of a sea mammal or after the death of a person, to scrape the frost from the window, to shake the beds, or to disturb the shrubs under the bed, to remove oil-drippings from under the lamp, to scrape hair from skins, to cut snow for the purpose of melting it, to work on iron, wood, stone, or ivory. Women are, furthermore, forbidden to comb their hair, to wash their faces and to dry their boots and stockings.

A number of customs, however, may be explained by the endeavors of the natives to keep the sea mammals free from contaminating influences. All the clothing of a dead person, more particularly the tent in which he died, must be discarded; for if a hunter should wear clothing made of skins that had been in contact with the deceased, these would appear dark and the seal would avoid him. Neither would a seal allow itself to be taken into a hut darkened by a dead body, and all those who entered such a hut would appear dark to it and would be avoided.

While it is customary for a successful hunter to invite all the men of the village to eat of the seal that he has caught, they must not take any of the seal meat out of the hut, because it might come in contact with persons who are under taboo, and thus the hunter might incur the displeasure of the seal and of Sedna.

It is very remarkable that the walrus is not included in this series of regulations. It is explicitly stated that the walrus, the white whale and the narwhal are not subject to these laws, which affect only the sea animals that originated from Sedna's fingers. There is, however, a series of laws that forbid contact between walrus, seal and caribou. It is not quite clear in what mythical concept these customs originate. There is a tradition regarding the origin of walrus and caribou which is made to account for a dislike between these two animals. A woman created both these animals from parts of her clothing. She gave the walrus antlers and the caribou tusks. When man began to hunt them, the walrus upset the boats with his antlers and the caribou killed the hunter with his tusks. Therefore the woman called both animals back and took the tusks from the caribou and gave them to the walrus. She took the antlers, kicked the caribou's forehead flat and put the antlers on to it. Ever since that time, it is said, walrus and caribou avoid each other, and the people must not bring their meat into contact. They are not allowed to eat caribou and walrus meat on the same day except after changing their clothing. The winter clothing which is made of caribou-skin must be entirely completed before the men will go to hunt walrus. As soon as the first walrus has been killed, a messenger goes from village to village and announces the news. All work on caribou-skins must cease immediately. When the caribou-hunting season begins, all the winter clothing, and the tent that has been in use during the walrus-hunting season, are buried, and not used again until the following walrus-hunting season. No walrus hide, or thongs made of such hide, must be taken inland, where is the abode of the caribou.

Similar laws, although not quite so stringent, hold good in regard to contact between seal and walrus. The natives always change their clothing or strip naked before eating seal during the walrus season.

The soul of the salmon is considered to be very powerful. Salmon must not be cooked in a pot that has been used for boiling other kinds of meat. It is always cooked at some distance from the hut. Boots that were used while hunting walrus must not be worn when fishing salmon, and no work on boot-legs is allowed until the first salmon has been caught and placed on a boot-leg.

The fact that these taboos are not restricted to caribou and walrus suggests that the mythical explanation given above does not account for the origin of these customs, but must be considered as a later effort to explain their existence.

The transgressions of taboos do not affect the souls of game alone. It has already been stated that the sea mammals see their effect upon man also, who appears to them of a dark color, or surrounded by a vapor which is invisible to ordinary man. This means, of course, that the transgression also affects the soul of the evil-doer. It becomes attached to it and makes him sick. The shaman is able to see, by the help of his guardian spirit, these attachments, and is able to free the soul from them. If this is not done the person must die. In many cases the transgressions become attached also to persons who come in contact with the evil-doer. This is especially true of children, to whose souls the sins of their parents, and particularly of their mothers, become readily attached. Therefore when a child is sick the shaman, first of all, asks its mother if she has transgressed any taboos. The attachment seems to have a different appearance, according to the taboo that has been violated. A black attachment is due to removing oil-drippings from under the lamp. As soon as the mother acknowledges the transgression of a taboo, the attachment leaves the child's soul and the child recovers.

The souls of the deceased stay with the body for three days. If a taboo is violated during this time the transgression becomes attached to the soul of the deceased. The weight of the transgression causes the soul pain, and it roams about the village, endeavoring to free itself of its burden. It seeks to harm the people who, by their disobedience to custom, are causing its sufferings. It causes heavy snows to fall and brings sickness and death. Such a soul is called a tupilak. Toward the middle of autumn it hovers around the doors of the huts. When a shaman discovers the tupilak he advises the people, who assemble, and prepare to free it of its burden. All the shamans go in search of it, each a knife in hand. As soon as they find it, they stab it with their knives, and thus cut off the transgressions. Then the tupilak becomes a soul again. The knives with which it was stabbed are seen by the people to be covered with blood.

The Central Eskimo believe that man has two souls. One of these stays with the body, and may enter temporarily the body of a child which is given the name of the departed. The other soul goes to one of the lands of the souls. Of these there are several. There are three heavens, one above another, of which the highest is the brightest and best. Those who die by violence go to the lowest heaven. Those who die by disease go to Sedna's house first, where they stay for a year. Sedna restores their souls to full health and then she sends them up to the second heaven. Those who die by drowning go to the third heaven. People who commit suicide go to a place in which it is always dark and where they go about with their tongues lolling. Women who have had premature births go to Sedna's abode and stay in the lowest world.

The other soul stays with the body. When a child has been named after the deceased, the soul enters its body and remains there for about four months. It is believed that its presence strengthens the child's soul, which is very light and apt to escape from the body. After leaving the body of the infant, the soul of the departed stays nearby, in order to re-enter its body in case of need. When a year has elapsed since the death of the person, his soul leaves the grave temporarily and goes hunting, but returns frequently to the grave. When the body has entirely decayed it may remain away for a long time.

Evidently the Eskimo also believe in the transmigration of souls. There is one tradition in which it is told how the soul of a woman passed through the bodies of a great many animals, until finally it was born again as an infant. In another story it is told how a hunter caught a fox in a trap and recognized in it the soul of his departed mother. In still another tale the soul of a woman, after her death, entered the body of a huge polar bear in order to avenge wrongs done to her during her lifetime.

Almost the sole object of the religious ceremonies of the Eskimo is to appease the wrath of Sedna, of the souls of animals, or of the souls of the dead, that have been offended by the transgressions of taboos. This is accomplished by the help of the guardian spirits of the angakut. The most important ceremony of the Eskimo is celebrated in the fall. At this time of the year the angakut, by the help of their guardian spirits, visit Sedna and induce her to visit the village, and they endeavor to free her of the transgressions that became attached to her during the preceding year. One angakok throws her with his harpoon, another one stabs her, and by this means they cut off all the transgressions The ceremony is performed in a darkened snow-house. After the ceremony the lamps are lighted again and the people see the harpoon and the knife that were used in the ceremony covered with blood. If the angakut should fail to free Sedna from the transgressions, bad weather and hunger would prevail during the ensuing winter. On the following day Sedna sends her servant, who is called Kaileteta, to visit the tribe. She is represented by a man dressed in a woman's costume and wearing a mask made of seal-skin. On this day the people wear attached to their hoods pieces of skin of that animal of which their first clothing was made after they were born. It seems that the skins of certain animals are used for this purpose, each month having one animal of its own. It is said that if they should not wear the skin of the proper animal, Sedna would be offended and would punish them.

The angakut also cure sick persons and make good weather with the help of their guardian spirits. They discover transgressions of taboos and other causes of ill luck. One of the most curious methods of divination applied by the angakut is that of 'head-lifting.' A thong is placed around the head of a person who lies down next to the patient. The thong is attached to the end of a stick which is held in hand by the angakok. Then the latter asks questions as to the nature and outcome of the disease, which are supposed to be answered by the soul of a dead person, which makes it impossible for the head to be lifted if the answer is affirmative, while the head is raised easily if the answer is negative. As soon as the soul of the departed leaves, the head can be moved without difficulty.

Amulets are extensively used as a protection against evil influences and to secure good luck. Pregnant women wear the teeth of wolves on the backs of their shirts. These same teeth are fastened to the edge of the infant's hood. The string which passes under the large hood of the woman who carries her child on her back is fastened at one end to a bear's tooth, which serves to strengthen the child's soul. When the child begins to walk about, this string and the bear's tooth are attached to its shirt and worn as amulets. Pyrites, when thrown upon a spirit, are believed to drive it away.

As compared with the beliefs of the Greenlanders, the beliefs of the Central Eskimo are characterized by the great importance of the Sedna myth and the entire absence of the belief in a powerful spirit called Tonarssuk, which seems to have been one of the principal features of Greenland beliefs. There is an evident tendency among the Central Eskimo to affiliate all customs and beliefs with the myth of the origin of sea animals. This tendency seems to have been one of the principal causes that molded the customs and beliefs of the people into the form in which they appear at the present time.

  1. A description of the religious beliefs of the Central Eskimo, based upon observations made by the writer, was published in the Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. The following account embodies observations which Capt. James S. Mutch, of Peterhead, Scotland, following a suggestion of the writer, had the kindness to make. The material for this study was collected by Capt. Mutch during a long-continued stay in Cumberland Sound.
  2. The one-man hunting canoe of the Eskimo.
  3. The medicine-man or shaman of the Eskimo.