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Eskimo Mythology - Life And Death

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Birth and death, in Eskimo conception, are less a beginning and an end than episodes of life. Bodies are only instruments of souls — the souls which are their "owners"; and what respect is shown for the bodies of the dead is based upon a very definite awe of the potencies of their Inue, which have been augmented rather than diminished by the last liberation. Souls may be born and reborn both as man and as beast, and some have been known to run the whole gamut of the animal kingdom before returning to human shape. Ordinarily human souls are reborn as men. Monsters, too, are born of human parents: one of the most ghastly of the northern tales is the story of "the Baby who ate its parents"; it tore off its mother's breasts as she suckled it, it devoured her body and ate its father; and then, covered with its parents' blood and crying for meat, it crawled horribly toward the folk, who fled in terror."

Besides the soul which is the body's "owner" the Eskimo believe in a name-soul. The name of the dead man is not mentioned by his kinsfolk until a child has come into the world to bear it anew. Then, when the name has thus been reborn, the dead man's proper soul is free to leave the corpse and go to the land of the departed. An odd variant of this Greenlandic notion was encountered by Stefânsson among the western tribes: these people believe that the soul of the dead relative enters the body of the new-born child, guarding and protecting its life and uttering all its words until it reaches the age of discretion; then the child's own soul is supposed to assume sway, and it is called after a name of its own. If there have been a number of deaths previous to a birth, the child may have several such guardian spirits.

Sometimes a child had dire need of guardian spirits. Such a one was Qalanganguasê; his parents and his sister were dead; he had no kindred to care for him and he was paralysed in the lower part of his body. When his fellow-villagers went hunting, he was left alone; and then, in his solitude, the spirits came and whiled away the hours. Once, however, the spirit of his sister was slow in going (for Qalanganguasê had been looking after the little child she had left when she died), and the people, on their return, saw the shadow of her flitting feet. When Qalanganguasê told what had happened, the villagers challenged him to the terrible song-duel in which the Angakut try one another's strength; 21 and they bound him to the sup-ports of the house and left him swinging to and fro. But the spirit of his mother came to him, and his father's spirit, saying, "Journey with us"; and so he departed with them, nor did his fellow-villagers ever find him again.

Qalanganguasê was an orphaned child and a cripple; his rights to life — in the Polar North — were little enough. Mitsima was an old man. He was out seal-catching in mid-winter; a storm came up, and he was lost to his companions. When the storm passed, his children saw him crawling like a dog over the ice, for his hands and feet were frozen — his children saw him, but they were afraid to go out to him, for he was near unto death. "He is an old man," they said, and so they let him die; for the aged, too, have little right to life in the Polar North.

Perhaps it is necessity rather than cruelty in a region where life is hard. Perhaps it is that death seems less final, more episodic, to men whose lives are always in peril. Perhaps it is the ancient custom of the world, which only civilized men have forgotten. "We observe our old customs," said a wise elder to Knud Rasmussen — and he was speaking of the observation of the rites for the dead — "in order to hold the world up, for the powers must not be offended. We observe our customs, in order to hold each other up. We are afraid of the great Evil. Men are so helpless in the face of illness. The people here do penance, because the dead are strong in their vital sap, and boundless in their might."



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