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Manners, Customs, Etc., Of The Greenlanders

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

Their houses, or more properly stalls, discover less ingenuity than those of many animals. They choose some elevated place to erect them, and, as if formed by instinct, they are all upon the same plan. They raise walls of sod and stone in an oblong square, about six feet high and as many wide; lay beams and branches of trees across the narrow way, and cover them with bilberry-bushes, heath, or small spray wood ; over which they lay loose earth or turf, which, freezing in the winter, with a deep coat of snow, make to them a comfortable dwelling. The inside is no better finished than the outside ; if many families agree to live together, they lengthen the square, and divide their dwellings like horse-stalls. Each is about six feet wide, and in length in proportion to the family. Sometimes ten families live under the same roof ; they have neither doors nor chimneys. Their entrance is through an arched hole, like the oast of a malt-kiln, to which they descend both in going in and coming out, creeping on all fours to gain a passage. This passage is in the middle of the house, and serves all who live in it. Their windows are made of seals' maws, dressed transparently, which admit the light and keep out the cold. In every dwelling they raise a wide seat, about a foot high round the sides, to sit upon ; the men sit in front, the women sit behind them ; they sleep upon the floor. Instead of fire, they burn a lamp constantly, supplied with train-oil, and, instead of cotton, use dry moss rubbed fine. Over this lamp they hang a bastard-marble kettle, in which they boil their meat. Every separate dwelling has a separate lamp, and these lamps warm as well as light their apartments. In this manner they live during the winter; but in the summer they live in tents. Their winter's provisions they bury in the snow, and creep out of their holes for it as they want it ; their water is kept in a wooden tub. They are hospitable to one another; and if one's carrion is consumed before the others', they all partake alike to the last morsel. They have out-houses to stow their fishing and hunting implements in. They pride themselves in their poverty; and notwithstanding their apparent misery, they seldom are known to repine.

They have no laws nor religion ; yet they are in many respects virtuous, if abstinence from vice may be called virtue. Children love their parents, and seldom forsake them, even when they have children of their own. The Greenlanders live a kind of patriarchal life, and some of them wander from one part of the country to another and have no settled residence; landed property they know of none; money they hold of no value, because of no use to them ; a guinea or a brass counter, a diamond or a glass bead, are exactly alike in their estimation. A roll of tobacco or a box of snuff would purchase all the gold and jewels the native Greenlanders possess. Looking-glasses, combs, ribbons, and children's toys for show ; knives, saws, gimblets, chissels, sewing-needles, scissors, axes, iron-headed darts, dishes, plates, kettles, powder, shot, and arms, etc., are to them the only valuables, and snuff and tobacco their greatest luxuries ; singing, dancing, playing at football, and wrestling, are their usual diversions.

It has been already observed that before the missionaries arrived in Greenland the natives had no trace of religion or religious ceremonies among them; the seafaring people indeed, who had accidentally wintered in that country, observing their custom of standing every morning, as soon as they rose, with their faces towards the sun, in deep meditation ; and seeing likewise (on some eminences) cinders upon elevated stones, and little heaps of stones upon these supposed altars, had represented the Greenlanders as the grossest idolators, worshipping the sun and sacrificing to the devil; but these notions took their rise from not understanding their language and not knowing their customs. The Greenlanders continue the practice to this day of looking towards the sun every morning to observe the weather; and those supposed altars and sacrifices were nothing but the remains of their forsaken summer dwellings, which they every year change and erect anew.

It must not, however, as M. Craul well observes, be concluded from this deficiency of external worship that they had no internal notions of a supernatural governing power, of whose secret decrees they live in continual dread. There is no nation yet discovered, though ever so wild and savage, over whom the dread of invisible agency has not an apparent influence. Among these simple Greenlanders it is discoverable in almost every action of their lives : they have their angekoks, or sorcerers, by whose enchantments or knavish craft they are held in the greatest awe. These are consulted in all cases of danger, sickness, famine, or enterprise ; these the simple Greenlanders think can cure diseases or bring them on ; can enchant or dissolve the spell of an enchanted arrow ; can call blessings down from heaven or mischiefs up from hell ; bring spectres in or drive them out of their dwellings ; and many feats besides.

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