Meddelelser Om Grønland

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The genuine juridical drum songs belong to the domain of the Greenland vendettas. Two men, or sometimes two women, having become enemies would once a year have a settlement with each other in a drum fight where, in turn, they would give vent to their anger in a poetical form, one drumming and singing against the other. These two were called akiaret, "opponents." Their songs were often composed long before, carefully considered and rehearsed. The charging song is called a piseq, his pisia, and the opponent’s retortion his akisa. Both endeavor to shape their songs in accordance with the songs transmitted, in the same style, and it is a general custom, though not always followed, that the singer borrows the introduction of his song from some old, well-known song that has been handed down from his ancestors, whereafter—as after a prelude on the strings of the past—he spins on the thread in his own individual manner. . . . Every man chooses his own forms of melodies and refrains, possibly inherited from his forefathers or characteristic of his family. When the natives had heard the first strains of a drum song they nearly always recognized the man or woman who "owned" it. This shows that everyone stuck to his particular refrains and melodies.

The sense of the song is found in the short text lines that alternate with the longer and regularly repeated refrains. These text lines, the burden of the poem, are full of weighty accusations and sneering references to the opponent; but they are not less replete with lamenting over the singer’s own difficult position, or over his failing power to sing drum songs, or over his own mean and sorry self. This is often confessed with astonishing honesty, agreeing well with the self-irony that is so significant of the Eskimo national character. But no doubt it also covers the singer’s wish to appear at his best to the audience, and to seem unconcerned vis-a-vis the opponent, thereby reducing his accusations to the least possible.

The songs were constantly renewed, as the hostility between the two opponents only in rare instances resulted in homicide (never during the drum fight itself), but only in a continuation of the fight at the next meeting, the following summer or winter. The old songs were improved or replaced by new. The favorite drum songs passed into the popular tradition, being repeated for amusement either in the open air or in winter within the hut. At the winter meetings it often happened that two men would stand forth on the floor and for amusement repeat a drum fight in a passionate rendering. The more insignificant songs were probably consigned to oblivion.

The drum fight songs, however, like the kaiak songs, belong mostly in the open air under the summer sun. In their texts, melodies, and refrains the Ammassalik Eskimo evince all their musical and prosodic ability. . . . [As an example the following song of attack on Pitsani-armaat and his retort may be taken:]

Attiartertoq explained to me that this piseq, or song of attack, concerned an event which occurred far to the north in the now uninhabited bay of Kialeeq (Kialinek on the maps), in 67° N. lat. Here at the time, lived his uncle, the author of the song, a proud, well-to-do sealer who would not tolerate offensive allusions to his having maltreated his wife, even if this were the case. But the expression of Pitsaniarmaat, his opponent, really hid more than an insult: it roused the singer’s suspicion that he was his wife’s accomplice. The singer had chastised his wife because a hole or gash had shown itself in his kaiak skin, which she had sewn, so that there was a risk of its filling when first he rowed out, and of his drowning. His song intimates that he entertains a suspicion that it is Pitsaniarmaat who has occasioned the spoiling of the cover. The form of the song is mild and ironical, but the encysted accusation is hard. Its introduction (1–5) is possibly borrowed from an older poem.

1. Ah, how doubtful I feel about it!

2. How I feel doubt at having to sing.

3. In my soul, which is not strong!

4. However could it occur to me to make a song of charge against him.

5. How stupid that now I really have to trouble on his account! [?]

6. When we were in the north up there.

7. When we were up at Kialineq.

8. It happened as usual that she made me angry.

9. That I as usual gave my wife a trouncing.

10. I was not angry without cause.

11. I did not trounce her without cause.

12. I was as usual displeased with her work;

13. Because my kaiak cover (sewn by her) was torn,

14. It had got an opening.

15. When I, a moment, went outside, they say,

16. You appear to have made a remark about

17. That I am always accustomed to behave so devilishly considerately,

18. That I on every occasion act so extraordinarily leniently.

19. How stupid I was then not to give him the same treatment,

20. That I did not also give him a stab with the knife.

21. What a pity that I acted so leniently towards you,

22. What a pity that I showed myself so considerate towards you,

23. You scoundrel, who thoughtlessly irritated my anger.

Notes: 1–2. "Lacks courage, is despondent." 17–18. Kuannia characterized these ironical remarks as synonymous with a reprimand, as if Pitsaniarmaat had said: "He has been raw enough to stab his wife with the knife."


This song was called an answering song. . . . The introduction (1:1–4) almost coincides with that in no. 186, and must therefore, in at least one of the songs, have been borrowed.

1. I am accustomed to be irresolute,

2. How shall this fall out for me.

3. I have fallen by mischance into a drum duel!

4. This is also a reason for being inconstant

5. That though it was only the autumn,

6. My provisions were almost on the decline.

7. Because I was on the point of starving to death

8. I met with much compassion from the housefellows (?)

9. [And] from the neighbors on the south side

10. The dwellers at Sawaranaq—

11. Also, to be sure, was I much indebted to them.

12. Because in their words (what they said of me)

13. I got nothing (no comment) to hear about it.

14. That poor being!

15. Might his nose also be turned upwards!

16. That gets me to think of

17. My own great, long nose,

18. A mighty, great knife,

19. Please cut his nose in shape

20. And make it a knife with a notch

21. For use when he stabs his wife.

22. I was witness to your misdeed,

23. When your good little wife,

24. When your nice little "young-sister wife,"

25. When you scoundrel began to stab her again and again,

26. And you were not content with stabbing her,

27. No, you bored into her, inwards, incessantly,

28. Without preventing a swelling up like a sealing bladder[?]

29. Inwards, you bored too long!

30. It was only a very great fortune

31. That your nice little wife

32. That your nice little "young sister"

33. Sank your knife in the sea—

34. Your knife, now sunk fortunately [?].

Notes: 14. Here the singer at last addresses his opponent. 15. "Curves upwards, is broken upwards," like the end of a kaiak; also about a pug nose. 18. "Having a saw, or serrated knife" was known to Sufia as a common jocular expression of long-nosed men. 20. "Dagger-like knife with a notch . . . in the handle." 24. "The youngest of brothers or sisters." 28. Sufia translated thus: "You pricked a hole in her swelling." 34. Perhaps "deservedly."1

1Thalbitzer, W.n/an/an/an/an/a, "The Ammassalik Eskimo," , 40: 166–168; 318–321.

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Chicago: Meddelelser Om Grønland in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Meddelelser Om Grønland, Vol. 40, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Meddelelser Om Grønland. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from