Verhandlungen Des XVI Internationalen Amerikanisten-Kongresses, Wien, 1908

Date: 1910

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It is a notorious fact that Eskimo culture and daily life is pervaded throughout by a spirit of religion. Not only is the greater part of the unwritten Eskimo literature of a mythical and ritualistic character, but we find a religious atmosphere haunting even their profane legends and historical or semi-historical tales. . . .

The exponents of the Eskimo’s religion are called angakoks (angakut) and are in fact their national priests; they resemble in many respects the shamans of the Siberian tribes. I call them priests, because they are men, who after a long period of training and initiation have acquired a special capacity for entering into communication with the gods of the people and with the whole spiritual world in which this people believes. They are able, in contradistinction to laymen, to see the spirits, obtain answers from them and to bring them to interfere in the life of mankind. Thus in virtue of this natural aptitude and training, they are to be regarded as mediators between common mortals and the supernatural powers of the universe. . . .

The Eskimo religion knows two supreme divinities: the moon, Aningähk, which is regarded as a man, a hunter, who catches sea-animals, who has his house, his hunting grounds and his implements of the chase in the sky; and the old nameless woman of the sea, whose house lies far away at the bottom of the ocean, and who rules over the marine seals, whales and polar bears. Finally the people of Ammassalik speak of a third power in the sky, an old woman of the name of Asiak, who procures rain by shaking a skin drenched in urine down upon the earth so that a shower of drops is sprinkled upon it.

The angakok, and the angakok alone, is able to communicate with these powers by the aid of his spirits; and it is by no means all angakoks, but only those who are fully trained, and only the greatest among these, who can travel to the gods through the air and "see" them. Their bodies are left for lifeless on the earth, while their soul, freed from the body, roams through the universe.

Part of the angakok’s functions is to heal the sick. The angakok effects this by enquiring of his spirits whither the sick man’s soul has gone, bidding them to seek for it and fetch it home again. For, according to Eskimo notions, all disease is nothing but loss of a soul; in every part of the human body (particularly in every joint, as for instance, in each finger joint) there resides a little soul, and if a part of the man’s body is sick, it is because the little soul has abandoned that part. In most cases the loss of the soul is regarded as due to one of the following causes: Either that evilly disposed persons have driven it out by means of magic, or that higher powers, the moon for instance, have removed it as a punishment for men’s sins (some sacrilege, breach of tabu, or other). The sick man’s relatives send for the angakok, who passes a night summoning his spirits, finding by their aid the spot on the earth, or in the sky or in the sea, where the lost fragment of the soul is, in order afterwards to have it fetched and returned to its place in the sick man’s body, who is thereby healed.

Up to the close of the 19th century the religious life of the East-Greenlanders at Ammassalik pulsated with well-nigh unimpaired vigour. As late as 1894, the year in which the Danish state founded its colony over there, there were twelve angakoks belonging to the place, being about the same number as in 1884 when G. Holm wintered there. The proportion was about 1 angakok to 34 persons. Since the last named date the population has increased from 410 to 470, but the number of angakoks has sunk during this time from 12 to 5, being the number of the trained angakoks who lived there during my stay there from 1905 to 1906. . . .

Every angakok has, as a rule, had several paid teachers and has received instruction in different branches. Mitsuarnianga mentioned Imaalikutjuk as his teacher in the actual angakok craft; but, on his being more closely questioned, it appeared that what he had really learnt during the three days his teaching lasted, was only the first directions as how he should prepare himself "for rubbing the stone," which amounts to the same as initiation in the power of acquiring attendant spirits (genii). At the early age of seven or eight the future angakok begins to receive instruction from an older angakok, who is willing and eager to confide his secret knowledge to him. He teaches him first how he is to go in perfect secrecy and fetch a special kind of sea-weed from the beach when the tide is low, and wash himself with it over his whole body; how then he is to go into the depths of the land among the high mountains to the place where he has selected his grindstone, a large stone with a flat upper surface, often found lying near a lake, a river, a high declivity or a cave. I have seen one lying at the end of an old Eskimo grave. Proceeding according to fixed rules the novice seeks for a little stone to be used for grinding against the fiat surface of the large one. Not seldom a little crustacean from the sea or river is laid between the two stones which are rubbed together.

There sits the disciple hour after hour rubbing the little stone in a circle against the large one, in anxious expectation of what is to appear. According to the tradition quite a definite event is to take place. The bear of the lake will rise up, go towards him and eat him, whereby he "dies," i.e., loses his consciousness. It will spit him out again and then leave him. After the lapse of an hour he returns to consciousness, his skeleton clothes itself in flesh again, and his garments come rushing up to him one by one until at last he emerges fully dressed. Every summer of this and the following years he keeps on rubbing the stone and thereby on different occasions acquires his attendant spirits, who are said to be his very own, and whose names he alone knows, and he alone may use. During the time he is rubbing the stone, he must fast, i.e., he may not eat the entrails of animals. Similarly he may not work in metal or engage in any noisy occupation whatsoever.

It should be observed, that it is not the disciple himself who announces himself as a candidate for discipleship; it is the older angakok who exhorts the young one, a boy, whom he thinks well adapted for initiation in the religious mysteries, to receive training, in order that a knowledge of the highest powers in existence may be preserved for the coming generation.

Mitsuarnianga was so young when he underwent his first training that he had nothing to pay his first teacher with. On the other hand he paid all his later teachers, partly with bear and seal skins, partly with implements. One of them received from him a sledge and a dog. When the angakok Takiwnalikitseq had taught him iliseetsoq lore (iliseenilisaat), i.e., such magic means by the aid of which the attempts of the enemy can be warded off; or even pain or disaster brought upon them as a vengeance, he gave him in payment a large fine bear-skin, a sealing bladder and a skin thong in return for the wisdom imparted to him.

In order to summon a spirit or soul it behooves one merely to know its name and to utter it. Thus it is clear that the angakok novice cannot summon the spirits that are to be his attendant genii, on the first occasion; they come of their own accord, or else he lights upon them unexpectedly when he is out rambling alone. But when he has once spoken with them and learnt their names he will henceforward be able to summon them again.

As for the sacred or mystic language in which the angakok holds converse with his spirits, Mitsuarnianga declared that no special teaching was required in order to learn it. As, however, it is identically for all angakoks and even, as it seems, more or less the same for angakoks from all quarters, it must be a really stereotyped language preserved through many centuries. Presumably every angakok learns a great part of it by attending the angakok’s colloquies with their spirits, when they conjure them up in their huts; those that are training to become angakoks impress these words on their memory with particular care. The words are not sheer abracadabra, but obsolete or metaphorically used Eskimo words, a kind of inherited art language, which contributes in a high degree to the solemn and mystical character of the spiritual gathering. The religious forms or expressions themselves are made no secret of: only the way in which the disciple receives his training is wrapped in mystery.

During the whole course of his discipleship the angakok novice carefully conceals the fact, that he is receiving instruction, rubbing the stone and having meetings with his spirits. But when—after a novitiate of from five to ten years—he finally grows into a fullfledged angakok, his house-mates begin to have an inkling about it and to pass their comments on the fact. One fine evening he at last goes and proclaims himself to the world: angakittuppoa, "I am an angakok," and admonishes the others to extinguish the lamps, in order that he may for the first time give them a proof of his prowess.

There is only one circumstance, which can compel a novice to divulge his secret, before his time has come, and that is if he falls mortally ill. For by divulging that he is an angakok he will be able to save his life, though indeed at the sacrifice of his career as angakok. . . .

The secret novitiate lasts in no case more than twelve years, if the disciple ever intends to make use of his powers as an angakok.

There are four main occasions in which the services of an angakok at Ammassalik will be called in request, and when he must summon his spirits to a meeting under the floor of the huts: dearth of sea animals in the sea; snow-masses blocking the ways to the hunting-places (on the land or on the fjord-ice); a man’s loss of soul (illness); a married woman’s barrenness. Any one of these circumstances is sufficient reason for him to summon a meeting of the spirits, when the inhabitants of the place or even people from a distance so demand. Let us now see how a meeting of this kind proceeds in the hut.

The other men in the house fetch out the angakok’s skins (atwtaat) from his seat on the platform, two dry hairless skins, which they hang like a double covering or curtain in front of the inner end of the underground passage-way (kattak, the inner door-opening; doors are unknown).

Here, in the front of the wall itself, stand two massive high stones as door-posts framing in the door-way; the latter appears like a dark hole leading downwards and forwards towards the exit, which lies about half a yard or a yard lower than the floor of the hut. Besides the skins, which hang by straps and thongs in front of this aperture, another skin is spread on the floor just in front of it; this is the angakok’s place when he is holding a spiritual meeting (torniwoq). When he sits there on the floor, with his legs stretched out at the same height as his seat, he has his back turned to all of the audience, who, according to their custom, sit in their places on the platform along the back wall of the house. His face is turned towards the covered entrance, i.e., towards the sea. His heels rest on the lowest corner of one of the hanging skins which is turned up in such a way that he can set the skins in motion with his feet and produce a noisy rattling with them. His drum lies on a flat stone on the floor to his right. His arms arc tightly bound behind his back, being lashed from the hands to the elbows with a long thong which is tied in knots. It is a part of his art to free his hands in the dark and afterwards, before the lamps are lit, to stick them back again in the still fastened thongs. The angakok is supposed to fly through the air (towards the interior of the country) in his doubled-up posture with the hands bound behind him.

It has not yet been mentioned that the angakok brings with him a little characteristic instrument, the so-called makkortaa; it consists of a round, flat piece of black skin, from five to five and a half centimetres in diameter, which is held tightly in the hollow of the hand, while it is struck or rapped-on with a carved wooden stick with the other hand. By the aid of this little instrument the angakok produces a loud rhythmic knocking as a preliminary to his meeting with the spirits below the ground. When the lamps in the hut have been extinguished, this knocking goes on unintermittingly, while the angakok’s voice, keeping time to the knocking, is heard plaintively babbling; aata-aata-aata aahtaah; at the same time the skins rattle and the drum begins to move and to drone faintly. The noise and the movements get gradually wilder and wilder. The drum, they say, rocks or dances standing erect on the floor, and now and then it springs up on the angakok’s forehead or the crown of his head, drumming frantically in restless agitation. These are the signs that the angakok’s inner vision is "dawning," or, in other words, that his soul is about to pass over into the "other world." When this feeling comes over him, he sinks down into the depths of the earth, crying in mingled despair and ecstacy: aatjiwitjiwitjiwit ho-hooi-ho-hooi! and at the same moment his drum begins to move in another time.

Teemiartissaq, who furnished me with a great part of this information, had the notion that the angakok at this moment rises and sinks like a man about to drown: "he comes up a third time, before he goes down for good." Ajukudooq called my attention to the fact that only the angakok’s soul, not his body, sinks below the ground. This takes place gradually, and his spirit (taartaa) rises up and enters into him through his anus. It makes its exit afterwards by the same way. His body is thus like a house which changes tenants.

While these mysteries are in progress, the angakok’s soul rises several times up from the depths and enters the body turn by turn with his taartaat (this word itself seems to mean "successors"); there can only be one soul at a time in it. But at the moments when the angakok’s own consciousness is in it, his spirit monsters, or the manlike animals belonging to the sacred ritual, come—one at a time—stalking into the hut and filling the inmates with religious awe and shuddering. These animals, each of which has his own special name and voice, are called qimarhrat, "they that cause to flee." One of them, Amooq ("he that tugs or pulls at something") cries in a sustained and protracted roar "amoo, amoo!" while, invisible in the dark, it tramps along the platform, passing behind those that sit there; at last it disappears through the passage-way. Another monster cries "ongaa, ongaa!" ("avaunt, avaunt!"), a third "I will warm my fingers" as it tries to touch those present and warm itself on their naked bodies. There are several similar creatures; most of them seem to be common to all angakoks in contradistinction to their personal attendants, the taartaat, which are identical with the spirits called by other Eskimo tornat (or torngat) and which the angakok has acquired by rubbing the stone during his novitiate.

These attendant spirits have peculiar names and shadows, houses and hunting implements. They are originally nature spirits, often souls of animals that have been formed into men and women. But they all belong to the "other world" (asia), which is only visible to the angakoks. Otherwise they have their being in the same visible world as men—the Eskimo do not see anything self-contradictory in this—and they belong to three kinds of people; each of which have their own special dwelling places and peculiarities: Timerseet, who live in the interior of the country, Eajuätsaat (Taarajuätsaat) "semi-men" who live under the ground close to men’s huts, and Innertiwin, "the fire-people," who live on the beach under the rocks of the coast, where the water is shallow. The latter are said to have houses with windows and they can, as distinct from the others, make long journeys in umiaks over to the west coast of Greenland where they buy metal and European clothes. Timerseet follow the course of the rivers out to sea when they want to hunt seal. All these beings have the language of men but speak it more or less awry, for instance with distorted mouths, or lispingly, or merely indistinctly on account of obsolete or foreign words.

This last feature applies also to the beings which come from the sea to serve the angakok during the sacred rites. One of these is called Aperqit, "the consulted one, the oracle," which sits down by the edge of the sea below the hut and helps the angakok who has been summoned to cure the disease, by answering questions as to the nature of the disease, i.e., as to which souls have deserted the sick man, and as to the place in the sea or on the land where they are now to be found. When the answer has been given, it is for the attendant spirits to search out and fetch back the lost soul.

The other spiritual helper which the angakok has in the sea is Toornartik, the Toornarsuk of the West Greenlanders. As the people of Ammassalik believe, toornartik is an animal-like creature in the sea, and, it appears, that there are at least two of them. It was described to me as 3 yards long, 1 yard broad across the chest, with the upper part like a man, with arms and legs, but the lower parts looking like a seal.

It is not related to the woman of the sea and has nothing to do with her. Nor is it counted among the angakok’s taartaat tornat; it is an independent creature which lives in the sea and can be used by the angakok for different purposes. It serves as his guide, when he flies off to the sea-woman’s house with his spiritual retinue, and it hastens the speed of the journey by speeding along in the front.

Last but not least, it is from this being that the angakok receives replies to his questions. Aperqit is only an intermediary, a messenger between Toornartik and the heathen priest. From the hut the angakok addresses his questions to Aperquit, the attendant spirit who listens at the water’s edge and thence passes on the questions out to the sea.

I received from the now living angakoks an accurate description of the way the angakok takes to the woman of the sea, and of that which he takes to the moon; and moreover of the obstacles which he and his spirits meet with on their way. These journeys are attended with great toil, hardships and perils, and the angakok will only be instigated to such exertions when it is a question of life or death for a whole settlement or for a single individual whose life is valued so much that his relations are ready to pay the price the angakok demands for the exercise of his double function of doctor and priest.

But, even without such weighty grounds, the angakok frequently summons one or more of his spirits to a meeting in the hut. There are lazy angakoks and diligent angakoks. "A diligent angakok," so the saying goes, "torniwoqs almost every night the whole winter through." "No singing is so lovely as the singing of the spirits; the singing of mortals is nothing to it," said one of the angakoks to me.


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Chicago: Verhandlungen Des XVI Internationalen Amerikanisten-Kongresses, Wien, 1908 in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Verhandlungen Des XVI Internationalen Amerikanisten-Kongresses, Wien, 1908, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Verhandlungen Des XVI Internationalen Amerikanisten-Kongresses, Wien, 1908. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from