Eskimo Life/Chapter 10

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 157-185


The Eskimo has, of course, like every other race of men, his virtues and his foibles; possibly with this difference from the civilised European, that the former are more numerous in proportion to the latter. But, on the other hand, neither his virtues nor his foibles are found in such high development.

Even the earliest accounts of Greenland, however, such as Egede's, Cranz's, Dalager's, and others, show clearly enough the falsity of the frequent assertion that the Eskimo stands upon a low moral plane; although in some of these writers, for example in Hans Egede, we can trace an evident tendency to paint the Eskimo, individually and socially, in as dark colours as possible, in order to prove how sadly this people stood in need of the lights of religion, and how necessary it therefore was that the Greenland mission should be supported.

One of the most prominent and attractive traits in the Eskimo's moral character is certainly his integrity. If some Europeans have denied him this virtue, it can only be, I am sure, because these gentlemen have not tåken the trouble to place themselves in sympathy with his modes of thought, and to realise what he regards as dishonourable.

It is of special importance for the Eskimo that he should be able to rely with confidence upon his neighbours and his fellow-men; and it is the first condition of this mutual confidence, on which depends all united action in the battle for life, that every man shall be upright in his dealings with his neighbours. The Eskimo therefore regards it as in the highest degree dishonourable to steal from his housemates or from his fellow-villagers, and it is very seldom that anything of the sort occurs. Even Egede tells us that they let their goods and chattels 'lie open to everyone without fear of anyone stealing or taking away the least portion of them. ... This misdemeanour is so repulsive to them that if a girl is found stealing, she loses all chance of making a good marriage.'

For the same reason they very seldom lie to each other—especially the men. The following trait, related by Dalager, affords a remarkable proof of this: 'In describing a thing to another person, they are very careful not to paint it in brighter colours than it deserves; especially in the sale of an object which the buyer has not seen, even although the seller may be anxious to get rid of it, he will depreciate it rather than overpraise it.'

When one owes another money, the creditor may, as a rule, be assured that the debtor will pay up as soon as ever he can. The Danish merchants confirm this trait. They have often told me that they lend with confidence to the Greenlanders, because it very seldom happens that they are not repaid in full.

The Eskimo's conception of his duties towards strangers, especially towards people of another race, is not quite so strict. We must remember that a foreigner is to him an indifferent object, whose welfare he has no interest in furthering; and it matters little to him whether he can rely on the foreigner or not, since he has not got to live with him. Thus he does not always find it inconsistent with his interests to appropriate a little of the foreigner's property, if he thinks it can be of use to him.

The first Europeans who came to the country suffered a good deal from this peculiarity. We cannot greatly wonder that the Eskimos stole from them, when we consider how the European expeditions at first conducted themselves, after the land had been discovered anew. They often plundered the natives, maltreated their women, and what was worse, tempted them on board their ships, set sail, and took them as prisoners to Europe. Thus the Eskimos had from the first but little reason to regard us as friends. Nor does it seem by any means irreconcilable with European morality to plunder foreign peoples, if we may judge by the way in which we deal with the native races in Africa and elsewhere. Or let us suppose that it had been the Eskimos who came and planted themselves upon our shores, and behaved to us as we did in Greenland—would it then have been altogether inconsistent with our moral code to rob and filch from them whatever we could?

It must also be taken into account that in comparison with the Eskimos the Europeans possess property in superabundance. According to Eskimo morality, therefore, it appears that we ought to be able to dispense with some of our superfluity, and if we decline to do so it is because we are miserly and selfish.

As the Europeans have gradually settled down in the country and ceased to be regarded as foreigners, matters have altered a good deal, and theft even from them is now rare. I believe, however, that when an opportunity offers the natives are still inclined to appropriate trifles which they think can never be missed. I have my seif seen respectable Greenlanders fill their pockets and gloves with meal from the barrels in the store, quite unabashed by the fact of my observing them. In such a case they no doubt think that it is the Royal Greenland Company from whose superfluity they are helping themselves. The company will neither be richer nor poorer for a few handfuls of meal, which for them are of great moment—and in this comfortable conviction they go on their way rejoicing. lam afraid that such modes of thought are not peculiar to Greenland.

For the rest, it must be remembered as an extenuating circumstance that the Eskimos were from the first, and even down to comparatively recent times, shamelessly defrauded by the European traders, who used false weights and measures, and gave them, in barter, wares of wretched quality. I need only mention, on Saabye's authority, that the traders of last century used excessively large four-bushel measures, which had, in addition, no bottom, but were carefully placed over cavities in the floor. These the natives had to fill with their blubber when they wanted to sell it, so that what passed for four bushels was in reality at least six. They knew and understood quite well that they were being cheated, but they submitted uncomplainingly. Such practices are now, of course, things of the past.

As a proof of the Eskimo's scrupulous respect for the moral law which he recognises, I may remind the reader that he never touches driftwood which another has placed above high-water mark, though it would often be so easy to appropriate it without fear of detection. And when we Europeans break through this law, and help ourselves without ceremony to their stored-up driftwood—as we have often done, I am sorry to say, intentionally or otherwise—have not the Eskimos, I wonder, at least as good right to despise us as we have to look down upon them?

Fighting and brutalities of that sort, as before mentioned, are unknown among them, and murder is very rare. They hold it atrocious to kill a fellow creature; therefore war is in their eyes incomprehensible and repulsive, a thing for which their language has no word; and soldiers and officers, brought up to the trade of killing, they regard as mere buteners.

It has, indeed, as Egede says, 'occurred now and then that an extremely malicious person, out of rankling hatred, has killed another.' But when he adds that 'this they regard with the greatest coolness, neither punishing the murderer nor taking the thing to heart in any way,' I believe that he is not quite just to them. They certainly abhor the crime, and if they do not actively mix themselves up in the matter, it is because they regard it as a private affair between the murderer and his victim. It is not the business of the community, but simply of the murdered man's nearest relatives, to take revenge for his death, if they are in a position to do so; and thus we find, even among this peaceable folk, traces of a sort of blood-feud, though the practice is but slightly developed, and the duty does not, as a rule, seem to weigh heavily upon the survivors. In cases of extreme atrocity, however, the men of a village have been known to make common cause against a murderer, and kill him.

Here, as elsewhere, women and love are among the most frequent causes of bloodshed.

The attack often takes place at sea, the murderer transfixing his victim from behind with his harpoon, or capsizing his kaiak and cutting a hole in it. It does not accord with the Eskimo's character to attack another face to face, not so much because he is afraid as because he is bashful, and would feel it embarrassing to go to work under the other's eye.

They do not regard it as criminal to kill old witches and wizards, who, they think, can injure and even kill others by their arts. Nor is it inconsistent with their moral code to hasten the death of those who are sick and in great suffering, or of those in delirium, of which they have a great horror.

Of our commandments, the seventh is that which the Greenlanders are most apt to break; for, as the reader may already have gathered from the foregoing chapter, virtue and modesty are not held in high esteem among them. This is especially the case among the Christian Eskimos of the west coast, who have come much in contact with us Europeans. By many of them it is not regarded as any particular disgrace for an unmarried girl to have children. Of this I have seen frequent examples. While we were at Godthaab, two unmarried girls of the neighbourhood who were with child made no sort of attempt to conceal the fact, and even tied up their top-knots with green ribbon[1] long before it was necessary, seeming almost proud of this visible sign that they were not disdained. I have seen green-tops who not only wore the colour in their hair, but trimmed and embroidered their anoraks quite stylishly with ribbons of the same hue, though such a proceeding is neither obligatory nor customary.

The missionaries have, of course, been vehement in their denunciations of the prevalent laxity in this direction, and have tried to inculcate a stricter morality upon the youth of both sexes, from their schooldays onwards; but they do not seem to have succeeded in inducing their flocks to regard the matter from a higher stand point, for things grow worse rather than better. When a young woman stands in an illicit relation to a man, she attempts no concealment; if the man be a European, indeed, she positively glories in it, and it seems to procure her additional consideration among her female friends. For this state of things the Europeans themselves are chiefly to blame. In the first place, the young men who have come to Greenland have often behaved ill to the native women, and set a bad example; and, in the second place, the Europeans have on the whole managed so to impose upon the natives that the women will now prefer the commonest European sailor to the very best Eskimo hunter. The result is that during the century and a half since we settled in the country, the race has suffered so large an admixture of European blood that it is now extremely difficult to find a single pure-bred Eskimo on the whole west coast.[2] And this although the Europeans form but a small fraction of the population of the country, a few hundred as against ten thousand.

It is obvious that the proneness of the Europeans to this form of immorality has not made it any easier for the missionaries to vindicate the sanctity of the seventh commandment. My experience, and I believe that of most observers, is that the native women of the colonies, where many Europeans reside, are much more immodest than those of the villages where there are no Europeans. For example, I may mention that the women at Sardlok, Kornok, Kangek, and Narsak made an altogether better impression than those at Godthaab and New Herrnhut, where their behaviour was often the reverse of discouraging towards young men who happened to take their fancy.

Sexual morality seems to have been considerably higher among the heathen Eskimos before the Europeans came to the country. Even Hans Egede, who does not, as a rule, depict their moral qualities in too bright colours, says in his 'New Perlustration': 'Young girls and maidens, on the other hand, are modest enough. We have never seen them conducting themselves wantonly with the young men, or making the least approach to such conduct, either in word or deed. During the fifteen years I was in Greenland, I knew of only two or three unmarried girls who gave birth to children; for this they regard as a great disgrace.'

Dalager's general testimony to the national character in this respect is that 'the Greenlanders are certainly inclined to the sin of incontinence, but not so much so as other nations.' Of the girls he says that 'in their first years of maturity they bear themselves very chastely, for otherwise they are certain to spoil their chances in marriage.'

Among the heathens of the east coast at the present day, the matter does not seem to be regarded so seriously; for Holm assures us that 'it is not considered any disgrace for an unmarried girl to have children.'

The strict morality which obtained among the unmarried youths and maidens of the west coast in the heathen days, seems to have been very considerably relaxed when once they were married. The men, at any rate, had then the most unrestricted freedom. Egede says that for long 'he could not ascertain that men had to do with other women than their own wives, or wives with other men; but at last we discovered that they were none too particular in this respect.' He describes, among other things, a remarkable game for which 'married men and women come together, as though to an assembly.' The men stepped forth by turns, and, to the accompaniment of a drum, sang songs in honour of women and love; whereupon shameless license became the order of the day for all present. 'But in this game the young and unmarried are forbidden by modesty to take part; married people see in it nothing to be ashamed of.'

Egede also remarks that women regard it as a great honour and happiness to become the concubine of an angekok—that is, 'one of their prophets and learned men.' 'Many husbands even regard this with favour, and will sometimes pay the angekoks to lie with their wives, especially if they themselves have no children by them.'

The Eskimo women, then, are allowed far greater freedom in this respect than women of Germanic stock. The reason probably is that whereas inheritance, and the continuance of the race and name, have been matters of supreme importance to the Teutons, the Eskimos have had little or no property to transmit from father to son, while for them the great consideration is simply that children shall be born.

With reference to the above-mentioned game, however, Dalager declares that it is of very rare occurrence, 'and that it is to be observed that a married woman who has duly become the mother of a family never takes part in it.'

On the other hand, he teils us that widows and divorced wives are not so particular. While it is very seldom that 'a young girl has a child, one sees older women bearing just as many children as if they were living in wedlock. If they are reproved for this, even by their own countrymen, they will often answer that their conduct does not proceed from mere wantonness, but from a natural longing to bear children, which leads them to seduce many a worthy man.'

On the east coast, too, the morality of married people seems to leave a good deal to be desired, according to our ideas. I have mentioned, for instance, that the men often exchange wives; but the exchange is strictly a personal matter, and the husband will usually resent any unfaithfulness on the wife's part to the man to whom he has lent her, he himself, however, claiming full liberty. While living in their winter houses they often play a wife-exchanging or lamp-extinguishing game, like that above mentioned; but in this the unmarried also take part. Holm tells us that 'a good host always has the lamps put out at night when there are guests in the house.'

So far as I know, this game is no longer practised on the west coast. Married Christian Greenlanders, however, do not seem to have any overweening respect for the seventh commandment, and irregularities of conduct are far from uncommon.

The morals above described seem to us very bad on the whole; but it does not follow that the Eskimos share this feeling. We should beware how we fix ourselves at one point of view, and unsparingly condemn ideas and practices which the experience of many generations has developæd among another people, however much they may conflict with our own. There may be underlying reasons which do not at once meet the eye, and which place the whole matter in a very different light.

The conceptions of good and evil in this world are exceedingly divergent. As an example, let me cite the case of the Eskimo girl who, when Niels Egede spoke to her of love of God and her neighbour, said to him: 'I have given proof of love for my neighbour. Once an old woman who was ill, but could not die, offered to pay me if I would lead her to the top of the steep cliff from which our people have always thrown themselves when they are tired of living; but I, having ever loved my neighbours, led her thither without payment, and cast her over the cliff.' Egede told her that this was ill done, and that she had killed a fellow-creature. 'She said no; but that she was filled with pity for her, and cried after she had fallen over.' Are we to call this a good or an evil deed?

Another time, when Egede was explaining how God punishes wicked people, an Eskimo remarked that in that respect he was like God, for he had killed three old women who were witches.

The same divergence of judgment makes itself felt with regard to the seventh commandment. To the Eskimo the other exhortation to increase and multiply seems to be of greater weight. The reason may partly be that his race is by nature unprolific.

Like many other peoples, the Eskimos found it strange that we should not regard polygamy with warm approval. Among them, a man was held in esteem in proportion to the number of wives he possessed, and they therefore thought the Old Testament patriarchs more reasonable than we. This, however, is a view which we find prevailing among our own forefathers, until well on in historical times.

When Paul Egede was remonstrating with the Greenlanders one day upon their polygamous proclivities, one of them fell to eulogising his own wife for her 'good humour in never being angry because he loved strange women.' Egede said that 'women in our country could not endure that their husbands should care for others; they would turn them out of their houses.' 'It is no praise to your women,' replied the Eskimo, 'that they want to have their husbands all to themselves and to be masters over them; we hold that a fault.'

Their way of thinking in these matters is less ideal and more practical than ours, and their point of view entirely different. Their habit of exchanging wives, for example, and their treatment of barren women, seems to us wanton and immoral; but when we remember that the production of offspring is the great end and aim of their conduct, and reflect what an all-important matter this is for them, we may perhaps pass a somewhat milder judgment.

If a Greenlander's wife does not bear children, his marriage fails of its chief purpose, and it is quite natural that he should try to find a remedy. A young man whose wife had no children once offered Niels Egede a fox-skin either to come to his aid himself in the matter, or to order one of his sailors to do so, and was much astonished to find Egede indignant at the proposal. 'There would be no disgrace,' he said, 'for she is married, and she could have one of your married sailors.'

It appears, however, that even the married Greenlanders are not by nature devoid of what we understand as moral feeling, for their everyday behaviour is, as a rule, quite reputable and void of offence; on that point all travellers must agree.

If a heathen—and in many cases even a Christian—Greenlander refrains from having to do with another mans wife, whom he has looked upon with favour, it is generally, no doubt, more because he shrinks from quarrelling with the husband than because he regards adultery as morally wrong; but we may gather from the following saying, current at Angmagsalik, that even on the east coast there is a vague feeling that it is not the right thing. 'The whale, the musk-ox, and the reindeer,' so the saying runs, 'left the country because men had too much to do with other men's wives.' Many men declared, however, that it was 'because the women were jealous of their husbands.' The jealousy of the women was also alleged as a reason for the fact that the channel which formerly went right through the country, from the Sermelik Fiord to the west coast, had been blocked with ice.[3]

Egede relates that, strangely enough as he thought, the women before his arrival had felt no jealousy when their husbands had more wives than one, 'and got on very well with each other'; but as soon as he had preached to them the wickedness of such proceedings, they began to show much annoyance when their husbands wanted to take second wives. 'When I have been reading with them,' he says, 'and instructing them in the Word of God, they have often urged me to bring the seventh commandment sharply home to their husbands.' The men, as may be supposed, did not at all approve of the missionaries' influence over the women in this respect, and one of them, whose two wives had fallen by the ears, said angrily to Niels Egede: 'You have spoiled them with your teaching, and now they're jealous of each other.' It appears to me that the man's anger was not without justification. What should we say if Greenlanders came to our country, forced themselves into our houses, and preached their own morality to our wives?

Before we utterly condemn the morality of the Eskimos, we ought also, perhaps, to remember the golden maxim that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. European morality is in many respects of such doubtful value that we have scarcely the right to pose as judges. After all is said and done, it is possible that the most essential difference between our morality and that of the Eskimos is that with us the worst things take place behind the scenes, in partial or complete secrecy, and therefore produce all the more demoralising effect, while among the Eskimos everything happens on the open stage. The instincts of human nature cannot be altogether suppressed. It is with them as with explosives: where they lie unprotected on the surface, they may be easily 'set off,' but they do little mischief; whereas when they lie deeper and more concealed, they are perhaps less easily kindled, but when once they take fire the explosion is far more violent and destructive, and the greater the weight that is piled upon them, the greater havoc do they work.

According to the Eskimo code, marriage between first cousins, or between any near relations, is prohibited. Even foster-children, who happen to have been brought up in the same household, cannot marry. A man should, if possible, seek his wife in another village.

This rule answers to the so-called law of exogamy, or prohibition of marriage with blood relations, with people of the same family name, or even belonging to the same clan (among the Chinese), gotra (among the Hindus), or gens (among the Romans?), which is also found in slightly different forms in the Greek, and formerly in the Catholic, Church, among the Slavonic and Indian races, and in many other quarters. Plutarch says of the Romans that in earlier times they no more thought of marrying women of the same stock than they would in his day think of marrying aunts or cousins. Our own forefathers, in long past ages, probably observed the law of exogamy, which, however, stands in sharp opposition to the feeling now dominant in Norway, that natives of the same place should be chosen in marriage, and if possible near relatives, even first cousins. It seems to be the general rule that we find the widest circles of prohibition against marriage among savage peoples, while among modern and civilised nations a greater freedom prevails. Exogamy would thus appear to be a relic of barbarism from which we Norwegians have very thoroughly freed ourselves. It is very difficult to explain the origin of this law. Many writers, as we know, seek to trace it to the primitive conception of woman as a chattel, and commonly as a captive of the spear, whence it followed that a wife ought not to be taken from among relations or friends, but should be carried off from another tribe. Although the scientific authorities are against me, it appears to me by no means impossible that we may also find at the root of the custom the belief that marriage between near relations produces a weakly progeny. This belief, at any rate, prevails among almost all nations in the form of a dread of incest. It is true that modern research has sought to show that marriage between kinsfolk is not injurious; but whether well-founded or not, the contrary belief has undoubtedly been entertained, and from it the law of exogamy would naturally follow. The fact that among the Greenlanders it goes the length of forbidding marriage between people of the same village is easily explicable when we think of the above mentioned customs, which render it impossible to be sure who may or may not be half-brothers and sisters.

In several respects the morality of the heathen Eskimos stands considerably higher than that which one generally finds in Christian communities. As I have already pointed this out (in Chapter VIII.), I will here only remind the reader of their self-sacrificing love of their neighbour and their mutual helpfulness, to which, indeed, we find no parallel in European society. These virtues, however, are not unfrequently to be found among primitive peoples, and are probably in the main due to the simpler structure of society. A more developed and consequently more complicated social order leads to the decline of many of the natural virtues of humanity.

But the Eskimo's love of his neighbour goes the length of restraining him from slandering him, and even from any sort of evil-speaking, especially in the case of a neighbour in the literal sense of the word. Scandal and malice are inconsistent with his peaceable and kindly disposition. As before remarked, the women do not seem to be quite so exemplary in this respect; but we know that such weaknesses are commonly attributed to the softer sex all the world over.

Reverence for the aged is not a prominent feature of the Eskimo character. They are honoured, indeed, so long as they are able to work, and if they have in their younger days been good hunters, and have sons, they may retain great influence and be regarded as the head of the household. A woman who has able-bodied sons may also be treated with reverence, even should she attain a great age. A widow especially has often great power, governing the house as long as she lives, and having the upper hand of her daughters-in-law. But, as a rule, when people grow so old that they cannot take care of themselves, they are apt to be treated with scant consideration, especially women. Sometimes the younger generation will even go the length of making fun of them, and to this the poor old people submit with great patience, regarding it simply as the way of the world.

That the reader may form some conception of a primitive Eskimo's habits of thought on moral questions, I quote the following letter from a converted Greenlander to Paul Egede.[4] I reproduce it here, because it in many respects bears out the views above expressed, and Egede's book 'Accounts of Greenland,'[5] in which this translation is printed (pp. 230-236) is now not easily obtainable. The writer was a heathen who had been baptised by Paul Egede's father, Hans Egede. The letter, which was of course written in Eskimo, gives evidence not only of a peculiar moral point of view, but also of a keen understanding, and of feelings which, as Paul Egede says, one would scarcely expect 'in so stupid a people as we have hitherto taken them to be.' It is, as will be seen, an answer to an epistle of Egede's, and runs as follows: —

Amiable Pauia![6]

You know how precious and agreeable your letter is to me; but how appalled I was when I read of the destruction of such multitudes of people in the great earthquake,[7] inconceivable to us, which you say devoured in one moment more people than there are in all our country. I cannot tell you how this moved me, or how frightened we were, so that many fled from the place where they lived to another, which was quite as unsafe, though it was on a rock; for we see even here that rocks have been split open from the top to the very depths, though when it happened none of us know. Granite rocks, such as our land consists of, and sand-hills like your land, are equally easy for God to overthrow, in whose power the whole world stands, and we poor little animals are easily buried in the ruins. You give me to understand that with you there have been neither snow nor great cold this winter, and conclude that it must have been all the severer with us; but we, too, have had an unusually mild winter. I hear that your learned men are of opinion that this mild weather has been caused by the warm vapours emanating from the earth at the time of the earthquake, which have warmed the air and melted the snow-material. But if I had not heard that this was the opinion of the learned, I should have thought that the warmth of the earth would avail little to heat the height and breadth of the air—as little as a man's breath avails to warm a large house in which he simply breathes for a moment and then goes out again. The south winds, which are always warm, and have blown all the year through with us, are the cause of the moderate cold we have had; but why the south wind blew I cannot tell, nor the learned either, perhaps. Were these wretched people killed by the heat, or did the earth swallow them up, or were they shaken to death? Skipper B. thought that their own houses must have fallen upon them and killed them. Your people do not seem to care very much about it; for they are not only cheerful and merry, but they relate that the two nations[8] who come here whale-fishing, not your countrymen, but of the same faith as you, are fighting with and shooting each other both by land and sea, hunting each other as we hunt seals and reindeer, and stealing and taking away ships and goods from each other, from people they have never seen or known, simply because their lord and master will have it so. When I asked the skipper, through an interpreter, what could be the cause of such inhumanity, he answered that it was all about a piece of land right opposite ours,[9] so far away that it could only be reached after three months' sailing. Then I thought that there must be great scarcity of land where these people dwell; but he said no, that it was only because of the great lords' greediness for more riches and more people to rule over. I was so astounded by this greediness, and so terrified lest it should fall upon us too, that I was almost out of my mind; but I presently took heart again, you will scarcely guess why. I thought of our snow-clad country and its poor inhabitants, and said to myself: 'Thank God! we are poor and possess nothing which these greedy Kablunaks [so they call all foreigners] can desire. What we have upon the earth they do not care to possess, what we require for food and clothing swims in the great sea; of that they may take as much as they can, there will always be enough for us.' If only we have as much food as we can eat, and skins enough to keep us from the cold, we are quite contented; and you know very well that we let tomorrow take care of itself. Therefore we will not fight with anyone, even if we were strong enough; although we can as justly say that the sea belongs to us as the believers in the East can say of the unbelievers in the West that they and their possessions belong to them. We can say it is our sea which surrounds our land, and that the whales, cachalots, grampuses, porpoises, unicorns [that is, narwhals], white whales, seals, halibuts, salmon, cod, and sea-scorpions which swim in it belong to us too; but we willingly allow others to take of this great store as much as they please. We are happy in that we have not so great a natural covetousness as they. I have often wondered at the Christians, and have not known what to think about them—they leave their own beautiful land, and suffer much hardship in this country, which is to them so rough and disagreeable, simply for the sake of making us good people; but have you seen so much evil in our nation, have you ever heard such strange and utterly senseless talk among us? Their teachers instruct us how we are to escape the devil, whom we never knew; and yet the roystering sailors pray with the greatest earnestness that the devil may take them, or may split them. I daresay you remember how I, in my yonth, learned such phrases from them to please them, without knowing what they meant, until you forbade me to use them. Since I have come to understand them myself, I have heard more than I wanted of them. This year in particular I have heard so much of the Christians, that if I had not, in the course of long familiarity with them, known many good and worthy men among them, and if Hans Pungiok and Arnarsak, who have been to your country, had not told me that there were many pious and virtuous people there, I could have wished that we had never set eyes upon them lest they should corrupt our people. I daresay you have often heard how my countrymen think of you and yours that you have learned good behaviour among us; and when they see a pious person among you, they will often say, 'He is like a human being,' or 'a Greenlander.' You no doubt remember that funny fellow Okako's idea of sending angekoks [that is, medicine-men] to your country to teach the people to be good, as your king has sent preachers hither to teach us that there is a God, which we did not know before. But I know that your people do not lack instruction, and therefore that proposal is of no use. It is strange enough, my dear Pauia!—your people know that there is a God, the creator and upholder of all things, that after this life they will either be happy or miserable, according as they shall have conducted themselves here, and yet they live as if they were under orders to be wicked, and it was to their honour and advantage to sin. My countrymen, on the other hand, know nothing either of a God or a devil, believe neither in punishment nor in reward after this life; and yet they live decently, treat each other kindly, and share with each other peaceably when they have food to share. There are, of course, bad people among us too, which proves that we must be of one stock; and perhaps we must thank our barren land for the fact that most of us are above reproach. (You do not think, I hope, that I am talking hypocritically about my countrymen, for you know by experience that what I say is true.) When I have heard accounts of your pleasant country I have often envied its inhabitants; for they have great abundance of the delicious fruits of the earth. and of animals, birds, and fishes of innumerable sorts, fine large comfortable houses, fine clothes, a long summer, no snow or cold, no midges, but everything pleasant and desirable; and this happiness, I thought, belonged to you alone because you were believers, and, as it were, God's own children, while wc, as unbelievers, were placed in this country as a punishment. But, oh, we happy Greenlanders! Oh, dear native land! How well it is that you are covered with ice and snow; how well it is that if in your rocks there are gold and silver, for which the Christians are so greedy, it is covered with so much snow that they cannot get at it! Your unfruitfulness makes us happy and saves us from molestation! Pauia! we are indeed contented with our lot. Fish and flesh are our sole food; dainties seldom come in our way, but are all the pleasanter when they do. Our drink is ice-cold water; it quenches thirst and does not steal away the understanding or the natural strength like that maddening drink of which your people are so fond. Our clothing is of unsightly thick-haired skins, but it is well suited to this country, both for the animals, while the skins are still, theirs, and for us when we take them from them. Here then, thank God, there is nothing to tempt anyone to come and kill us for its sake. We live without fear. It is true that here in the North we have the fierce white bears; but to deal with them we have our dogs, which fight for us, so that we do not run the slightest risk. Murder is very seldom heard of among us. It does not happen unless someone is suspected or accused of being a magician and of having killed someone by his witchcraft, in which case he is killed without remorse by those whose duty it is, who think they have just as good right as the executioner in your country to take the lives of malefactors ; but they make no boast of it, and do not give thanks to God for it like the great lords in your country, when they have killed all the people of another land, as D. has told me. It surely cannot be to the good God of whom you teach us, who has forbidden us to shed blood, that they give thanks and praises; it must be to another who loves slaughter and destruction. I wonder if it is not to the Tornarsuk [the devil]? Yet that cannot be either; for it would be flying in the face of the good God to give any honour to Satan. I hope you will explain this to me at your convenience. I promise not to tell my countrymen about it. It might lead them to think like Kaua, who dared not become a Christian for fear he should come to be like the wicked sailors. I will not tell you. anything about the conversion of my countrymen, for I know that our teacher has given you all information. The thing you desired me to look into I will, as far as lam able, attend to. I have not been able to make the experiment with the compass, since the cold this year has been only moderate. The cause of the two conflicting currents is no doubt what you say. Since you value so much the two fishes almost turned to stone, I shall try to procure more for you ; they are found in clay beds, as you suppose. Now I seem to have been speaking to you and you to me—now I must close my letter. The skipper is ready and the wind is fair. The mighty Protector of all of us guide them over the great and perilous sea, and preserve them, especially from the wicked men hunters, of whom I see they are most in dread, so that they may come scatheless to their fatherland and find you, my beloved, with gladness.

Paul Greenlander.

Greenland, 1756.

This letter, as well as what has been stated in the earlier part of this chapter, surely justifies us in saying that the primitive morality of the Eskimo stands in many respects close to that of ideal Christianity, and is even in one way superior to it; for, as the letter-writer says, the Greenlanders 'know nothing either of a God or a devil, believe neither in punishment nor in reward after this life, and yet they live virtuously' none the less.

Many people will, no doubt, think it astonishing that we should find so highly developed a morality among a race so uncultivated, and so unclean in their outward habits. Others will perhaps find it more surprising that this morality should have been developed among a people who have no religion, or at any rate a very imperfect one, as we shall presently see. Such facts are inconsistent with the theory which is still held in many quarters, that morality and religion are inseparable. A study of the Eskimo community shows pretty clearly, I think, that morality to a great extent springs from and rests upon natural law.

  1. As stated on p. 28, green top-knots are worn by unmarried women who have had children.
  2. One reason of this is also to be found in natural selection, for the half-castes are now generally regarded as handsomer than the pure-bred Eskimos, and are consequently apt to be preferred in marriage.
  3. Holm: Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 100.
  4. Paul Egede was for many years a missionary in Greenland, but had at this time (1756) returned to Copenhagen.
  5. Efterretninger om Grönland.
  6. Pauia or Pavia is the Eskimo corruption of Paul.
  7. [Eviclently the earthquake at Lisbon. — Trans.]
  8. Probably the Dutch and English. — [Sivrely rather the French and English.—Trans.]
  9. Doubtless America.