Eskimo Life/Chapter 12

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
MENTAL GIFTS—ART—MUSIC—POETRY—ESKIMO NARRATIVES
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 193-208

CHAPTER XII

MENTAL GIFTS ART—MUSIC—POETRY—ESKIMO NARRATIVES.

The Greenlanders are endowed with good mental faculties and great inventiveness. Their implements and weapons, as we have seen, afford a striking proof of this. The missionaries, too, especially at first, found only too ample opportunity to judge of the keenness of their understanding, when they were so foolish as to let themselves be drawn into discussions with the heathen angekoks. When the missionaries were cornered, however, they had often arguments in reserve which were much more forcible than those of the natives. They wielded, as my friend, the master carpenter at Godthaab used to say, 'a proper fist,' and to its persuasions the peaceable Greenlanders could not but yield.

To prove that their natural parts are good, I may mention that they learn to read and write with comparative ease. Most of the Christian Eskimos can now read and write, many of them very well; indeed, their faculty for writing is often quite marvellous. Even the heathen Eskimos learn to play dominoes, draughts, and even chess, with ease. I have often played draughts with the natives of the Godthaab district, and was astonished at the ability and foresight which they displayed.

All our ordinary branches of education they master with more or less readiness. Arithmetic is what they find most difficult, and there are comparatively few who get so far as to deal competently with fractions; the majority have quite enough to do with addition and subtraction of integers, to say nothing of multiplication and division. The imperfection of their gifts in this direction is no doubt due to age-old causes. The Eskimo language, like most primitive idioms, has a very undeveloped system of numerals, five being the highest number for which they have a special word. They count upon their fingers:

One, atausek; two, mardluk; three, pingasut; four, sisamet; five, tatdlimat, the last having probably been the original word for the hand. When an Eskimo wants to count beyond five, he expresses six by saying 'the first finger of the other hand' (arfinek or igluane atausek); for seven he says 'the second finger of the other hand' (arfinek mardluk), and so forth. When he reaches ten he has no more hands to count with, and must have recourse to his feet. Twelve, accordingiy, is represented by 'two toes upon the one foot' (arkanek mardluk), and so forth; seventeen by 'two toes on the second foot' (arfer-sanek mardluk), and so forth. Thus he manages to mount to twenty, which he calls a whole man (inuk nåvdlugo). Here the mathematical conceptions of many Eskimos come to an end; but men of commanding intellect can count still further, and for one-and-twenty say 'one on the second man' (inûp áipagssåne atausek). Thirty-eight is expressed by three toes on the second man's second foot' (inûp áipagssåne arfinek pingasut), forty by 'the whole of the second man' (inûp áipagssâ nåvdlugo), and so forth. In this way they can count to a hundred, or the whole of the fifth man'; but beyond that his language will not carry even the most gifted Eskimo.

This is, as will be easily understood, a somewhat unwieldy method of expression when one has to deal with numbers over twenty. In former days there was seldom any need to go further than this; but the introduction of money and trade has, unfortunately, rendered this more frequently necessary. It is therefore not surprising that, in spite of their remarkable power of resistance to foreign words, the Greenlanders have begun more and more to adopt the Danish numerals, even for the smaller numbers. By their aid they have now got so far that they can count to over a hundred, which they call untritigdlit[1]; but I strongly suspect that they have still a difficulty in forming any distinct conception of so high a number. A thousand they call tusintigdlit.[2]

This primitive Eskimo method of numeration answers to what we find among most primitive peoples, the fingers and toes having been from all time the most natural appliances for counting with; even our forefathers no doubt reckoned in the same way. Imperfect though it be, however, this method is a great advance upon that of the Australian tribes, who cannot count beyond three, or in some cases not beyond two, and whose numerals consist of: 'One, two, plenty.' That the forefathers of the Eskimos, as of all other peoples, at one time stood on this level appears from their original grammar, in which we find a singular, dual, and plural, as in Gothic, Greek, Sanscrit, the Semitic languages, and many others.

All travellers agree in acknowledging the Eskimo's remarkable sense of locality and talent for topography. When Captain Ommaney, in 1850, asked an Eskimo from Cape York to draw the coast, he took a pencil, a thing he had never seen before, and sketched the coast-line along Smith's Sound from his birthplace northwards with astonishing accuracy, indicating all the islands, and the more important rocks, glaciers, and mountains, and mentioning the names of all of them. The heathen natives brought to Captain Holm a map of the east coast north of Angmagsalik, which they had cut out in wood.

The Greenlanders have, in my opinion, an indubitable artistic faculty, and if their culture in this direction is but little developed, I believe the reason lies in their hard fight for existence, which has left them no time for artistic pursuits. Their art[3] consists chiefly in the decoration of weapons, tools, and garments with patterns and figures, cut out of bone or wood, or embroidered in leather. The designs often represent animals, human beings, woman-boats, and kaiaks; but they are conventional, and intended rather for decorative or symbolic effect than as true reproductions of Nature; indeed, they have as a rule assumed quite traditional forms. Some, too, are of religious significance, and represent, for example, the tôrnârssuk—one of their spirits or supernatural beings. When they really try to copy Nature, they sometimes display a rare sense of form and power of reproducing it, as may be seen from the remarkable pictures given by Captain Holm of dolls and toys from the east coast, which are therefore quite uninflunced by European art-products.

Weapons and tools were doubtless among the first things upon which the human artistic faculty thought of exercising itself; but the human body itself was perhaps a still earlier subject for artistic treatment. Relics of this early form of art are found among the Eskimos, the women seeking to heighten their attractions by means of geometrical lines and figures which they produce upon face, breast, arms, or legs, by means of drawing sinews, blackened with lamp-soot, through the skin.

Hieroglyphics, which many believe to have been, in part at least, the origin of art, seem oddly enough to have been unknown among the Greenlanders, unless indeed the symbolic designs in their ornamentation can be supposed to have some such significance. The only attempt at real picture-writing which I have been able to discover among them does not evince a very high order of talent. It was a missive to Paul Egede from an angekok, which consisted simply of a stick, upon which was drawn, with soot and train oil, a figure like this: /\. The angekok called after the letter-carrier, as he took his departure, 'If Pauia Angekok does not understand what I mean (though he probably will), then say to him: "This means a pair of trousers which I want him to buy for me at the stores." But he will understand it well enough.'

Eskimos who have seen specimens of European art and methods of representation, will sometimes produce remarkable things without any sort of instruction. A Greenlander named Aaron once fell

click here to enlarge image.

eskimo venus and apollo.

sick and had to keep to his bed. Dr. Rink sent him some materials for wood-engraving and some old woodcuts. Lying in bed, he at once began to illustrate the Eskimo legends, and he not only drew his pictures, but also cut them on the wood.

As an example of their talent for sculpture I here reproduce two heads, carved in wood, which a native of a village in the Godthaab district brought to me. They seem to me to betray a marked sense of humour; and one can scarcely doubt that it is the features of his own race which the artist has immortalised.

Of musical talent the Greenlanders have a good share. They pick up our music with remarkable ease, and reproduce it, sometimes vocally, for they are very fond of singing, sometimes on the violin, guitar, organ, accordion, or other instruments, which they quickly teach themselves to play upon. This is the more remarkable as their primitive music, which was performed at the drum-dances, is monotonous and undeveloped, like that of most primitive peoples. It employs only a few notes, as a rule not more than five; but it is nevertheless peculiar and not without interest. It is believed to be in the main an imitation of the rushing of the rivers. The East Greenlanders told Holm that when they sleep beside a river they hear the singing of the dead, and this they seek to imitate.

The primitive characteristics of their music have of course been more or less destroyed by their intercourse with Europeans. They have now adopted many European airs, and it produces a quaint and surprising effect, among the mountains and the glaciers, suddenly to hear a snatch of a Copenhagen street song, as for example, 'Gina, lovely maiden mine, . . . won't you come along?'

The Greenlanders have a great wealth of fairy tales and legends, many of them very characteristic. Nothing affords a better insight into the whole spiritual life of the people, their disposition, feelings, and moods, than the matter of these legends and the manner in which they are told. We find in them a considerable talent for narrative and gift of imagination, along with a grotesque humour, which of course often takes the form of coarseness.

Besides this legendary lore (see next chapter) and narratives of exploits and adventures, the Greenlanders had a poetry of their own. The songs were either lampoons, such as they used to sing at the before-mentioned drum-dances, or else descriptions of different objects and events.

When, on the introduction of Christianity, the drum-dance was abolished, the art of versification also fell into disuse or assumed new shapes. Still, however, the Greenlanders make up songs. They are often of a jocose character, the poet setting forth to ridicule, in a more or less innocent manner, the peculiarities of others. I understand that several songs of this nature were composed with reference to members of my expedition. Indeed I have often heard them sung about the settlement of an evening, though I never succeeded in obtaining the text of any of them.

Thanks to the initiative of Dr. Rink, an Eskimo newspaper, Atuagagdliutit, has ever since 1861 been published in Godthaab. It is printed by a native, Lars Möller, who has been to Copenhagen to learn the trade, and who even draws and lithographs pictures for it. It is published twelve times a year, and is distributed gratis to the community, the expenses being borne out of the public funds. Its contents consist partly of translations from the Danish, partly of independent contributions from the natives describing their hunting, their travels, and so forth. Thus a whole new literature has been called into existence.

A specimen of their method of narration was given in 'The First Crossing of Greenland,' Vol. II. pp. 217-236. It consisted of the account given by an Eskimo named Silas, in the Atuagagdliutit, of his expedition from Unanak on Godthaab-fiord to the Ameralik fiord to render assistance to the four members of our expedition who had remained behind there in October 1888, after Sverdrup and I had proceeded to Godthaab. The following narrative, from the Atuagagdliutit, is also a good sample of their style. It exemplifies, moreover, the strong hold which their superstitions still possess upon the Eskimo mind, and is thus of interest with reference to the matter of my next chapter. I have to thank Mrs. Signe Rink for her kindness in translating it for me.

At last I send you something which I have long thought of contributing to your 'Varieties' column. There is not much in what I have to tell, but what there is I have seen with my own eyes. I refer to the comical customs in connection with the killing of a bear in certain southern districts, which are quite unknown elsewhere. These things took place in the year 1882-83 down at Augpilagtut, a little way from Pamiagdluk.[4] There are two Eskimo houses at Augpilagtut. In one of them lived three seal-hunters with their families, to wit, Benjamin, surnamed Akâtit, Isaac, or Umangǔjok, and lastly Moritz; and in the other dwelt Mathæus, who was generally called Ulivkakaungamik, or 'the full-stuffed,' from a catch-word he himself was in the habit of using. He was over seventy, but still went hunting very often, and had even killed many bears all by himself.

It happened one Sunday, when all the other hunters had gone to sea, that we who remained behind held a prayer meeting in Mathæus's house. When it was over, Benjamin's son was the first who went out, and he came rushing back again crying, 'There's a bear right outside here, eating the blubber.'

I was half frightened, half rejoiced by this news; but old Mathæus positively trembled with delight, and burst forth, 'Thanks to him who brings such good tidings; I must go out at once and kill the bear.' I looked at him, thinking that he was going to pick out for himself a good weapon, a long knife or spear. But nothing of the kind! The weapon he had taken scarcely stuck out from his clenched fist. What use can that be, I thought, against the bear's hide and thick layer of fat. However, the women of the house would not let him attack the bear, and all seized upon him to hold him back, I helping them. The women all untied their top-knots and let their hair spread loose, that the bear might think they were men, and therefore keep his distance. For our heathen forefathers thought that bears had human understanding.

As we were afraid lest this bear should take it into his head to come into the house through the gut-skin window, I, too, had to think about getting hold of some weapon or other, and therefore asked for their axe; but I of course found that it had been lent to the people of the other house.

At the same time I caught sight of a woman's knife lying upon the ipak[5] beside beside the lamp, and that I seized, along with a piece of wood from an old kaiak-keel, which I wanted to tie to the knife and use as a spear-shaft. But no sooner had I taken these things than someone behind me cried, 'Give them to me; I am ever so much stronger than you!' It was no other than Mathæus's daughter, a widow. She took them both away from me.

The house-clock[6] now began to strike eleven, and that brute of a bear forthwith began to look hungrier. I rushed at once to stop the striking, but in my consternation I made a mistake and increased the racket, until at last I managed to get the weight loosened and the striking stopped. The women were still holding tight to Mathæus to keep him back, Then, all at once, the mother of the boy who had seen the bear began to slip her trousers down to her knees, and so go shuffling round the room, while she plaited some straws. This, they said, was to weaken the bear, so as to make it easier to get the better of him. In the meantime, old Mathæus shook the women off and set forth. I rushed after him, and came up with him before he had quite got out of the entrance-passage. He told me to go quietly, and said, 'Hush, hush, now he's going down towards the sea.'

Mathæus's rifle was lying in his kaiak on the beach, and as soon as the bear had passed the kaiak, the old man crept cautiously on all fours in the same direction. I stood at the entrance to the passage and saw the bear suddenly turn and rush roaring towards him. This frightened me so that I fled 'over to the other house where, in my hurry, I came tumbling in at the door. While I still lay grovelling upon the floor, I could see through the window[7] how the bear and Mathæus stared each other straight in the face, each on his own side of the kaiak, Mathæus making grimaces, and the bear roaring with his mouth wide open, ready to bite him; but Mathæus planted his foot firmly against the kaiak and aimed, without once taking his eyes off the bear for a single moment; and then he fired. I now hurried out, just in time to see him thrust his sealing-lance into its carcase. Then he called loudly to those in the house that now they had better come and get their ningek (slice of fat). In their hurry to outstrip each other, the women almost stuck fast in the narrow house-passage, part of which they tore down. When they reached the bear, they all thrust their hands into the wound and lapped some of the blood, while each of them named the part of the animal which she wanted to have. At last my turn came to drink the blood, and I did so, saying that I wanted one ham as my portion; but thereupon they answered that all the limbs were already bespoke, and that I, moreover, had neglected to touch the bear when I came up to it. It was extremely vexatious that I had forgotten this detail. The mother of the boy who had first seen the bear now ran for a bowl of water and made us all take a mouthful of it, though none of us was thirsty. This she did in order that her son might always have good luck in spying bears. The drinking of the blood was meant to prove to the whole race of bears how they thirsted after them. Before they set to work to cut up the bear, they kept drumming at his skin and crying: 'You are fat, fat, beautifully fat.' This they do out of politeness, in the hope that the bear may really be fat: but when we skinned this one it was found to be quite unusually lean.

When they carried the head into the house, I went along with them, knowing that they would go through certain ceremonies with it. First it was placed on the edge of the lamp-table with the face towards the south-east; then they stopped its mouth and nostrils with sediment from the lamps and other sorts of grease; and lastly, they bedecked the crown of the head with all sorts of little things, such as shoe soles, sawdust, glass beads, knives, &c. The south-east direction is due to the fact that it is from this quarter of the compass that the bears generally come, being carried by 'the great ice' round the southern extremity of the land. The lamp moss in the nostrils is meant to prevent the bear they next attack from scenting the approach of men; and the greasing of the mouth is designed to give it pleasure, as the bear is supposed to be a lover of all sorts of fried grease. The head is covered with knick-knacks because they think that the bear is sent to them by their forefathers for the purpose of bringing these things with it to the other world; and as they reckon that the bear's soul cannot reach its home in less than five days, they always refrain for that time from eating its head, lest its soul should die on the way, and the little gifts to their relatives should thus be lost. They are even careful to stop up all the holes in the neck where the head has been cut off, in order to prevent the soul from bleeding to death on its journey. For my part, I call all this idolatry. The heathens, indeed, believed in the old days that everything, whether living or dead, had its soul; but there is nothing that one ought to mix up with man's immortal soul. The fact that, even in our days, so long after the introduction of Christianity, the people here in the far south still cling to some of the habits of their forefathers is due to their frequent (almost yearly) intercourse with the heathens of the east coast.

I left Augpilagtut in 1885. I am not quite sure whether even out at Pamiagdluk there may not be a few families who still lean to these bear superstitions; but all certainly do not—not Isaac's family, for one. At other places, for example here at the Colony, they have scarcely even heard of the customs I have described.

I had not been told on what day they intended to cook the bear's head, and was therefore surprised by a sudden invitation to come and share in it. I cut the snout off with out ceremony; but they soon let me know that I had made a mistake, at once tearing it out of my hands. I confess I was a good deal offended, and told them straight out that, however foolish they might think me, I did not believe a bit in all this. They assured me quite earnestly that in that case I would never kill a bear, whereupon I answered that this prophecy was very likely to be fulfilled, since I was so short-sighted that the bear would probably be licking me before I was aware of its presence.

They have also these further customs: If they see the track of a bear in the snow, they eat a little of it in order to assure themselves of killing the bear if it should happen to come back the same way. Little boys are given the kidneys of bears to eat, in order that they may be strong and courageous in bear-hunting. Furthermore, they are careful during the aforesaid five days not to make any jingling noise, for the bear is supposed to dislike any sort of clinking or clanking.

Mathæus told me that the bear I had seen him kill was his eleventh, and that he had not been in the least afraid of it because in this case he knew he had his rifle to trust to; but that once before when he had seen a bear come crawling up the beach in the same way, he had rushed right in upon it with only his lance. He said he could not remember how long ago that was.

  1. Danish, hundrede.
  2. Danish, tusinde.
  3. The most important contribution to our knowledge of Eskimo art in its primitive condition is to be found in Captain Holm's instructive account of the Eskimos at Angmagsalik, Meddelelser om Grönland, pt.10, p.148, &c, with illustrations.
  4. Near Cape Farewell.
  5. The ipak is an extension of the sleeping-bench (generally square) on which they place the lamp with its wooden stand.
  6. Cheap Nuremberg or Swiss clocks are among the articles of luxury which commerce has introduced into Greenland; they are to be found in the remotest corners of the country.
  7. Which is very low in the genuine Eskimo huts.