Eskimo Life/Chapter 14

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All this superstition of which I have been speaking of course seems to us mere meaningless confusion, the extirpation of which must be an unmixed advantage. But if we place ourselves at their point of view, is it so much more meaningless for them than our Christian dogmas, which lead them into a world entirely foreign to them? In order to understand these dogmas, they had first to transpose them into their own key of thought, or, in other words, they had to make them more or less heathen before they could really grasp them at all. It is useless to imagine that a people can suddenly, at a word of command, begin to think in an entirely new manner. This transmutation has cost them much labour, and though they are still heathen at bottom and believe in their old legends, yet the new doctrine has introduced confusion into their ideas. This alone might tempt one to think that it would have been better to have let them preserve their own faith undisturbed. It gave them, with their comparatively meagre capacity for ideas, the easiest explanation of their surroundings; it peopled nature with the supernatural powers which they needed for consolation when reality became too hard and complex for them. And how characteristic these myths are of the Eskimos—for example, the conception of the region beyond the grave! Here there is neither silver nor gold, neither gorgeous raiment nor shining palaces, as in our stories; earthly riches have no value for the Eskimo. Nor are there lovely women, flowery gardens, and so forth. No; at most there is a mud hut, a little larger than his own, and in it sit the happy spirits eating rotten seals' heads, which sit in inexhaustible heaps under the benches; and around it there are splendid hunting-grounds, with quantities of game and much sunshine. In his eyes our Paradise of white-robed angels, where the blessed sit around upon chairs, seems a tedious and colourless existence which he does not understand, and which excites no longing in him. We can scarcely wonder at an angekok, who said to Niels Egede that he far preferred the tornarssuk's or 'Devil's house,' where he had often been; 'For in heaven there is no food to be had, but in hell there are seals and fishes in plenty.'

One would expect that the missionaries' victory[1] over heathendom would be a very easy one among so peaceful and good-humoured a people as the Greenlanders; but this can scarcely be said to have been the case. The natives had many objections to allege against the Christian assertions. For example, they could not understand that the sin which Adam and Eve committed 'could be so great and involve such melancholy consequences' as that the whole human race should be condemned on account of it. 'Since God knew all things, why did he permit the first man and woman to sin?' The idea of free-will seems to them, frankly speaking, mere rubbish, and, but for free-will, Adam's offspring would never have been corrupted, and the Son of God need not have suffered.

One girl was not at all contented with the answer she received to these objections. 'She wanted to have them so answered that she could inwardly assent and feel that the answer was true, and that she could silence those who had so much to say against this part of our doctrine.' Similarly, they were of opinion that Adam and Eve must have been very foolish to think of chattering with a serpent, and 'that they must have been very fond of fruit since they would rather die and suffer pain than forego a few big berries.' Others thought that it was just like the kavdlunaks (Europeans); for 'these greedy people never have enough; they have, and they want to have, more than they require. 'One angekok thought it was very unlucky that Christ, the great angekok, who could even bring the dead to life, was not born among the Eskimos; they would have loved him, and obeyed him, and not done like the foolish kavdlunaks. 'What madmen! to kill the man who could bring the dead to life!' When they saw that Christian Europeans quarrelled and fought, they had little faith in the Christian doctrines, and said: 'Perhaps, if we knew as much as they, we, too, would become inhuman.' And they thought that it was impossible to find well-behaved Europeans, 'unless they had been several years in Greenland and had there learnt mores'

Some asked, since Christianity was so essential, why God had not instructed them in it sooner, for then their forefathers, too, could have gone to heaven. When Paul Egede answered that perhaps God had seen that they would not accept the Word, but rather despise it, and thereby become more guilty, an old man said that he had known many excellent people, and had himself had a pious father; and even if some of them might have despised the Word, 'still there were the women and children, who are all credulous.' When Paul Egede explained to them that worldly goods are 'trumpery,' altogether unworthy to go to heaven, someone answered: 'I did not know that these things were not worth thinking about; if it is so nice there, why are we so unwilling to leave the earth?'

When the Scriptures came to be translated, considerable objections presented themselves. Many even of the Christian Greenlanders thought that it would not be advisable for their unbelieving countrymen to be told, for example, of 'Jacob's slyness and treachery towards his father and brother, of the patriarchs' polygamy, and especially of Simeon's and Levi's matchless wickedness.' 'The story of Lot,' too, they thought unfortunate. 'A selection of what was most important would be best for this people.'[2]

The sacrament of the altar, of course, seemed in their eyes the most arrant witchcraft, and baptism likewise. One time, says Niels Egede, when they had seen some Europeans going through this ceremony, 'an angekok asked me why I was always denouncing those who practised witchcraft, when here was one of our own priests performing sorceries over us?' To which Egede found no better answer than that it was 'in accordance with Christ's command;' he did not think 'the dog had any right to know more.' Once, when the missionaries told a man 'that he should especially thank God who had given him many children,' he became very angry and answered, 'It is a great lie to say that God has given me children, for I made them myself. "Is it not so?" he said, turning to his wife.'

Their criticism of the doctrine and practice of the missionaries was sometimes so mordant that the intelligent and honest merchant Dalager has to admit that 'even the stupidest natives from far beyond the colony have often confronted me with such objections on these points as have made me groan, while the perspiration stood on my brow.'

Divine service seems at first to have bored them very much; they preferred to hear about Europe, and would ask many naive questions: 'Whether the King was very big? Was he strong? Was he a great angekok? And had he caught many whales?' Paul Egede records that when they thought his father's sermons too long 'they went up to him and asked him if he was not soon going to stop. Then he had to measure off upon his arm how much of his discourse was left, whereupon they went back to their places and sat moving their hands down their arms every moment. When the preacher paused at the end of a paragraph, they made haste to move the hand right out to the finger-tips; but when he began again they cried "Ama" (that is, "Still more") and moved the hand back again half way up the arm. The singing was in my department, and when I began a new psalm, or sang for too long, they would often hold a wet sealskin mitten over my mouth.'

The missionaries' treatment of the natives was not always of the gentlest. I may cite a couple of examples chosen at random from their own statements: 'I gave him to understand,' says Niels Egede, 'that if he would not let himself be persuaded by fair means, but despised the Word of God, he should receive the same treatment from me as other angekoks and liars had received (namely a thrashing).' 'When I had tried all I could by means of persuasion and exhortation, without avail, I had recourse to my usual method, flogged him soundly and turned him out of the house.'[3] A girl was beaten by her priest, 'because she could not believe that God was so cruel as he represented Him to be; he had said that all her forefathers were with Tornarssuk, and were to be tortured to all eternity, because they did not know God.' She tried to defend them by suggesting that they knew no better, whereupon he lost his temper; and when at last she said 'that it was horrible for her to learn that God was so terribly angry with those who sinned that he could never forgive them, as even wicked men will sometimes do,' he gave her a beating.[4] It cannot but jar upon us to hear of such conduct on the part of our countrymen and Christian missionaries towards so peaceable a people; and it would scarcely make a better impression upon the natives themselves. We can only admire the good humour which prevented them from driving the missionaries out of their houses. In excuse for the missionaries, we must remember that they were born in Europe, and in a much ruder age than our own.

The conversion of the natives at first went but slowly and with difficulty; but they gradually discovered that the missionaries were in reality great angekoks, and that their ceremonies, such as baptism, their doctrines and formulas, the Christian books, and so forth, were magical appliances, potent for curing disease, protecting against want, and ensuring good fishery and other advantages; not to mention that conversion and a little appearance of contrition often bore immediate fruits in the shape of small rewards from the eager missionaries. Accordingly they said of them: 'They are good people, they gave us food when we believed and looked sorrowful.' A father whose son was dangerously ill, after having had recourse to various angekoks, took counsel with an old and experienced one 'as to whether he should not seek help from the priest at the Colony;' whereupon the old man calmly answered: 'You may do as you please; for I am of opinion that the Word of God and the words of skilful angekoks are equally powerful.' This gradually became the general opinion; and as it fortunately chanced in several cases that the Word of God seemed more effectual than that of the angekoks, it was natural that some should let themselves be baptised. The example once given, there were plenty to follow it, especially when distinguished hunters led the way.

But if the Greenlanders nominally went over to Christianity, they held, and still hold in a greater or less degree, to their old faith as well. It was at first very difficult to convince them of the falsity of the grotesque inventions of their angekoks. When they were reproached with their credulity they answered simply 'that they were not in the habit of lying and therefore believed all that people said to them.'

That they were not absolutely simple-minded, however, in their acceptance of all that the Europeans told them, seems clear from this, amongst other things, that when some Greenlanders could not get Niels Egede to swallow their assertion that 'they had killed a bear on Disco which was so big that it had ice on its back that never melted,' they said: 'We have believed what you tell us, but you will not believe what we tell you.'

To show what a little way below the surface Christianity has gone, and how some of them, at any rate, still understand baptism, I may mention that some years ago in North Greenland a catechist (a man who has received a theological education, and supplies the place of the clergyman in his absence) baptised not only his parishioners, but also his puppies in the name of the Father, the Son, &c. His wife was childless, and he took this means, as he thought, of setting matters right; and, sure enough, next year she bore a child.

The part of their old heathenism which now most haunts their fancy is, so far as my experience goes, the belief in the kivitut or mountain-men (see above, p. 266). Of these they stand in great dread, and frequently think they see them. While we were at Godthaab several of them were seen. Whenever anything is stolen from one of their store-rooms it is of course the kivitut who have done it, and if a kaiak-man disappears, and his body is not found, he is at once supposed to have taken to the mountains, and become a kivitok. This belief seems of late years to have gained ground greatly. A catechist, in the 'Atuagagdliutit,' takes his countrymen to task on the subject, and exclaims: 'No, let us believe of those who perish on the treacherous sea that they rest their limbs upon the great burying-ground at the bottom of the ocean, and that their souls live in the joys of eternity.'

I had once an unpleasant proof of the ingrained nature of this superstitious terror. At Godthaab, late one evening, I went over to one of the Greenlanders' houses with a letter which was to be sent off early next morning with some kaiak-men from another place. When I entered, the whole house was in deep slumber; men and women side by side on the chief sleeping-bench like herrings on a thwart. Not to disturb them more than necessary, I wanted to awaken the only unmarried son of the house, Jacob, who lay alone on the window-bench. He and I were excellent friends, and saw each other daily. I shook him, and shouted 'Jacob' into his ear. He slept as heavily as ever, and I had to shake him long and violently before he at last opened his eyes a little and grunted. But when he saw me bending over him, his eyes grew glassy with terror, and he sat up, uttered a frightful shriek, and kicked and struck out at me. He went on shrieking more and more wildly, and fought his way backwards on the bench. All of those upon the main bench now sat up too and stared in blank affright at me, while poor I stood there in speechless astonishment at the hubbub I had created. At last I recovered my powers of speech, approached Jacob, held out my hands towards him, and spoke some reassuring words. But that only made him worse than ever. When I saw that words were of no avail, I stopped speaking, and began to laugh, whereupon the yells ceased as suddenly as they had begun, and Jacob became as red in the face as he had formerly been white, and muttered something in a shamefaced way about having dreamt of a kivitok that wanted to carry him off to the mountains. I gave him my letter, and withdrew as quickly as I could. The next day it was known over all the Colony that I had been a kivitok; for the neighbours had heard the yells.

  1. Missionary activity in Greenland, then a possession of the Norwegian crown, was commenced in 1721 by Hans Egede, who to that end set on foot a combined commercial and missionary company in Bergen. This mission was afterwards supported by the Danish-Norwegian Government, and after the separation of 1814, by which Denmark retained the Norwegian possessions of the Faroe Isles, Iceland, and Greenland, by the Danish Government alone. Ten years after Egede's arrival in the country, Count Zinsendorf, who had heard of his mission, despatched three Moravian brethren to Greenland. These also formed a little congregation, and the German or Hernhutt mission has likewise obtained a footing. It has now a few stations in the Godthaab district, and one or two in the extreme south of the country. The peculiarity of these Hernhutt communities, so far as I could gather, is that in them the natives have sunk to an even greater depth of misery than elsewhere.
  2. Compare Paul Egede, Efterretninger om Grönland, pp. 117, 162.
  3. Niels Egede, Tredie Continuation af Relationerne, pp. 32, 45.
  4. Paul Egede, Efterretninger om Grönland, p. 221.