Eskimo Life/Chapter 9

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Love, that power which permeates all creation, is by no means unknown in Greenland; but the Greenland variety of it is a simple impulse of nature, lacking the many tender shoots and intricate blossoms of the hot-house plant which we know by this name.

It does not make the lover sick of soul, but drives him to sea, to the chase; it strengthens his arm and sharpens his sight; for his one desire is to become an expert hunter, so that he can lead his Naia home as his bride, and support a family. And the tender young Naia stands upon the outlook-rock gazing after him; she sees with what speed and certainty he shoots ahead, how gracefully he wields the paddle, and how lightly his kaiak dances over the waves. Then he disappears in the far distance; but she still gazes over the endless blue expanse, which heaves over the grave of so many a bold kaiak-man.

At last he comes home again, towing his booty; she rushes down to the beach and helps the other women to bring his prey ashore, while he quietly puts his weapons together and goes up to his house.

But one evening he does not return, for all her waiting and gazing; all the others have come—him the sea has taken. She weeps and weeps, she can never survive the blow. But her despair does not last long; after all, there are other men in the world, and she begins to look on them with favour.

The pure-bred Eskimo generally marries as soon as he can provide for a wife. The motive is not always love; 'the right one' has perhaps not yet appeared on the scene; but he marries because he requires a woman's help to prepare his skins, make his clothes, and so forth. He often marries, it is said, before he is of an age to beget children. On the east coast, indeed, according to Holm, it is quite common for a man to have been married three or four times before that age.[1]

Marriage in Greenland was, in earlier times, a very simple matter. When a man had a mind to a girl, he went to her house or tent, seized her by the hair or wherever he could best get hold of her, and dragged her without further ceremony home to his house,[2] where her place was assigned her upon the sleeping-bench. The bridegroom would sometimes give her a lamp and a new water-bucket, or something of that sort, and that concluded the matter. In Greenland, however, as in other parts of the world, good taste demanded that the lady in question should on no account let it appear that she was a consenting party, however favourably disposed towards her wooer she might be in her heart. As a well-conducted bride among us feels it her duty to weep as she passes up the church, so the Eskimo bride was bound to struggle against her captor, and to wail and bemoan herself as much as ever she could. If she was a lady of the very highest breeding, she would weep and 'carry on' for several days, and even run away home again from her husband's house. If she went too far in her care for the proprieties, it would sometimes happen, we are told, that the husband, unless he was already tired of her, would scratch her a little on the soles of the feet, so that she could not walk; and before the sores were healed, she was generally a contented housewife.

When they first saw marriages conducted after the European fashion, they thought it very shocking that the bride, when asked if she would have the bridegroom for her husband, should answer Yes. According to their ideas, it would be much more becoming for her to answer No, for they regard it as a shameful thing for a young lady to reply to such a question in the affirmative. When assured that this was the custom among us, they were of opinion that our women-folk must be devoid of modesty.

The simple method of marriage above described is still the only one known upon the east coast of Greenland, and a good deal of violence is sometimes employed in the carrying off of the bride. The lady's relations, however, stand quite unmoved and look on. It is all a private matter between the parties, and the Greenlanders love of a good understanding with his fellows makes him chary of mixing himself up in the affairs of others.

It sometimes happens, of course, that the young lady really objects to her wooer; in that case she continues her resistance until she either learns to possess her soul in patience, or until her captor gives her up.

Graah relates a curious instance[3] proving how difficult it is for an onlooker to determine what are really the lady's sentiments. An able-bodied young rowing-woman in his boat, an East Greenlander named Kellitiuk, was one day seized and carried to the mountains by one of her countrymen named Siorakitsok, in spite of the most violent resistance on her part. As Graah believed that she really disliked him, and as her friends affirmed the same thing, he went after her and rescued her. A few days later, as he was preparing to set forth on his journey again, and the boat had just been launched, Kellitiuk jumped into it, lay down under the thwarts, and covered herself with bags and skins. It soon appeared that this was because Siorakitsok had just landed on the island, bringing his father with him to back him up. While Graah's back was turned for a moment, he jumped into the boat and dragged the fair one out of her hiding-place. Convinced that her brutal wooer was really repulsive to her, Graah thought it his duty to rescue her. When he came up, the suitor had already got her half out of the boat, and his father stood by on shore ready to lend a hand. Graah tore her from his grasp, and recommended him instead to try his luck with 'Black Dorothy,' another of the rowing-women, whom he would have been glad to get rid of. The baffled bridegroom listened to him quietly, 'muttered some inaudible words in his beard, and went away with wrathful and threatening looks.' The father did not take his sons fate much to heart, 'but helped us to load the boat,' says Graah, 'and then bade us a no doubt well-meant farewell.' When they were about to start, however, Kellitiuk was nowhere to be found, although they shouted and searched for her all over the little island. She had evidently hidden her self away somewhere, and they set off without her; so it appears that she had, after all, no irreconcilable antipathy to Siorakitsok.

Among the heathen Greenlanders, divorce is as simple an affair as marriage. When a man grows tired of his wife—the reverse is of rarer occurrence—he need only, says Dalager, 'lie apart from her on the sleeping-benches, without speaking a word. She at once takes the hint,' and next morning gathers all her garments together and quietly returns to her parents' house, trying, as well as she can, to appear indifferent. How many husbands at home could wish that their wives were Greenlanders!

If a man takes a fancy to another man's wife, he takes her without ceremony, if he happens to be the stronger. Papik, a highly respected and skilful hunter at Angmagsalik, on the east coast, took a fancy to the young wife of Patuak, and, towing a second kaiak behind his own, he set off for the place where Patuak lived. He went to his tent, carried off the woman, made her get into the second kaiak, and paddled away with her. Patuak, being younger than Papik, and not to be compared with him in strength and skill, had to put up with the loss of his wife.[4]

There are cases on the east coast of women who have been married to half-a-score of different men. Utukuluk, at Angmagsalik, had tried eight husbands, and the ninth time she remarried husband No. 6.[5]

Divorce is especially easy so long as there are no children. When the woman has had a child, especially if it be a boy, the bond is apt to become more lasting.

On the east coast, if a man can keep more than one wife, he takes another; most of the good hunters, therefore, have two, but never more.[6] It appears that in many cases the first wife does not like to have a rival; but sometimes it is she that suggests the second marriage, in order that she may have help in her household work. Another motive may also come into play. 'I once asked a married woman,' says Dalager, 'why her husband had taken another wife? "I asked him to myself," she replied, "for I'm tired of bearing children."

The first wife seems always to be regarded as the head of the household, even if the husband shows a preference for the second.

Polyandry seldom occurs. Nils Egede mentions a woman who had two husbands, but both she and they were angekoks.[7]

On the introduction of Christianity, these primitive and simple marriage customs were of course abolished on the west coast of Greenland, where people are now united with religious ceremonies as in Europe. The bride, too, is no longer required to offer so determined a resistance.

But if it was formerly easy to get oneself a wife, under the new order of things it has become difficult enough. For the ceremony must necessarily be performed by a clergyman, the native catechists, who fill the place of the pastors in the various villages, not being reckoned good enough. If, then, you happen to live at a place which the pastor visits only once a year, or perhaps once in two years, you must take care to come to an understanding with the lady of your choice just in time to seize the opportunity. If a young fellow should take it into his head to marry just after the pastor has gone away, he must wait a year, or perhaps two, before he can go through the necessary ceremony, unless, indeed, he and his bride are prepared to take a long journey in search of clerical ministrations.

Such a state of things would inevitably lead many to form less binding connections, or to marry without the help of the clergy, even if the Greenlanders were naturally less inclined towards such laxity than as a matter of fact they are. I have heard of a case in which a cleric, on coming to a certain village after a two years' absence, had to confirm a girl, marry her, and christen her child on the same day. This may be called summary procedure. Such an arrangement cannot but be hurtful, tending to undermine all respect for the ceremony whose impressiveness it is sought to enhance by making the clergy alone competent to officiate at it. On the introduction of Christianity, polygamy was of course abolished. The missionaries even insisted that when a man who was married to two wives became a Christian, he should put away one of them. In 1745, an Eskimo at Frederikshaab had a mind to be baptised, 'but when it came to a question of putting away his second wife, he began to hesitate, for he had two sons by her, whom he would thus lose. In the end he changed his mind and went his way.'[8] For this one can scarcely blame him. Similar cases, in which it is required that a man shall put away one of his wives, with whom he has perhaps lived happily for many a year, still occur now and then, when a Greenlander from the east coast settles on the west coast (near Cape Farewell) and is baptised. The hardship which the man is thus forced to inflict upon the woman need scarcely be insisted upon. Even to Dalager, in last century, it appeared an injustice, and 'how far it conflicted with the ordinances of God that a man should have more than one wife, seemed to him a problem.'

Polygamy, however, is still occasionally to be found upon the west coast, a second wife being apparently one of the indulgences which first occur to a Greenlander's mind when he is inclined to kick over the traces.

In Greenland, as elsewhere, the position of women in marriage differs according to the circumstances of each particular case. As a rule the man is the master; but I have also seen cases, doubtless exceptional, in which the grey mare has been the better horse.

Among the primitive Eskimos, the wife seems practically to have been regarded as the husband's property. It sometimes happens on the east coast that a formal bargain and sale precedes the marriage, the bridegroom paying the father a harpoon, or something of the sort, for the privilege of wedding his lovely daughter. Sometimes, on the other hand, the father will pay a hunter of credit and renown to take his daughter off his hands, and the daughter is bound to marry at her father's bidding.[9] Moreover, it often occurs on the east coast that two hunters agree to exchange wives for a longer or shorter period — sometimes for good. Temporary exchanges of wives still occur, doubtless, on the west coast as well, especially during the summer reindeer-hunting, when the people are living in tents in the interior of the country. At these times they allow themselves many liberties which cannot be controlled by the missionaries.

Married people as a rule live on very good terms with each other. I have never heard an unkind word exchanged between man and wife; and this is the general experience. Dalager declares that 'the longer a married couple live together, the more closely are they united in affection, until at last they pass their old age together like innocent children.' They are, on the whole, exceedingly considerate towards each other, and may sometimes be seen to exchange caresses. They do not kiss as we do, however, but press their noses together or snuff at each other. This process I am unfortunately unable to describe, as I lack the necessary practice.

On the east coast, too, the relation between husband and wife seems to be very good as a rule, though it appears, according to Captain Holm, that scenes of violence are not unknown.

A certain Sanimuinak one day came home to his spouse Puitek, bringing with him a second wife, the young Utukuluk (the before-mentioned lady of the nine husbands), whereupon Puitek became angry and fell to scolding her husband. This made him so furious that he seized her by the top-knot and struck her with his clenched fist on the back and in the face. At last he seized a knife and stabbed her in the knee, so that the blood spurted forth.[10] Holm also relates a case in which a man received a sound thrashing from his wife. Scenes of this sort, however, are very rare among this peaceable people.

Any very deep love between man and wife is no doubt exceptional, depth of feeling being, on the whole, uncommon among the Eskimos. If one dies the survivor is generally pretty easily consoled. 'If a man loses his wife,' says Dalager, 'not many of his own sex come to condole with him. The women folk, on the other hand, squat along the inner edge of the sleeping-benches in his house and bewail the deceased, while he, in response, sobs and wipes his nose. After a short time, however, he begins to adorn himself as he used to in his bachelor clays, polishing up his kaiak and his weapons with particular care, these being the things with which a Greenlander always makes the greatest show. When, at sea, he comes dashing up to his comrades in this brilliant array, they say to each other: "Look, look— here comes a new brother-in-law." If he overhears it, he says nothing, but smiles to himself.' It is highly incumbent upon a widower's new wife to lament her own imperfections and belaud the virtues of her predecessor: 'Whence we learn that the Greenland women are as apt at acting a part, where their interest is concerned, as are others of their sex in more polite countries.'

The chief end and aim of marriage in Greenland is unquestionably the procreation of children. Therefore, as in the Old Testament times, unfruitful women are contemned, and a childless marriage is often dissolved.

On the average, the pure-bred Greenlanders are not prolific. Two, three, or four children to each marriage is the general rule, though there are in stances of families of six or eight, or even more.

Twins are uncommon, and I was often asked by the women if it were true that in the land of the long beards (Norway) women gave birth to two children at a time. When I answered that they not only bore twins but also triplets and even four children at a birth, they shrieked with laughter and declared that our women were like dogs: for human beings and seals bear only one at a time.

As a rule, the Greenland women suffer little in childbirth. As an example of how easily they take this incident in their lives, I may quote a case mentioned by Graah. As he was passing by Bernstorffsfiord, on his journey along the east coast, one of the women of his company was taken with labour-pains. They hastened to land upon a naked rock on the north side of the fiord. While the labour continued, the husband stretched himself on the rock and fell asleep; but presently they awakened him with the joyful intelligence that a son had been born to him. As already stated, this is regarded as a piece of good luck, while the birth of a daughter is a matter of in difference. 'Ernenek accordingly (that was the husband's name) expressed his satisfaction by smiling on his spouse and saying "Ajungilatit" (Not so bad for you). With our new passenger, we at once proceeded on our journey.'[11]

The heathen Greenlanders kill deformed children and those which are so sickly as to seem unlikely to live; those, too, whose mother dies in childbirth, so that there is no one to give them suck. This they do, as a rule, by exposing the child or throwing it into the sea.[12] However cruel this may sound to many European mothers, it is nevertheless done from compassion, and it is undeniably reasonable; for under such hard natural conditions as those of Greenland, we cannot wonder that people are unwilling to bring up offspring which can never be of any use, and can only help to diminish the common store of sustenance.[13] It is for the same reason that people who have grown so old as to be quite unable to fend for themselves are held in small esteem and are thought to be better out of the way. On the east coast it sometimes happens that old people, who seem likely to die, are drowned, or else drown themselves. Similar practices also obtained in former days upon the west coast (compare next chapter).

Greenland mothers are very slow to wean their children. They often give suck until the child is three or four, and I have even heard of cases in which children of ten or twelve continued to take the breast. A European at Godthaab told me that he had seen a dashing youth of twelve or so come home in his kaiak with his booty, rush up to his home, and there consume a biscuit, standing between his mother's knees, and drinking, from time to time, from her breast.

All the children of Christian Greenlanders are of course christened and given names. The original Greenland names however, have, owing to the influence of the missionaries, almost entirely died out. In their stead are used all possible Biblical names from both the Old and the New Testament. No where in the world, probably, is one surer to meet with the whole dramatis personæ of the Scriptures, right from Father Adam down to Peter and Paul. Our notable friend Dalager does not seem to have liked this misuse of the Bible, and therefore, he says, 'I once asked a certain missionary why a Greenlander, when he was christened, could not be allowed to retain his former name, which was probably a very natural and good one. "It sounds ill" he replied, "to have a Christian called after a seal or a sea-bird." I smiled and answered that at home there were plenty of Ravens, Hawks, and Crows, who passed for excellent people none the less.' On this point I cannot but agree with Dalager.

The Greenlanders are exceedingly fond of their children and do everything to make them happy, especially if they are boys. These little tyrants will often rule over the whole house, and the words of Solomon: 'Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying,' are by no means acted upon. Punishment, especially of course where their own flesh and blood is concerned, they regard on the whole as inhuman. I have never once heard an Eskimo say an unkind word to his child. With such an upbringing, one might expect that the Greenland children would be naughty and intractable. This is not at all the case. Although I have gone about a good deal among the Eskimos on the west coast, I have only once seen a naughty Eskimo child, and that was in a more European than Eskimo home. When the children are old enough to understand, a gentle hint from father or mother is enough to make them desist from anything forbidden. I have never seen Eskimo children quarrelling either indoors or in the open air; not even talking angrily to each other, much less fighting. I have watched them playing by the hour, and have even taken part in their football (a peculiar game of theirs, very like the English football), which, as we know, is rather apt to lead to quarrels; but I have never seen an angry or even an unfriendly look pass between them. Could such a thing happen in Europe? I shall not attempt to determine what may be the reason of this remarkable difference between Eskimo and European children. No doubt it is mainly due to the excessively peaceable and good-humoured temperament of the race, devoid of all nervousness or irritability. It may partly be attributed, also, to the fact that the Eskimo women always live in the same room as their children, and carry them with them in the amauts on their backs even when they go to work. Thus they can give them much more constant care, and there is a more unbroken intercourse between children and parents in Greenland than in Europe.

We must not judge the Eskimo boys too severely if they now and then amuse themselves with throwing stones at the Colonial Manager's or the Pastor's fowls and ducks, or if they make occasional irruptions into the Manager's garden and root up or destroy the plants. It must be remembered that the conception of property in land, and the notion that one is not at liberty to chase or to appropriate whatever moves or grows upon the face of the earth, are quite foreign to their instinctive ideas. Even if such conceptions are inculcated upon them, they do not grasp them clearly; they are, and will always remain, notions which the European foreigners have tried to introduce in their own interests, and which are founded upon no natural right.

In order to exercise their eyes and their arms, the provident Greenlander gives his sons, even while they are mere children, toy bird-darts and harpoons; and with these, or, failing these, with common stones, one may see the three or four-year-old hunters practising upon small birds and anything else worthy of their passion for the chase which they happen to come across. I have already mentioned that they commence practising in the kaiak at a very early age.

It is, of course, of the greatest importance for the Greenland community that the rising generation should be brought up to be expert hunters. On this their whole future depends.

The girls, too, must be early trained in their life-work; they must learn to sew, and to assist their mother in her domestic labours.

  1. Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 94.
  2. It sometimes happened, too, that he got others to do this for him; but the affair must always take the form of a capture or abduction. Similar customs, as is well known, formerly prevailed in Europe, and have even, in certain places, survived down to our own day.
  3. W. A. Graah, Narrative of an Expedition to the East Coast of Greenland, London, 1837, pp. 140-143.
  4. Holm, Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 96.
  5. Holm, Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 103.
  6. Dalager states that, in his time, on the west coast, 'scarcely one in twenty of the Greenlanders had two wives, very few three, and still fewer four; I have, however, known a man who had eleven.' — Grönlandske Relationer, p. 9.
  7. Angekok = medicine-man, or priest.
  8. Dalager: Grönlandske Relationer, p. 9.
  9. Holm: Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 96.
  10. Holm: Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 102.
  11. W. A . Graah, Narrative of an Expedition to the East Coast of Greenland, London, 1837, p. 135.
  12. Compare P. Egede, Efterretninger om Grönland, p. 107; and Holm, Meddelelser om Grönland, pt. 10, p. 91.
  13. Although, as we have seen, the Eskimos are not greatly delighted at the birth of daughters, they do not, like so many other primitive people, make a habit of killing female children.