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Anirniq : An Inuit "Ghost" Story

"The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" ? William Shakespeare (Hamlet. Act I. Scene 1)

Cultural studies tell us there are few peoples that do not believe in ghosts ? that is, the possibility of a person's animating force lingering, influencing the living even after death. Most cultures have innumerable ghost stories to tell, and anyone who hears them will instantly notice dramatic similarities, even between those of cultures as radically different as Inuit and English.

But while it is tempting to write off such similarities with the warm glow of human "oneness," simply describing all ghost stories as a common need for spicy horror and evidence of life-after-death, the truth is that the ghost, as a common concept, quickly breaks down when we examine any particular culture's definition of the phenomenon. While all ghosts are assumed to be somehow derived from a once-living person, cultures often differ on exactly how and in what way a ghost is a ghost. And when we examine this true derivation, we gain a glimpse into how a culture views death and the after-life. Therefore, we have much more than a good tale here ? we eye the very cosmology of a people.

The following untitled story, which is especially common in Alaska and the Western Arctic, is a good example of how ghosts behave in Inuit folklore:

There was once a community along the shore. The people were quite peaceable, but there lived among them a single, nasty old man. He was cruel and greedy, and not a tear was shed when he finally met his violent death. The way in which he died is not especially important ? what does matter is the way in which his body was treated.

Taboo dictated that a cadaver was to be wrapped in caribou skins, then carefully covered with heavy stones, in order to prevent wolverines and other scavengers from desecrating it. But these people had so hated the old man that they were loathe to even touch his corpse. So they carried his body away from camp, laying it down without first enwrapping it. They placed only a few stones upon it, not especially caring that animals would take their toll.

The people tried to get on with their lives. But there was an angakoq (shaman) among them who would not let them forget that they had violated a taboo. And so, when the hunting went bad, when no animals could be found, the angakoq blamed it upon their actions.

The people were eventually forced to move from that place. They traveled inland, where they found more animals to hunt. Time went by, and they again knew peace.

As generations passed, there came to be a boy who was very, very lazy. He greatly disliked hunting, preferring instead to tinker around with rocks and sticks. He also experienced weird dreams and ideas, and so became apprenticed to an angakoq. He displayed a talent for shamanism, but the rest of the people were still sick of supporting him. He found himself plagued by comments like,

"Why don't you catch something to eat like everyone else? You eat everyone else's food, and never hunt anything yourself."

One day, tired of such derision, the boy resolved to prove that he could hunt (besides, people were beginning to be less and less hospitable toward him). He packed his kamotik for a long hunting trip, but when it came down to actually leaving, he wasn't sure which way to travel. He was too embarrassed to ask for advice, so he decided to head toward the seashore, where few hunters ever journeyed.

He traveled for a few hours, and quickly became exhausted. Just as he was getting desperately bored and hungry, having failed to spot a single animal, he noticed a tiny community ahead of him. There, in the distance, close to the seashore, he could spot several dark shapes: tents.

As he approached, however, he quickly noticed that there were no signs of life ? no children, no hides or fish drying, no dogs. Pulling up amid the tents, he again fell to feeling sorry for himself.

"Just my luck," he muttered as he watched forlorn bits of tattered hide flutter in the wind. "The place is abandoned. Well, at least I can pick a tent to sleep in."

(Continued in Part Two at http://indiancountry.com/?1029252460 )