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Anirniq: An Inuit Ghost Story (Part Five)

While anirniq means "breath," the same word is also used to describe pure spirit. In Inuit cosmology, there was no difference between a breath and life itself. It was assumed that when a human or animal breathes, it lives. Conversely, there was observed to be no life without breath. It is understandable, then, how Inuit would feel that both are closely related, perhaps even identical, phenomena. Anirniq, whether as spirit or breath, derives from the sila (sky/atmosphere), the repository of all air and life. In this way, anirniq is a personalized expression of the sila. While the sila is one, a whole and un-individuated life-breath without mind and personality, the anirniq is a sort of life-breath "borrowed" from the sila. As breath ? and life ? taken from the sila, the anirniq becomes one's own, personalized life-force. The body and the mind put their stamp upon it, molding it into an entirely separate thing.

We can also glimpse some of this ancient thinking in noting the third, alternate, use of the "anir" prefix. "Anirpanartuq" indicates what is preferable or good, even durable. "Anirta" is used to indicate a happening that is fortunate or in the nick of time. "Anirpananaarpaa" indicates personal pleasure in having taken vengeance. All of these express some form of preference or opinion ? what is personally desirable. This tells us that anir subtly denotes individuality. If such an implication is taken along with the indication of breath, we can see that anir comes to denote a "personal breath" ? or personal life. Thus is an angel rendered as "anirnisiaq." And the word for God ? "Anirnialuk" ? does not mean as is so often translated, "Great Spirit," but is in fact something like, "The Great Living Breath."

In this way we can see that, just as individuality was always of importance to Inuit in a social context, it was of equal importance in a spiritual context. Everyone's breath is his or her own.

It is no secret that traditional Inuit existed within a delicate social balance, echoes of which still pervade the culture today. Inuit react fastest and most furiously when their personal ? not cultural ? rights are trampled upon. In olden times, personal affronts always spawned grudges that might at any time find expression in a knife between the shoulder blades. Vendetta killings were not just common ? they were a normal facet of life. The past tendency of some Inuit to shift, without warning, from smiling individuals to avenging killers has baffled northern law enforcement for quite some time. But it is simply this: a traditional Inuk might kill if he thought his ego was threatened.

As the very living core of that individuality, such thinking was essential to the anirniq, even if it had been stripped of its body. The body, after all, was dispensable. It was a vessel that held the breath. The breath itself ? the anirniq ? went on long after the body had passed. But this is not to say that the body was of no importance at all. It was, in part, what helped shape the anirniq, lending it an identity. It was therefore important to an anirniq that the body be treated with respect by those still walking about. Funereal taboos were based around such principles of respect, and in many cases were intended to appease the anirniq, which would be lurking nearby ? sometimes still in the body. Inuit reasoned that, as a thing that was invisible, powerful, and now freed, the anirniq was in a perfect position from which to take vengeance upon any persons who had offended the dead individual in life. It was especially important, therefore, to observe the taboos that expressed proper grieving. The anirniq had to be shown just how miserable the living were that the deceased was no longer with them. Much of camp life ground to a halt for a few days. Depending on the exact cultural group and its customs, dogs might not be fed, lamps not lit, fingernails or hair not trimmed, and so on. In other words, the living had to put on a good show for the dead.

If not, the anirniq might become angry. And there were few things more terrible than an animate breath, the force of personality itself, turned against the living.

Of all the classes of incorporeal entities in old Inuit cosmology, an anirniq is one of the most powerful. In state, it is very similar to a tunraq, and therefore possesses the tunraq's power to visit sickness upon an entire camp. The tunraq and anirniq differ in that the tunraq is always a monster ? it roams land, sea, and sky, having nothing in common with humans.

While a tunraq is generally translated as a "spirit," this is inaccurate. Spirit, in English, is a very broad term: it can refer to a disembodied soul, haunting spectre, manifestation of will, angel, devil, or even God (i.e. Holy Spirit). The tunraq is a distinct species of incorporeal being. It has no origin, and comes complete with many of the powers normally attributed to an angakoq (shaman). It can change shape, fly, become ethereal, cause or remove sickness, and access facts unknown to humans. It can also possess a person (but not as in the movie "The Exorcist" ? in Inuit folklore, it simply makes one sick or crazy). The tunraq can also possess any other nifty powers that serve to spice up whatever folktale it features in. If we need a European equivalent, the tunraq is perhaps closest to certain faerie beings, such as the Celtic pwca, having a nature completely alien to humanity. But even this is a poor comparison.

The anirniq, however, can originate with a human being. Because will is always the most driving force in Inuit cosmology, the anirniq's powers generally vary with the will of the individual who spawned it. A very weak-willed individual might have an anirniq whose powers are barely effectual, while a strong-willed individual could have an anirniq more powerful than any tunraq. It should be noted, incidentally, that while a tunraq is not an anirniq, a tunraq technically has an anirniq of its own, since an anirniq is only an animating principle ? a life breath ? that is capable of existing after the death of the body. Since a tunraq has no true body, it is never separated from its own anirniq, so there is simply no need to bother making issue of a tunraq's anirniq. When a tunraq possessed someone, it was assumed to have entered that person's body, basically choking out that person's anirniq with its own. Hence the angakoq way of "exorcising" such an entity, by sucking its anirniq (remember, it is simply a living breath) into his own lungs, then exhaling it out.

Due to the fact that an anirniq possesses the knowledge that its human shell once possessed, the most powerful sorts of anirniq are those of the very old, whose knowledge is assumed to make them formidable. And the very cream of this crop is the anirniq of an angakoq, who possessed knowledge of nature's secrets (not supernature; remember, everything, even tunraq, are natural in old Inuit cosmology). The reasoning goes like this: if the angakoq could harness invisible powers, how much more formidable might he become when no longer limited by his body?Such power held by certain anirniit made them something to be feared ? but it also made them a treasured resource. The same power that an angakoq could use to subjugate and enslave a tunraq to his will could also be used to capture an anirniq, and it was very common for angakuit to do this to the anirniq of their own relatives. One Netsilingmiut shaman, when asked about his "helpers," was recorded as stating that he owned seven entities that he could call forth while in a trance. Only one of these was a tunraq, while the others were comprised of the anirniit of a sea scorpion, whale, and dog, as well as the anirniit of two dead men, and the anirniq of the angakoq's own grandfather.

While an enslaved anirniq was no doubt considered to be of great utility to the angakoq, keeping it could entail great risk. It was assumed that, as with a tunraq, a constant battle of wills was played out between the angakoq and the captive entity. If at any time the shaman's will weakened, the entity might seize the opportunity to attack him. Much of the time, when an angakoq fell ill, it was assumed that he was embattled by one of his own helpers.

(Continued in Part Six at http://indiancountry.com/?1031141220 )

(Back to Part Four at http://indiancountry.com/?1029957742 )