Anirniq: An Inuit Ghost Story (Part Six)

In traditional Inuit cosmology, it was assumed that no single person ? not even the wisest angakoq ? knew exactly how the unseen powers worked. The assumption was that Inuit were, after all, only human, and so could only guess at the nebulous workings of nature.

Remember, there was no such thing as "magic" in Inuit thought. There was nothing that was considered supernatural ? only natural. This outlook is typical of very ancient cultures that regarded the working of miracles by humans to be a form of knowledge, rather than a violation of nature. When we use English to speak of the traditions of other cultures, our hands are tied in the sense that our terminology stems from a Judeo-Christian perspective. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, God is the master of nature, His workings being natural and lawful. Then English is forced to utilise special terminology to indicate powers exceptional to man. When a human being works a miracle through his own unusual will or secret knowledge, English refers to this as "super"-natural. So, in English, we are forced to use language that marks legendary powers as in defiance of nature, violating its laws.

Yet in many ancient cultures, including that of Inuit, no such separation of nature and "super" nature existed. Happenings that would today be considered magical or supernatural were once considered only to be mysterious natural forces. Individuals today labelled sorcerers or shamans were once only considered to be exceptionally learned people, those who had a better-than-average grasp of nature's mysteries. Today, they are regarded alternately as either priests or devil-worshippers, due to the Judeo-Christian perspective. But, in truth, they were more analogous to doctors or scientists ? those who were informed, who possessed exceptional knowledge that could be used to influence the world. In other words, "magic" used to mean the same thing as knowledge (even the words "magic," "magician" and "imagination" all derive from "magi:" a Persian wise man).

So, in this sense, magic did not exist for traditional Inuit. All was merely knowledge of one kind or another ? a knowledge that no single person could ever master. This outlook was typical of the way in which Inuit were forced to regard learning. The ultimate form of knowledge was that which enabled one to survive, that of the Nuna and Sila. Since the Nuna and Sila played by their own mysterious rules, it was up to humanity to learn to interpret those rules, to respect them in order to live. There was no super-nature, only nature, and humanity had to be crafty in order to observe it, learning how to adapt around the whims of wind, water, temperature, light, animal migrations, sickness, bears, treacherous terrain, and the worst terror of all, the unknown ? hazards that one is not knowledgeable enough to anticipate.

So it becomes easier to see why it would not be practical for traditional Inuit to establish a religion. A religion pre-supposes that humanity can predict nature, interpreting order in creation according to established religious principles. In a way, religion affords mankind a sort of mastery over nature. It works very well for societies living behind walls, engaging in standardized trade and agriculture, shaping the world to their liking, and therefore anticipating what will happen tomorrow. But for nomads, such as Inuit, existence was a great and constant chess game against nature: skill afforded the Inuk a better chance, but he still never knew what the opponent's next move would be. Knowledge was better than faith.

When Knud Rasmussen once asked his guide what Inuit believe, he was told: "We don't believe. We fear." It's a good answer, supremely Inuktitut in outlook. Because Inuit lived in an uncertain world, much of their time was spent in preparing for nasty eventualities ? even those of an unseen nature. And much of the world was unseen to Inuit. Every individual was an island of sanity in a land where one never knew what lurking death lay over the next horizon. A storm? A hungry bear? A fall, resulting in broken leg? Those things today termed "supernatural" were only a normal part of this: a tunraq, a hostile anirniq, a vindictive angakoq. The unseen was the unseen, whether storm or spirit. It was best to cover all the bases, and prepare for anything.

(Concluded in Part Seven)

(Back to Part Five at http://indiancountry.com/?1030203045 )