The Far North: Inuit

The mythology and perspective of the peoples of the far north are affected by the strong elements of the natural world: the harsh climate; the dance of light & dark, of the Sun & Moon, and of the Aurora Borealis or "Northern Lights"; the closeness of the stars; reindeer, whales and polar bears; and the ever-present possibility of starvation. The role of the shaman in these cultures is naturally shaped by the needs which this intimate and fierce relationship with Nature imposes.

The Inner Light
The Arctic shaman is distinguished from others by angakua, a quality which connects them to the spirit world in a special way. The desire to become a shaman is called angakoq; but usually the shaman is called to the work through an intense, visionary initiation, often involving the experience of a brilliant inner light, fire or lightning. Shamans describe themselves as skeletons through which this glowing inner light shines to attract the spirits. This inner brilliance is called qaumaneq, literally "lightning", and is one form of angakua.

Sometimes the prospective shaman is already a great hunter or other important figure; other times he (or she) might be an orphan or outcast. In some traditions, shamans are not born but made: a child in the family of a deceased shaman inherits the gift.

After the gift first manifests itself, the shaman undergoes an initiation period for up to a year, during which time detailed prohibitions govern his behavior. For instance, certain foods thought to repel the spirits might be forbidden; and female shamans might be prohibited from performing their usual functions such as making clothing and boots.

The Role of the Shaman
  Once the initiation is complete, the shaman has the awesome task of protecting his people from all sorts of misfortunes. These misfortunes are brought about by misbehavior of the community towards the natural world or by the actions of evil spirits. The shaman journeys to the spirit world to ward off sickness and disease, to bring about favorable weather conditions, to assure a good hunt, or to propitiate the great Sea Mother goddess by combing the accumulated detritus of human sins from her long hair. Other threats to the community come from within: not all shamans access spirit powers for positive ends. Trickster (evil) shamans create effigies, or tupilaq, of animals and evil spirits which can transform into the being they represent for the purpose of harming people.

Sacred Animals & Rituals
  Among the animals sacred to the Arctic peoples are whales, reindeer, polar bears and seals. The people view themselves as the equals and friends of the animals, with whom they dance through the cycle of life. In deference to this interconnection, hunters often seek the permission of an animal before hunting it. This intimacy between hunter and quarry -– a balance between physical and spiritual survival -– may be why so often the shaman is also a great hunter. Drums & songs: the most powerful songs are those sung by shamans, accompanied by a hand drum made of sealskin and wood. The words often come to them on their journeys or soul-flights, given to them by the spirits they encountered. Arctic shamans refer to their drums variously as reindeer, horses or canoes, reflecting the view of the drum as a mount or vehicle which carried the shaman to the spirit world.


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