Inuit: Beliefs and Spirituality

The term "Eskimo" refers to (1) the Alaskan Iñupiat peoples, Greenlandic Inuit, and the mass-grouping Inuit peoples of Canada, and (2) the Yupik of eastern Siberia and Alaska. The Yupik comprise speakers of four distinct Yupik languages: one used in the Russian Far East and the others among people of Western Alaska, Southcentral Alaska and along the Gulf of Alaska coast. A third northern group, the Aleut, is closely related to the Eskimo. They share a relatively recent common ancestor, and a language group (Eskimo-Aleut).

Today the term Inuit (pronounced /ˈɪnu.ɪt/ or /ˈɪnju.ɪt/; Inuktitut: ᐃᓄᐃᑦ, "the people") is used to for the group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Inuit is a plural noun; the singular is Inuk.  

An overview of Inuit beliefs. The Inuit originally conceived nature as animate throughout, every object — stone, mountain, weapon, and so forth — having its soul. The souls of tools, weapons, and clothes, follow the dead on his wandering to the land of the shades; therefore they are laid in the grave, that there they may rot and their souls may be set free. This belief has a counterpart, that the souls of the dead can take up their abode in different animals, objects, mountains, and the like, which they subjugate to themselves, and from which they can issue from time to time, even showing themselves to the living.

There was therefore the belief that in every natural object there dwells a particular being, called its inua (that is, its owner) — a word which, characteristically enough, originally signified human being or Eskimo.  

According to the Inuit every stone, mountain, glacier, river, lake, has its inua; the very air has one. It is still more remarkable to find that even abstract conceptions have their inue; they speak for example of the inue of particular instincts or passions. People themselves consists of at least two parts: the body and the soul — and these they hold to be quite distinct from each other. The soul can only be seen by aid of a particular sense which is found in men under certain conditions, or in those who possess a special gift: to wit, the angekoks. It appears in the same shape as the body, but is of a more airy composition.

The Greenlandic Inuit word for the soul is tarnik; this resembles the word tarrak, which signifies shadow, since the Eskimo used to regard the soul and the shadow as one and the same thing.  Tarrak in the Greenlandic Inuit language means both shadow and reflection, so that the original word for soul meant all these three things. 

The soul is quite independent, and can thus leave the body for any time, short or long. It does so every night, when, in vivid dreams, it goes hunting or joins in merry makings and so forth.  It can also be lost, or stolen by means of witchcraft. Then the man falls ill and must get his angekok to set off and fetch his soul back again. If, in the meantime, any disaster has happened to it, for example if it has been eaten up by another angekok’s tornarssuk, the man must die. An angekok, however, had also power to provide a new soul or exchange a sick soul for a sound, which he could obtain from, say, a hare, a reindeer, a bird, or a young child.

The strangest thing of all is that the soul could not only be lost in its entirety, but that pieces of it could also go astray; and then the angekok had to be called in to patch it up.

The person's name is of great importance; it is believed that there is a spiritual affinity between two people of the same name, and that the characteristics of a dead person are transmitted to one who is called after him, who, moreover, is specially bound to defy the influences which have caused his predecessor’s death. Thus the name-child of a man who has died at sea must make it his special business to defy the sea in his kaiak.

The Inuit are very much afraid of mentioning the names of the dead. This fear is said to have gone so far that when two people have borne the same name the survivor must change his; and if the deceased has been named after an animal, an object, or an abstract idea, the word designating it must be altered.  The fear of mentioning names is common to humanity.

The Inuit know of many supernatural beings of a higher order. Among those who stand nearest to man, and are most useful to him through the medium of the angekoks, we must first name the so-called tôrnat (the plural of tôrnak). These are the angekoks’ ministering spirits, who impart to them their supernatural power. They are often said to be souls of the dead, especially of grandfathers or other ancestors; but they may also be the souls of various animals, or other supernatural beings, either of human origin, like the kivigtut, to be hereafter mentioned, or independent spiritual essences dwelling in the sea or far inland.  An angekok would as a rule have several, some acting as councillors, others as helpers in danger, and others, again, as avengers and destroyers. These last were despatched by the angekok to show themselves in the form of ghosts, and thus to frighten to death those against whom the vengeance was directed.

In connection with, or superior to, the tornat, we find the tôrnârssuk, which is generally held to be their master, or a particularly powerful tornak. The tornarssuk was regarded as, on the whole, a benevolent power; through his tornak the angekok could get into communication with him and obtain wise counsels. But evil deeds seem often to have been attributed to him. With him, as with all the other supernatural beings, it probably depended on the angekoks whether he should be beneficent or the reverse. His home lay in the under-world, in the land of the souls. As to his appearance, ideas were very vague; some holding that he had no form at all; others that he was like a bear; others, again, that he was huge and had only one arm; and some, finally, that he was no larger than a finger. As to his nature there was no less difference of opinion; for while some held that he was immortal, others believed that it needed very little to kill him. 

This belief in the tornarssuk, no less than in the tornat, must be traced to a belief in the spirits or ghosts of ancestors. 

The souls who go to the over-world have to pass the abode of a strange woman who dwells at the top of a high mountain. She is called Erdlaversissok (i.e.the disemboweller), and her properties are a trough and a bloody knife. She beats upon a drum, dances with her ownshadow, and says nothing but ‘My buttocks, &c.,’ or else sings ‘Ya, ha, ha, ha!’ When she turns her back she displays huge hindquarters, from which dangles a lean sea-scorpion; and when she turns sideways her mouth is twisted utterly askew, so that her face becomes horizontally oblong. When she bends forwards she can lick her own hindquarters, and when she bends sideways she can strike her cheek, with a loud smack, against her thigh. If you can look at her without laughing you are in no danger; but as soon as anyone begins to smile she throws away her drum, seizes him, hurls him to the earth, takes her knife and rips him up, tears out his entrails, throws them into the trough, and then greedily devours them. Thus ‘the underground folk’ cannot endure laughter; the human being who wounds them by laughing at them must pay dear for his thoughtlessness.

On the same journey the souls also pass the dwelling of the Moon Spirit. The way they have to go is described as very narrow, and one sinks in it up to the shoulders.

When kaiak-men are at sea, they believe themselves to be surrounded by the so-called ignerssuit (the plural of ignerssuak, which means ‘great fire’). These are for the most part good spirits, inclined to help men. The entrance to their dwellings is on the sea shore. ‘The first earth which came into existence had neither seas nor mountains, but was quite smooth. When the One above was displeased with the people upon it, he destroyed the world. It burst open, and the people fell down into the rifts and became ignerssuit, and the water poured over everything. When the earth reappeared, it was entirely covered by a glacier. Little by little this decreased, and two human beings fell down from heaven, by whom the earth was peopled. One can see every year that the glacier is shrinking. In many places signs may yet be seen of the time when the sea rose over the mountains.’

The kivitut (the plural of kivitok) are beings of a peculiar nature. They have at one time been ordinary men, who for some reason or other, often quite insignificant, have fallen out with their families or their companions, or have felt aggrieved by them, and have therefore turned their backs upon their fellows and fled to the mountains or into the interior. Here they henceforth live alone, feeding upon animals which they kill without ordinary weapons, simply by throwing stones at them, an art in which they become very skilful. While the kivitok has only been a short time away, it is still open to him to return to his fellows; but if he does not within a certain number of days obey the voice of his homeward longing, he loses the power of resuming his place among men. Some hold that a year is the allotted period. He now acquires supernatural faculties; he becomes so swift of foot that he can leap from one mountain peak to another, he can catch reindeer without weapons, and whatever he aims at he hits. He grows to a great size, clothes himself in reindeer-skins, and, according to some, his face turns black and his hair white. Furthermore, he becomes omniscient or clairvoyant; he can hear the speech of men from any distance, and comes to understand the language of the animals. But he pays for all this in his inability to die, and he is always mournful, shedding tears of longing for humankind to which he can never return. He can, however, when opportunity offers, especially at night, make his way into houses or store-rooms to pick up something to eat, or perhaps a little tobacco. Those who have wronged him are always in danger of his vengeance.

The heavenly bodies were once ordinary Eskimos, living upon the earth, who, for one reason or another, have been translated to the skies. The sun was a fair woman, and the moon her brother, and they lived in the same house. She was visited every night by a man, but could not tell who it was. In order to find out, she blackened her hands with lamp-soot, and rubbed them upon his back. When the morning came, it turned out to be her brother, for his white reindeer-skin was all smudged; and hence come the spots on the moon. The sun seized a crooked knife, cut off one of her breasts, and threw it to him, crying: ‘Since my whole body tastes so good to you, eat this.’ Then she lighted a piece of lamp-moss and rushed out; the moon did likewise and ran after her, but his moss went out, and that is why he looks like a live cinder. He chased her up into the sky, and there they still are. The moon’s dwelling lies close to the road by which souls have to pass to the over-world; and in it is a room for his sister the sun.  

The moon has not yet turned over a new leaf, but still pays frequent visits to the earth in search of amorous adventures. Therefore, it behoves women to beware of him, not to go out alone in the moonlight, not to stand looking at his orb, and so forth. This erotic proclivity of the moon’s seems to be of very ancient date.  The moon is supposed to be the cause of cold weather. He produces snow by whittling a walrus-tusk, and strewing the shavings upon the earth, or else by blowing through a reed; and when he visits the earth, he always comes driving in a sledge over the winter ice. It is quite natural that such associations should attach to the moon, since it is in the ascendant during the night and in winter. As a frigid and austere influence, too, he is naturally enough regarded as a man; while further south, where heat is more dreaded than cold, it is the sun who is supposed to be of the sterner sex.

Thunder they believe to be produced by two old women fighting for a dry and stiff skin, and tugging each at her end of it; in the heat of the contest they upset their lamps, and thus cause the lightning.

The origin of fogs they trace to a tornarssuk who drank so much that he burst.

Ilisitsoks, may be either male or female. These wizards and witches are much hated. It used to be held that most evils, especially death and disease, were due to them; and if an old woman was suspected of being an ilisitsok she was remorselessly killed. This cannot surprise us, when we remember how our own ancestors, with the priests at their head, used to burn their witches. While the angekoks commune with the spirits in the presence of other people, the ilisitsoks’ dealings with the supernatural powers are carried on in the deepest secrecy and always to noxious ends. They must be instructed in secrecy by an older ilisitsok and must pay dear for the teaching. It does not seem to be clear what supernatural powers they have dealings with; they are doubtless different from those known to the angekoks, and are purposely kept secret. In their diabolical arts they use many different properties, as for instance human bones, the flesh of corpses, skulls, snakes, spiders, water-beetles, and the like; but their most potent device consists in making tupileks. A tupilek is prepared in the deadliest secrecy of various animals’ bones, skins, pieces of the anorak of the man who is to be injured or portions of the seals he has caught; all this being wrapped together and tied up in a skin. Finally, it is brought to life by dint of singing charms over it. Then the ilisitsok seats himself upon a bank of stones close to the mouth of a river. He turns his anorak back to front, draws his hood up over his face, and then dangles the tupilek between his legs. This makes it grow, and when it has attained its proper size it glides away into the water and disappears. It can transform itself into all sorts of animals and monsters, and is supposed to bring ruin and death upon the man against whom it is despatched; but if it fails in this, it turns against him who sent it forth. 

The legends below include many of these themes.  Orly


Fridtjof Nansen, Eskimo Life Translator: William Archer

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