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Arctic Religions: History of Study


Arctic religions have been explored by scholars from many countries, though primarily from the countries where these religions are practiced: Denmark (the Inuit of Greenland); Norway, Sweden, and Finland (the Sami); Russia and the former Soviet republics (the northern Eurasian peoples); and the United States and Canada (the Inuit and northernmost American Indians). This has meant that several research traditions and research premises have been involved. For a long time the study of Arctic religions was a subordinated part of the ethnographic research on peoples and cultures, and in many places, particularly in the former Soviet republics, it still is. Until the end of the nineteenth century, descriptions of Arctic religions were encapsulated in travel reports and tribal monographs, but since that time particular issues of Arctic religions, such as shamanism, have been debated. However, conscious attention to connections between various Arctic religions was missing from scholarship until the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Development of Circumpolar Studies

The exploration of Siberian and Canadian Arctic cultures at the turn of the century made scholars aware of their great similarities. Since this was the time when geographic environmentalism swayed highand the Arctic is known for its extreme climateArctic cultures were readily given an environmentalist interpretation. The pioneer of this approach, Artur Byhan, author of the classic Die Polarvölker (1909), brought together pertinent religious materials from all over the Arctic and referred many religious manifestations to the pressures and inspiration of the Arctic environment. He certainly did not make a real analysis of the mechanisms implied, but he presented cultural and religious data in their environmental context.

Other scholars followed suit. In the writings of Waldemar Bogoraz, M. A. Czaplicka, Kai Birket-Smith, Daryll Forde, and Åke Ohlmarks, different shades of an environmentalist interpretation of Arctic religions are represented. In a modified, ecological form, I have substantiated the environmental impact on these religions.

Most ethnologists and anthropologists, however, have favored a cultural-historical analysis in which all the Arctic cultures belong together, either as a common field of diffusion or as an archaic residue. This approach originated with the American anthropologist Franz Boas, who compared Paleosiberian and Northwest American Indian mythologies. His speculations resulted in the assumption of a direct communication between North America and North Asia. This perspective was expanded by Austrian and Danish diffusionists.

Wilhelm Schmidt, the dominating figure of the so-called Vienna culture-circle school, accepted the idea of an Arctic "primeval culture" (Urkultur ) that, although somewhat faded, has been preserved to some extent among Samoyeds, Koriak, and Caribou Inuit. Schmidt also found shared religious elements among some North American "primeval peoples" (Urvölker ) and the Arctic peoples, such as the "earth-diver" myth, the association of the high god with the rainbow, the dualism between thunder spirits and water spirits, and the sacred fire. He therefore postulated the existence of a continuous Arctic-North American primeval culture in which religious ideas and customs were formed in the same mold.

While Schmidt's general scheme of historical developments has been discredited, his reconstruction of an Arctic cultural and religious area rests on solid ground. The research of Danish ethnologists, in particular Gudmund Hatt and Kai Birket-Smith, revealed an interconnection between all Arctic cultures in a circumpolar round. Hatt has shown distributions of myths and folk tales over, primarily, the Siberian and North American Arctic regions. Robert H. Lowie, Francis Lee Utley, and I have suggested historical connections in the religious and mythological field, some of them joining the Saami with the inhabitants of northernmost North America. Archaeologists have also contributed to the investigations of the spreading of religious ideas in the Arctic zone: Gutorm Gjessing, for instance, has illuminated the Arctic rock-drawing panels by comparing eastern and western Arctic traits (such as the so-called life line).

All these historical investigations have followed the diffusionist approach. Very little has been done along the other line of historical approach, the study of common heritage. A. Irving Hallowell has, certainly, suggested the possibility that bear ceremonialism originated within the larger Eurasian Paleolithic hunting culture. Its circumpolar distribution would thus, at least partly, be a leftover from a once more extended context. Indeed, not only the Arctic but also all North and South American hunting cultures show evidence of their status as remnants of this old basic culture, as Boas and, in particular, Erland Nordenskiöld demonstrated. As observed by Mircea Eliade, the outlines of one and the same shamanistic complex are found from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Everyone who compares Mapuche shamanism in Chile with Siberian shamanism will notice obvious parallels. Seen in this perspective American hunting religions are an extension of Arctic religions.

Some scholars have tried to discern major changes in the development of Arctic religions. If earlier evolutionist theories are excluded, this discussion has been connected with the interpretation of animal ceremonialism and shamanism. The ceremonies associated with the bones of the slain animals have mostly been identified as burial and rejuvenation rites. Some authors, however, have expressed other opinions. For example, Alexander Gahs and Wilhelm Schmidt have interpreted these bone rites as offerings (Primitialopfer ) to the supreme being or to its manifestations in other supernatural beings, such as the master of the animals. Although this opinion is not shared by other scholars, there is no doubt that some animal rituals, namely those associated with the reindeer, have a clear sacrificial character among the Samoyeds, the Tunguz, and the Koriak; the Tunguz, for instance, make reindeer sacrifices to the spirits of the woods. Karl Meuli, therefore, considered that a change had taken place from the animal ceremonialism of the hunting culture to the sacrificial ideology of reindeer-breeding nomadism; the animal, surrounded by revivification rites, was transformed into a sacrifice to the powers. At the same time, bear ceremonialism lingered on and had a firm grip in all nomadic cultures of the North, as shown by Hans-Joachim Paproth's investigations.

Particular Areal Studies

Most authors have concentrated their efforts on the study of subfields or tribes within the Arctic area. They have, from their particular points of departure, often reached conclusions that refer to the whole circumpolar zone or large parts thereof; but their real intentions have mostly been to reveal the religious systems or specific traits of these systems. It is possible to distinguish three main Arctic regions of exploration, usually (but not always) treated as separate from each other. They will be called here the Sami field, the northern Eurasian field, and the Inuit field.

The Sami field

The scientific analyses of Sami religion on the basis of older sources (there were few vestiges left in the nineteenth century besides folkloric materials) began late in the nineteenth century. This was the time when such scholars as J. A. Friis, Gustaf von Düben, Johan Fritzner, and others began to systematize Sami religious ideas. The interest in the possible contributions that Sami religion could make to our understanding of Scandinavian religion, a perspective introduced by Fritzner, was later continued by such men as Axel Olrik, Kaarle Krohn, and Wolf von Unwerth. The underlying idea was that Sami religion was inspired to a large extent by Scandinavian thought and retained Old Scandinavian religious features. In the 1920s the pendulum swung, and Sami religion began to be considered in the light of Finno-Ugric and Arctic religious ideas and cults. Uno Holmberg (later Harva) and Björn Collinder guided this new perspective. Since then a host of writers, including Ernst Manker, Ernst Emsheimer, Gustav Ränk, T. I. Itkonen, Olof Pettersson, Hans Mebius, Nils Storå, and Louise Bäckman, have tried to coordinate Sami religion with other Arctic and northern Eurasian religions.

The northern Eurasian field

The first accounts of the "primitive" peoples of the Russian empire and their religious customs date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More systematic studies were undertaken in the nineteenth century when the Finnish-speaking peoples were investigated by Mathias Alexander Castrén; the Mansi by Bernhardt Munkácsi; the Samoyeds by Castrén, Otto Finsch, and V. V. Radlov; the Yakuts by W. L. Sieroszewski and Radlov; and the Eveny (an eastern Tunguz tribe) by Leopold von Schrenk. These accounts are all classic and still authoritative. The only treatises that compared aspects of various cultures dealt with the bear ceremonial complex (N. M. Yadrintzeff) and shamanism.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the continued publication of tribal monographs. Waldemar Bogoraz and Waldemar Jochelson, respectively, published excellent studies of the Chukchi and Koriak that contain important chapters on religious life. Jochelson also wrote a book on what was preserved of Yukagir religion. In the same way, Leo Sternberg advanced our knowledge of the religious customs of the Amur and Sakhalin tribes. Finnish scholars continued the interest in Arctic peoples that had started with Castrén: Toivo Lehtisalo and Kai Donner visited the Samoyeds and K. F. Karjalainen visited the Khanty (Ostiaks).

During the postrevolutionary era, Soviet scholars made several tribal ethnographic investigations of considerable importance, although one-sidedly Marxist and evolutionist in outlook. Religious issues, shamanism in particular, have been discussed from this programmatic point of view. Unfortunately, few works have been translated into Western languages. Among the more prominent contributors to the study of religious themes are N. A. Alekseev (on the Yakuts), A. F. Anisimov (on the Tunguz), A. A. Popov (on the Samoyeds and Yakuts), E. D. Prokofeva (on the Samoyeds), and G. M. Vasilevich (on the Tunguz).

If shamanism is excluded, Soviet authors may be generally said to have neglected comparative studies of religion. There are some papers on such topics as mother-goddess worship and totemism, and Dimitri K. Zelenin's book-length work on ongons, that is, idols that portray animals or human beings, is a major comparative treatise. These investigations, however, are exceptions. I. S. Gurvich comments on the paucity of Soviet-era papers in this genre in an article (1979) on ethnographic parallels in the Arctic.

The basic surveys of Finno-Ugric and northern Siberian religions have been composed by non-Russian scholars, such as M. A. Czaplicka, Uno Holmberg Harva, Wilhelm Schmidt, Ivar Paulson, and Gustav Ränk. Other comparative studies have been written by Adolf Friedrich (on beliefs about bones and skeletons), Alexander Gahs (on bones as offerings), Eveline Lot-Falck (on hunting rituals), Josef Haekel (on the cult of idols and totemism), Gustav Ränk (on the house and family cults), Ivar Paulson (on concepts of the soul, masters of the animals, bone rites, and house idols), Horst Nachtigall (on burial customs), and Ivan A. Lopatin (on cult of the dead). The Soviet papers previously referred to should also be mentioned: Zelenin's study of idols, A. M. Zolotarev's writings on totemism, and Anisimov's discussion of cosmology.

The particular religious connections between northern Siberian and North American Arctic and Northwest Coast cultures were illuminated at the turn of the century by the Jesup Expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, with Boas as the director and Bogoraz and Jochelson as Russian members. This intercontinental ethnological problem, which included the question of religio-historical relations, received less attention among Russian scholars after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Inuit field

The Danes had already secured important information on the Greenland Inuit in the eighteenth century. Danish scholarship in the field started in the nineteenth century when Gustav Holm and H. Rink described, in particular, the East Greenland Inuit religion. At the other end of the Inuit area, in southern Alaska (at that time part of the Russian empire), the Finn H. J. Holmberg noted down Inuit and Indian religious ideas about the same time. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, American anthropological research entered the scene with Franz Boas, who wrote a monograph on the Central Inuit, and A. L. Kroeber, who described the Inuit of Smith Sound.

The twentieth century saw a rich scholarship on Inuit religion, most of it directed from Copenhagen. Knud Rasmussen covered the whole Inuit area with his insightful analyses of Inuit religious thinking, but first of all the Greenland, Central, and Polar Inuit. William Thalbitzer wrote on beliefs, myths, and cults of the Greenlanders, Erik Holtved on the Polar Inuit, and Kai Birket-Smith on the Caribou Inuit and the Chugach of Alaska. Among American scholars, Diamond Jenness, who described the Copper Inuit, and Margaret Lantis, who analyzed the ceremonialism of the Alaska Inuit, were prominent. As pointed out before, the Danish scholars were occupied with investigating circumpolar trait diffusions, using the Inuit traits as their point of departure.


An early environmental interpretation of circumpolar religions will be found in M. A. Czaplicka's "The Influence of Environment upon the Religious Ideas and Practices of the Aborigines of Northern Asia," Folklore 25 (March 1914): 3454. A later collocation based on religio-ecological analysis is my "Type of Religion in the Arctic Hunting Cultures," in Hunting and Fishing, edited by Harald Hvarfner (Lulea, 1965).

Methodological approaches to the distribution and history of religious traits in the area have been discussed in articles mentioned in the bibliography of the overview article on Arctic religions. In addition, there are short comprehensive surveys such as Waldemar Bogoraz's "Elements of the Culture of the Circumpolar Zone," American Anthropologist 31 (OctoberDecember 1929): 579601, and Gudmund Hatt's "North American and Eurasian Culture Connections," in Proceedings of the Fifth Pacific Science Congress (Toronto, 1934). See also I. S. Gurvich's study, cited below.

Studies of religious change have been presented by, for instance, Wilhelm Schmidt, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, vols. 3 and 6 (Münster, 1931 and 1935), and Karl Meuli, "Griechische Opferbräuche," in Phyllobolia für Peter von der Mühll zum 60. Geburtstage, by Olof Gigon et al. (Basel, 1946). On the development of the bear ceremony, see Hans-Joachim Paproth's Studien über das Bärenzeremoniell, vol. 1 (Uppsala, 1976).

Summary reports of the scholarly publications on Sami religion and folklore up to 1950 were issued in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in the 1950s: Knut Bergsland and Reidar Christiansen's "Norwegian Research on the Language and Folklore of the Lapps" (vol. 80, 1950), and my "Swedish Research on the Religion and Folklore of the Lapps" (vol. 85, 1955). Later books and articles on the subject are annotated in Louise Bäckman's and my Studies in Lapp Shamanism (Stockholm, 1978).

There is no similar survey of scholarly contributions in tsarist and Soviet Russia, except the studies of shamanism. Some points of view on Soviet studies are presented in I. S. Gurvich's "An Ethnographic Study of Cultural Parallels among the Aboriginal Populations of Northern Asia and Northern North America," Arctic Anthropology 16 (1979): 3238. The comprehensive areal works by Uno Holmberg Harva and Ivar Paulson contain some introductory remarks, but no more. The student has to go to the separate books and articles, most of them published in Russian, but some in western European languages: this applies, of course, first of all to the works of scholars residing in western Europe and America. No collocation of all this scholarship has ever been done.

The same applies to the split publications on Inuit religion. The total research contribution has not yet been evaluated. See, however, the short introduction to the subject by Ivar Paulson, Karl Jettmar, and me in Les religions arctiques et finnoises (Paris, 1965), pp. 346f.

Åke Hultkrantz (1987)

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