Traditional religion among the Eskimo people had a strong element of magic centered on the shamans, whom they called angekok. Eskimos consulted their shamans at important times, such as before a hunting expedition or when ill. The nature of the ceremonies employed on those occasions may be inferred from the account of Captain G. F. Lyon, who once employed an angekok named Toolemak to summon a tomga (familiar spirit) in the cabin of a ship. He gave an account of the ceremony that was used, as follows.
In complete darkness the sorcerer began vehemently chanting to his wife, who responded with the Amna-aya, the favorite song of the Eskimo. This song lasted throughout the ceremony. Toolemak began to spin around, shouting for the tomga while blowing and snorting like a walrus. His noise, agitation, and impatience increased steadily, and at length he seated himself on the deck, varying his tones, and rustling his clothes.
Suddenly the voice seemed smothered, as if the shaman was retreating beneath the deck. It became more distant, ultimately sounding as if it were many feet below the cabin. Then it ceased entirely. In answer to Lyon's queries, the sorcerer's wife declared that the shaman had dived and would send up the tomga.
In about half a minute a distant blowing was heard, approaching very slowly, and a voice different from the shaman's was mixed with the blowing. Eventually both sounds became distinct, and the old woman said that the tomga had come to answer the stranger's questions. Lyon asked several questions of the sagacious spirit, receiving what he understood to be an affirmative or favorable answer by two loud slaps on the deck.
A hollow yet powerful voice, certainly not Toolemak's, chanted for some time. A medley of hisses, groans, shouts, and gobblings like a turkey's followed in swift succession. The old woman sang with increased energy, and because Lyon conjectured that the exhibition was intended to astonish "the Kabloona," he said repeatedly that he was greatly terrified. As he expected, this admission added fuel to the flame until the spirit, exhausted by its own might, asked leave to retire. The voice gradually faded and an indistinct hissing followed. At first it sounded like the tone produced by wind on the bass cord of an Eolian harp. This was soon changed to a rapid hiss like that of a rocket, and Toolemak, with a yell, announced the spirit's return.
At the first distant sibilation Lyon held his breath, and twice exhausted himself; but the Eskimo conjurer did not breathe once. Even his returning, powerful yell was uttered without previous pause or inspiration of air.
When light was admitted Toolemak was in a state of profuse perspiration and exhausted by his exertions, which had continued for at least half an hour. Lyon then observed two bundles, each consisting of two strips of white deerskin and a long piece of sinew, attached to the back of the shaman's coat. He had not seen them before and was told that they had been sewn on by the tomga while Toolemak was below.
The performance had much in common with that of a Western medium at a spirit séance. The angekoks claim to visit the dwelling places of the spirits they invoke and give circumstantial descriptions of these habitations. They have a firm belief in their own powers.
The explorer Dr. Elisha Kane (1820-1957) considered it interesting that wonder-workers from indigenous cultures and postindustrial societies had so much in common. He observed:
"I have known several of them personally, and can speak with confidence on this point. I could not detect them in any resort to jugglery or natural magic; their deceptions are simply vocal, a change of voice, and perhaps a limited profession of ventriloquism, made more imposing by the darkness." They had, however, like the members of the learned professions everywhere else, a certain language or jargon of their own, in which they communicated with each other.
"While the angekoks are the dispensers of good, the issintok, or evil men, are the workers of injurious spells, enchantments, and metamorphoses. Like the witches of both Englands, the Old and the New, these malignant creatures are rarely submitted to trial until they have suffered punishment—the old 'Jed-dart justice'—castigate auditque. Two of them, in 1818, suffered the penalty of their crime on the same day, one at Kannonak, the other at Upernavik. The latter was laudably killed in accordance with the 'old custom'…. custom being everywhere the apology for any act revolting to moral sense. He was first harpooned, then disembowelled; a flap let down from his forehead to cover his eyes and prevent his seeing again—he had, it appears, the repute of an evil eye—and then small portions of his heart were eaten, to ensure that he should not come back to earth unchanged."
Kane's observations of Eskimo shaman practice have special interest because he became the husband of Margaretta Fox, one of the Fox sisters, the first modern Spiritualist mediums.
Kane, Elisha. Arctic Explorations in Search of Sir John Franklin. London: T. Nelson, 1885.
Merkur, Daniel. Becoming Half Hidden: Shamanism and Initiation among the Inuit. New York: Garland, 1992.
Walker, Daniel E. Witchcraft and Sorcery of the American Native Peoples. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1989.