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Inuit Shamanic Healing


Knud Rasmussen was one of the most important ethnographers of the Inuit peoples of northern Canada. The following passage, recorded in the early 1920s, is a nearly verbatim account of a ritual that took place in Igloolik (= Iglulik, "Place of Igloos") in the far north what is today the Canadian province of Nunavut. (Wikipedia Link)

The ritual was conducted by a shaman to purify an Inuktitut-speaking Inuit woman of her "sins" so that she might recover from an illness.

Many societies understand illness —or at least some illness— to be caused by outside forces, and they ask the age-old question, "Why me, Lord?" If the outside forces are thought to be spirits, it is logical to ask what motivates them. For the Inuit, illness and misfortune are typically the results of violation of a taboo, offending the supernatural. In healing rituals like the one here, confession of these violations is a central element.

The Case Study

In the present case study, we see the shaman, the audience, and the patient all participating in the creation of a whole, long catalog of the patient's violations of taboos.

Interestingly, all of the participants seem to know about at least some of her violations, and presumably they overlooked them at the time, or could do little to stop her, or kept silent because it was none of their business. But now that she is sick, the small infractions, unknown or ignored in the past, are suddenly brought forth and represented as in fact significant; her past behavior is raked over like the voting record of an American political candidate in hope of finding behaviors to blame her for.

Healing proceeds as the audience urges that she be forgiven for each of her sins and be healed of whatever share of the illness each sin has brought about. Each individual confession she makes helps to purge her illness.

The shaman conducting the ritual is in the privileged position of being able to have visions, oftentimes vague ones that merely awaken the patient's memories and inspire her to make confessions about things that others did not yet know.

The Interpretive Challenge

Whether or not the illness continues, Rasmussen argues that both the recounting of the infractions and the alliance between the woman and her community in asking forgiveness help to reinforce Inuit beliefs and values. It is hard, in other words, for the patient or her fellow community members to attend an event of this kind without getting the message (1) that violating taboos is the basis of at least some illness, (2) that one's neighbors are more observant than one thought, and (3) that people have to stick together for an individual to remain healthy.

There are broader theoretical questions as well, for example:

The bibliographic source is provided at the bottom of the page.

Click here for definitions of taboo and shaman or more about shamanism.


Inuit Shamanic Healing

by Knud Rasmussen (1929)

A woman named Nanoraq, the wife of Mákik, lay very ill, with pains all over her body. The patient, who was so ill that she could hardly stand upright, was placed on the bench. All the inhabitants of the village were summoned, and Angutingmarik [a shaman] inquired of his spirits as to the cause of the disease. The shaman walked slowly up and down the floor for a long time, swinging his arms backwards and forwards with mittens on, talking in groans and sighs, in varying tones, sometimes breathing deeply as if under extreme pressure.

He says: "It is you, you are Aksharquarnilik, I ask you, my helping spirit, whence comes the sickness from which this person is suffering? Is it due to something I have eaten in defiance of taboo, lately or long since? Or is it due to the one who is wont to lie beside me, to my wife? Or is it brought about by the sick woman herself ? Is she herself the cause of the disease ?"

The patient answers: "The sickness is due to my own fault. I have but ill fulfilled my duties. My thoughts have been bad and my actions evil."

The shaman interrupts her, and continues: "It looks like peat, and yet is not really peat. It is that which is behind the ear, something that looks like the cartilage of the ear? There is something that gleams white. It is the edge of a pipe, or what can it be?"

The listeners cry all at once: "She has smoked a pipe that she ought not to have smoked. But never mind. We will not take any notice of that. Let her be forgiven. Tauva!"

Shaman: "That is not all. There are yet further offenses, which have brought about this disease. Is it due to me, or to the sick person herself ?"

The patient answers: "It is due to myself alone. There was something the matter with my abdomen, with my inside."

Shaman: "I espy something dark beside the house. Is it perhaps a piece of a marrowbone, or just a bit of boiled meat, standing upright, or is it something that has been split with a chisel? That is the cause. She has split a meat bone which she ought not to have touched."

The audience: "Let her be released from her offense! Tauva!"

Shaman: "She is not released from her evil. It is dangerous. It is matter for anxiety. Helping spirit, say what it is that plagues her. Is it due to me or to herself ?"

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Angutingmarik listens, in breathless silence, and then speaking as if he had with difficulty elicited the information from his helping spirit, he says: "She has eaten a piece of raw, frozen caribou steak at a time when that was taboo for her."

Listeners: "It is such a slight offense, and means so little, when her life is at stake. Let her be released from his burden, from this cause, from this source of illness, Tauva!"

Shaman: "She is not yet released. I see a woman over in your direction, towards my audience, a woman who seems to be asking for something. A light shines out in front of her. It is as if she was asking for something with her eyes, and in front of her is something that looks like a hollow. What is it? What is it? Is it that, I wonder, which causes death ? Can it indeed be something which will not be taken from her? Will she not be released from it? I still see before me a woman with entreating eyes, with sorrowful eyes, and she has with her a walrus tusk in which grooves have been cut."

Listeners: "Oh, is that all ? It is a harpoon head that she has worked at, cutting grooves in it at a time when she ought not to touch anything made from parts of an animal. If that is all, let her be released. Let it be. Tauva!"

Shaman: "Now this evil is removed, but in its place there appears something else: hair combings and sinew thread."

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Patient: "Oh, I did comb my hair once when after giving birth to a child I ought not to have combed my hair; and I hid away the combings that none might see."

Listeners: "Let her be released from that. Oh, such a trifling thing; let her be released, Tauva!"

Shaman: "We have not yet come to the end of her offenses, of the causes of her sickness. Here is a caribou breast come to light, a raw caribou breast."

Listeners: "Yes, we know! Last summer, at a time when she was not allowed to eat the breast of a caribou she ate some all the same. But let her be released from that offense. Let it be taken from her, Tauva!"

Shaman: "She is not yet free. A seal comes forth, plain to be seen. It is wet. One can see how the skin has been scraped on the blubber side; it is all plain as could be."

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Patient: "I did scrape the skin of a seal which my son Qasagâq had killed at a time when I ought not to have touched seal skins."

Shaman: "It is not yet removed. It has shifted a little way back. Something very like it, something of the same sort, is visible near by."

Listeners: "Oh that was last summer, when her husband cut out the tusk from a walrus skull, and that was shortly after he had been ill, when he was not yet allowed to touch any kind of game. Let her be released from that. Do let it be taken from her! Tauva!"

Shaman: "There is more to come. There are yet cases of work, of occupations which were forbidden; something that happened in the spring, after we had moved over to this place."

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Patient: "Oh, I gave my daughter a waistbelt made of skin that had been used for my husband's quiver."

Listeners: "Let this be taken away. Let her be released from it. Tauva!"

Shaman: "It is not yet taken away. She is not released from it as yet. Perhaps it has something to do with the caribou. Perhaps she has prepared caribou skins at a time when she ought not to have touched them."

Listeners: "She has prepared caribou skins. She helped to stretch out the skins at a time when she was living in the same house with a woman who had her menses. Let her be released from that. Tauva!"

Shaman: "She is not freed from guilt even yet. It seems now as if the earth beneath our feet were beginning to move."

Patient: "I have picked moss at a time when I ought not to have touched earth at all, moss to melt lead with for my husband's rifle bullets."

Shaman: "There is more yet, more forbidden work that has been done. The patient has not only melted lead for her husband when it was taboo, but she did it while still wearing clothes of old caribou skin, she did it before she had yet put on the garments made from the new autumn skins."

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Listeners: "Oh these are such little things. A woman must not be suffered to die for these. Do let her be released."

Shaman: "She is not released. It may perhaps prove impossible to release her from these burdens. What is it that I begin to see now? It must be blood, unless it is human filth. But it is outside the house, on the ground. It looks like blood. It is frozen, and covered with loose snow. Someone has tried to hide it."

Patient: "Yes, that was in the autumn. I had a miscarriage, and tried to conceal it, I tried to keep it secret to avoid the taboo."

Listeners: "This is certainly a great and serious offense. But let her be released nevertheless. Let her be released, Tauva!"

Shaman: "We wish her to get well again. Let all these obstacles be removed. Let her get well! And yet I see, and yet I espy things done which were forbidden. What do I see? It looks as if it were a caribou antler. It looks like that part of the antler nearest the head."

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Patient: "Oh that was a caribou bead I once stole in order to eat it, though it was forbidden food for me at the time."

Listeners: "That was very wrong, but all the same, let her be released, let her be re-leased from that. Tauva!"

Shaman: "There is still something more I seem to see; something that as it were comes and disappears just as I am about to grasp it. What is it? Can it be the man Amarualik, I wonder ? It looks like him. I think it must be he. His face is bright, but he is blushing also. He is as bright as a living being. It looks as if he wanted to show me something. And yet another person. Who is that? The patient must have no secrets. Let her tell us herself. Let her speak to us herself. Or can it be my cousin Qumangâpik ? Yes, it is he. It is Qumangâpik. The size is right, and he has a big nose."

Patient: "Alas, yes, it is true. Those men have I lain with at a time when I ought not to have lain with any man, at a time when I was unclean."

Listeners: "It is a very serious offense for a woman to lie with men when she is unclean. But never mind all that. Let her be released, let her get well."

Shaman: "But there is more yet to come." And turning to his spirit, he says: "Release her from it all. Release her, so that she may get well. There is still some-thing hereabout, something I can faintly perceive, but cannot yet grasp entirely."

Patient: "Before the snow came, and before we were allowed to work on the skins of newly captured caribou, I cut up some caribou skin for soles and sewed them on to our boots."

Shaman: "That is there still! There is yet more. The sources of disease are doubtless all in the patient herself, or can it be that any are in me? Can it be my fault, or that of my helping spirits? Or can those here present as listeners be guilty in any way? Can they have any part in the disease? (This was a reference to [explorers] Therkel Mathiassen and Jacob Olsen, who had been digging among the ruins. It is considered sacrilege to touch the houses of the dead.) What can be the cause of that which still torments her? Can it be forbidden work or forbidden food, something eatable, something eaten of that which was forbidden, and nothing said? Could it be a tongue?"

Patient: "Alas, yes, I ate a tongue when it was forbidden me to eat caribou tongue."

Listeners: "Tauva! Let her be released from this burden, from this offense."

Shaman: "She is not yet released. There is more yet about forbidden food."

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Patient: "Can it be because I once stole some salmon and ate it at a time when salmon was forbidden me?"

Listeners: "Let her foolishness, let her misdeeds be taken from her. Let her get well."

Shaman: "She is not yet released. There is more yet; forbidden occupations, forbid-den food, stealing. Can it be that she is trying to hide something from us? Is she trying to conceal something, I wonder ?"

Listeners: "Even if she is trying to keep something concealed, let her be released from that, let her get well."

Shaman: "There are still offenses, evil thoughts, that rise up like a heavy mass, and she was only just beginning to get clean. The confessions were beginning to help her."

Listeners: "Let all evil thoughts disappear. Take away all evil thoughts."

Shaman: "Many confessions has the patient made, and yet it seems difficult! Can it be that she is beyond cure? But let her get well, quite well. Raise her up. But you can-not. You are not able to relieve her of her illness, though many of the causes have now been removed. It is terrible, it is dangerous, and you, my helping spirit, you whom I believe to be here with us, why do you not raise her up and relieve her of her pain, of her sickness? Raise her up, hold her up. Now once more something appears before my eyes, forbidden food and sinews of caribou."

Listeners: "Once more she has combed her hair although she was unclean. Let her be released from that; let it be taken away from her. Let her get well. Tauva!"

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Shaman: "Yet again I catch a glimpse of forbidden occupations carried on in secret. They appear before my eyes, I can just perceive them."

Listeners: "While she was lying on a caribou skin from an animal killed when shedding its coat in the spring, she had a miscarriage, and she kept it secret, and her husband, all unwitting, lay down on the same skin where that had taken place, and so rendered himself unclean for his hunting!"

Shaman: "Even for so hardened a con-science there is release. But she is not yet freed. Before her I see green flowers of sorrel and the fruits of sorrel."

Listeners: "Before the spring was come, and the snow melted and the earth grew living, she once, wearing unclean garments, shovelled the snow away and ate of the earth, ate sorrel and berries, but let her be released from that, let her get well. Tauva!"

Shaman: "She is not yet released. I see plants of seaweed, and something that looks like fuel. It stands in the way of her recovery. Explain what it can be."

Listeners: "She has burned seaweed and used blubber to light it with, although it is forbidden to use blubber for sea plants. But let her be released from that, let her get well. Tauva!"

Shaman: "Ha, if the patient remains obstinate and will not confess her own misdeeds, then the sickness will gain the upper hand, and she will not get well. The sickness is yet in her body, and the offenses still plague her. Let her speak for herself, let her speak out. It is her own fault."

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Patient: "I happened to touch a dead body without afterwards observing the taboo prescribed for those who touch dead bodies. But I kept it secret."

Shaman: "She is not yet released. The sickness is yet in her body. I see snow whereon something has been spilt, and I hear something being poured out. What is it, what is it?"

Patient: "We were out after salmon, and I happened to spill something from the cooking pot on the snow floor." (When salmon are being sought for, care must be taken never to spill anything from a cooking pot either in the snow, in a snow hut, or on the ground in a tent.)

Shaman: "There are more sins yet. There is more to come. She grows cleaner with every confession, but there is more to come. There is yet something which I have been gazing at for a long time, something I have long had in view.. . ."

Listeners: "We do not wish that anything shall be dangerous. We do not wish any-thing to plague her and weigh heavily upon her. She is better now, it is better now. Let her get well altogether."

Shaman: "Here you are, helping spirit, dog Púngo. Tell me what you know. Explain yourself. Tell me, name to me, the thing she has taken. Was it the feet of an eider duck?"

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Patient: "Oh, I ate the craw of a goose at a time when I was not allowed to eat such meat."

Listeners: "Never mind that. Let her be released from that, let her get well."

Shaman: "But she is not yet released. There is more yet. I can still see a hollow that has been visible to me all the time, ever since I began taking counsel of my helping spirit this evening. I see it, I perceive it. I see something which is half naked, some-thing with wings, I do not understand what this can mean."

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Patient: "Oh, perhaps a little sparrow, which my daughter brought into the tent at a time when I was unclean, when it was forbidden me to come into contact with the animals of nature."

Listeners: "Oh, let it pass. Let her be excused. Let her get well."

Shaman: "She is not yet released. Ah, I fear it may not succeed. She still droops, falling forward, she is ill even yet. I see a fur garment. It looks as if it belonged to some sick person. I suppose it cannot be anyone else who has used it, who has borrowed it?"

Listeners: "Oh, yes, it is true, she lent a fur coat to someone at a time when she was unclean."

Shaman: "I can still see a piece of sole leather chewed through and through, a piece of sole leather being softened."

Patient: "The spotted seal from the skin of which I removed the hair, and the meat of which I ate, though it was taboo."

Listeners: "Let it pass. Let her be released from that. Let her get well."

Shaman: "Return to life, I see you now returning in good health among the living, and you, being yourself a shaman, have your helping spirits in attendance. Name but one more instance of forbidden food, all the men you have lain with though you were unclean, all the food you have swallowed, old and new offenses, forbidden occupations exercised, or was it a lamp that you borrowed ?"

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Patient: "Alas yes, I did borrow the lamp of one dead. I have used a lamp that has belonged to a dead person."

Listeners: "Even though it be so, let it be removed. Let all evils be driven far away, that she may get well."

Here the shaman ended his exorcisms, which had taken place early in the morning, and were now to be repeated at noon and later, when evening had come. The patient was by that time so exhausted that she could hardly sit upright, and the listeners left the house believing that all the sins and offenses now confessed had taken the sting out of her illness, so that she would now soon be well again.

1929 Intellectual culture of the Iglulik Eskimos IN Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-24 Vol. VII, No. 1. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag. Pp. 133-141.

To the best of my knowledge, this text has passed into the public domain.