Asiatic Eskimos - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Asiatic Eskimos believed in benign and evil spirits who occupied all surrounding objects, in Masters of the Sky and the Mistress of the Sea. Evil spirits ( tughneghet ) were considered the cause of all sickness and misfortune. For defense against them amulets were used, along with a special, magical coloring of the face. The Upper World, the Peoples' World, and the Lower World were distinguished. Prohibitions were widespread against hunting certain animals and birds that were considered sacred: wolves, ravens, and swallows. These beliefs have been unusually durable. To this day young people, particularly those who grew up in a family and not in a boarding school, observe, albeit sometimes half-jokingly, the rituals of their ancestors. In particular, there is almost no exception made to the obligatory custom of "feeding the spirits" before the beginning of a meal when the first piece of food (traditionally meat but now whatever is lying on the table, including candy and alcoholic beverages) is thrown or poured into a small sliding window (Russian: fortochka ), when there is no open fire nearby. A (not strict) taboo also exists on pronouncing the name of a child or infant, but in a unique form: parallel to the official name under which each child is registered, many children have a "secret" traditional name known only to close relatives, which it is not appropriate to communicate to unknown persons or to pronounce aloud without special heed.

Religious Practitioners. Every settlement had its shaman, whose obligations included ritual and cult acts, the healing of the sick, and opposition to evil spirits. The shamanic gift, the basis of which was considered to be knowledge of songs and spells (spell-songs) capable of summoning animals or objects as helpers, was acquired through a magical experience to which the shaman subjected himself by going out into the tundra or some other isolated place (often a cemetery). The shaman could have a student whom he subjected to tests and to whom he transmitted all his secrets. After the wiping out of the majority of the shamans at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, shamanic séances began to be held very rarely and always "underground." Toward the beginning of the 1970s these séances had practically disappeared or had degenerated into a demonstration of tricks and the diversion of an audience.

Ceremonies. Ritual holidays were all connected with the cult of sea animals and were accompanied by generous feasts, magical singing and dancing, and athletic contests. The rituals had two goals: to request a successful hunt and to express gratitude for success in the hunt (addressed to the souls of the animals). The shaman would carry out magical acts to clarify the reasons for an illness, an accident, or failure in a hunt. Most ritual acts were carried out within the dwelling, with the exception of four holidays or festivals: the autumn requiem ritual of tossing each other a walrus hide, the summer ritual of competition in running and wrestling, and the spring and autumn ritual of lowering the baydar into water—all of these took place in the open air. The basic and obligatory element of any holiday or ritual was generous, joint feasting, and gift giving—"hosting the ancestors." A ritual act could be carried out by any family or group of people in each dwelling.

Arts. Song and folklore were highly developed, as were the applied arts—carving in bone, embroidering with reindeer hair and beads, and the production of utensils, hunting equipment, and magical objects.

Medicine. Sickness resulted from the "loss of soul," the influence of the evil spirit or some alien object, or the breaking of a taboo. The goal of the shaman was to establish the cause of the illness and to make it go away, usually by recommending that the patient stay away from certain kinds of food, or wear a certain amulet, and so forth. At the same time, the shamans also used practical medicine to a significant degree: they could treat wounds, they knew emetic, fever-reducing, and soothing techniques and remedies; however, the primary means of curing was still magic.

Death and Afterlife. The deceased was placed on a raised area in the dwelling, fellow settlers were called together, and a sumptuous feast was organized, usually to be held at night. The settlers then bore the deceased to the cemetery and left him or her there. If everything was done properly, the soul of the deceased would not return to the world of the living and would not cause the living any unpleasantness but, on the contrary, would become their helper. Until the present time, the Asiatic Eskimos have preserved ideas about the transmigration of souls that are reflected in the practice of giving the newly born the names of dead relatives. The customs of voluntary death and infanticide used to exist. Contemporary burials and burial rituals are, on the whole, similar to the traditional ones; under Russian influence, the dead are no longer covered with heaped stones but are buried in the ground, although not deeply.


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