West Greenland Inuit - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to aboriginal belief, every animal had both a soul like a human being and an inua, that is, a man, owner, or lord. The sea, the sun, the moon, a cliff, even sleep and laughter, also had a human quality expressed by an inua. Numerous taboos were attached to birth, death, and hunting. Violation of taboos caused harm not only to the violator but also to other persons, even the entire settlement. Revealing the taboo violation had a neutralizing effect. The inua of the sea, or Sea Woman (Sedna), the inua of the air (Sila) and the inua of the moon, or Moon-Man, were very sensitive to transgressions of taboos and rituals concerning the animals and life crises. The first missionary arrived in 1721. At present, the Greenlandic Evangelic Lutheran church is nearly universal.

Religious Practitioners. Most shamans ( angakkut )—the religious experts—were men, but women might also become shamans. Qilallit were persons, mostly old women, with an ability to get an answer from a spirit by lifting the head of a person lying on the ground. Ilisiitsut, sorcerers or witches, mostly old women, were people who secretly, through magical means, tried to destroy the health or hunting luck of others. Ceremonies. Given that the people's whole existence depended upon hunting and fishing, a good relationship with animals was of vital importance. Technical skills in hunting, as well as observations of taboos and use of amulets and secret songs, were considered necessary to ensure a good hunt. A ritual distribution of the meat of the first seal killed by a boy would ensure his success as a future hunter. The first kill of the season of certain animals was also distributed. During seances, the shaman's spirit-helpers served as informers and as an entertaining element. According to myths, the shaman might undertake a journey to the Sea Woman to make her release the sea animals she was holding back because of People's violation of taboos.

Arts. Singing was integrated into many aspects of social life. Most songs were performed by soloists, sometimes accompanied by the audience. The tambourine drum disappeared in most places in the eighteenth century, and music became strongly influenced by European-American music. Storytelling was another important part of aboriginal life. The transition from oral to written culture was encouraged by a journal in Greenlandic, Atuagagdliutit, founded in Nuuk in 1861. A considerable number of novels, songs, psalms, and the like have been published in Greenlandic.

Medicine. In the aboriginal culture, illness was thought to be the result of taboo violations or to be caused by a sorcerer. It was the shaman's task to make diagnoses and bring back the sick person's missing soul. The cause of illness might also be discovered by a qilalik. All this was long ago replaced by a Western understanding of sickness.

Death and Afterlife. When a death occurred, the inhabitants of the settlement, primarily the close relatives, fell under various taboos. The soul would live on in the afterworld either in the sky, which resembled the inland with possibilities for caribou hunting, or in the underworld where the dead hunted marine animals. The last place was the preferred one. It was the way of dying that decided where one would go. Women who died giving birth and those who died at sea went to the lower world. The name of the dead was tabooed until a newborn child was named after him or her. Such renaming is still common in Greenland.

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