Yuit - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yuit world was highly animistic. Almost everything observable had an indwelling spirit as its real substance, its owner. Not only did humans have a name soul, an immortal personality that could pass into the body of a newborn infant and become that person; but there were other spiritual dimensions as well, such as the breath soul, whose leaving marked the material death of the person. All animals important to survival—seals, walruses, whales, polar bears—had humanlike souls, which had to be appeased before and after the hunt to keep their goodwill. Aside from souls inhabiting living bodies, there were spirits of rocks and other natural features—a flame, the air, the sea, a mountain—as well as disembodied, free-floating spirits, some of which were malevolent to humans. Frequently they were the instruments of misfortune and disease (one cause being theft or wandering of the soul). Sometimes they acted on their own volition; sometimes they were directed toward evil ends by a witch or sorcerer. In modern times, Christian (or, in the Soviet Union, atheistic) beliefs and practices have largely replaced aboriginal spiritual conceptions.

Religious Practitioners. The principal spiritual protagonist against witches or the threat of disease was the shaman. (In Yup'ik, the term for this familiar religious figure is aliginalre). The shaman was the religious functionary who had obtained power through a period of deprivation on the tundra during which he was visited by spirits who would agree to become his helpers in the seance that was part of every healing or divinatory ritual. At the end of such a ceremony (always attended by the patient's family), the shaman would sacrifice tiny bits of valuable goods offered in payment by the family—for example, walrus-hide rope, seal blubber, reindeer hide, tobacco. The shaman's spiritual helpers as well as the supreme being (familiarly called Apa, or "grandfather") were paid for their assistance by the small pieces of payment goods being thrown into the flame of a seal-oil lamp and accompanied by prayers.

During the seance, which was conducted in a darkened room, the shaman would sing to the beat of a tambourine drum. The language used, mainly archaic words and neologisms, created an aura of belief in the shaman's powers. The purpose of such drumming, singing, and dancing was to transport the shaman's soul into the spiritual world to discover the cause of the problem. Once the soul had returned from the search, there would be a dramatic struggle between the shaman and the witch or spirit causing the disease or misfortune. The entire scene—dim and eerie light, other-worldly singing, the throbbing drum, ventriloquially produced sounds appearing to come from all corners of the room—was highly conducive to belief in the shaman's powers. It strongly reinforced compliance with instructions laid down for the patient's and the family's behavior, such as not working for a given period of time and wearing particular amulets on clothing. Aside from using the (unbeknownst to him) powers of psychological medicine, the shaman might also prescribe eating certain types of foods or using particular folk medicinal remedies.

Ceremonies. Aside from social rituals accompanying trade gatherings, ceremonialism was largely directed at maintaining proper relations with the animal world and preventing or ameliorating baleful actions of witches and malignant spirits. Proper treatment of the souls of animals was particularly important, both in small-scale and major ceremonies. If, for example, animals were not implored prior to the hunt to offer their flesh for human consumption and were not properly thanked after the kill (say, by a seal's not being given a drink of fresh water by the wife of the household when the carcass enters the house), that soul would tell other seals not to let themselves be killed by humans. Offering prayers, practicing taboos and behavioral restrictions (by both the hunter and his wife), and wearing special clothing and amulets were important accessories to the hunt. Major ceremonies of thanks-giving were conducted after the killing of walruses and polar bears; and for whales, elaborate rituals in preparation for the forthcoming hunt, presided over by the boat captain and his wife and attended by the entire boat crew, were enacted as well.

Arts. Drumming, singing, and dancing were not confined to the shamanistic seance. They were common forms of entertainment generally, along with telling stories and myths. Ivory carving and needlework were highly developed, as were such children's amusements as string-figures.

Medicine. Folk medicine used both plant and animal products to relieve symptoms and assist curing. For example, a widespread remedy for aches and pains was an infusion of willowbark in water; the salicylic acid thus obtained is the active ingredient in aspirin. Pieces of blubber were applied to a wound to staunch the flow of blood, as was fresh human urine. Prior to contact with outsiders and the contagious diseases they brought, death and disability came primarily from hunting accidents and aging. Since the turn of the century the Yuit have been served by modern Soviet and American medicine.

Death and Afterlife. There were no consistent beliefs about an afterlife. The reincarnation of the name soul into a newborn's body was the single most important (and most uniformly held) belief relating to an afterlife.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: