Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": AN ESKIMO SHAMAN


Descent to the abode of Takanakapsaluk, the Mother of the Sea Beasts, is undertaken at an individual's request, sometimes because of illness, sometimes because of bad luck in hunting; only in the latter case is the shaman paid. But it sometimes happens that no game at all is to be found and the village is threatened with famine; then all the villagers gather in the house where the seance is held, and the shaman's ecstatic journey is made in the name of the whole community. Those present must unfasten their belts and laces, and remain silent, their eyes closed. For a time the shaman breathes deeply, in silence, before summoning his helping spirits. When they come the shaman begins to murmur, 'The way is made ready for me; the way opens before me!' and the audience answer in chorus: 'Let it be so.' And now the earth opens, and the shaman struggles for a long time with unknown forces before he finally cries: 'Now the way is open.' And the audience exclaim in chorus: 'Let the way be open before him; let there be way for him.' Now, first under the bed, then farther away, under the passage, is heard the cry, 'Halala-he-he-he, Halala-he-he-he'; this is the sign that the shaman has set off. The cry grows more and more distant until it is no longer heard.

During this time the audience sing in chorus, their eyes closed, and sometimes the shaman's clothes-which he had taken off before the seance-come to life and start flying about the house, over the heads of the audience. The signs and deep breathing of people long dead are also heard; they are dead shamans come to help their colleague on his dangerous journey. And their signs and their breathing seem to come from very far under water, as if they were sea beasts.

Reaching the bottom of the ocean, the shaman finds himself facing three great stones in constant motion barring his road; he must pass between them at the risk of being crushed. (This is another image of the 'strait gate' that forbids access to the plane of higher being to anyone but an 'initiate,' that is, one who can act like a 'spirit.') Successfully passing this obstacle, the shaman follows a path and comes to a sort of bay; on a hill stands Takanakapsaluk's house, made of stone and with a narrow entrance. The shaman hears sea beasts blowing and panting, but does not see them. A dog with bared teeth defends the entrance; the dog is dangerous to anyone who is afraid of it, but the shaman passes over it, and it understands that he is a very powerful magician. (All these obstacles oppose the ordinary shaman, but the really powerful shamans reach the bottom of the sea and the presence of Takanakapsaluk directly, by diving beneath their tent or snow hut, as if slipping through a tube.)
If the goddess is angry with men, a great wall rises before her house. And the shaman has to knock it down with his shoulder. Others say that Takanakapsaluk's house has no roof, so that the goddess can better see men's acts from her place by the fire. All kinds of marine animals are gathered in a pool to the right of the fire, and their cries and breathings are heard. The goddess's hair hangs down over her face and she is dirty and slovenly; this is the effect of men's sins, which have almost made her ill. The shaman must approach her, take her by the shoulder, and comb her hair (for the goddess has no fingers with which to comb herself). Before he can do this, there is another obstacle to be overcome; Takanakapsaluk's father, taking him for a dead man on the way to the land of shades, tries to seize him, but the shaman cries, 'I am flesh and blood !' and succeeds in passing.

As he combs Takanakapsaluk's hair, the shaman tells her that men have no more seal. And the goddess answers in the spirit language: 'The secret miscarriages of the women and breaches of taboo in eating boiled meat bar the way for the animals.' The shaman now has to summon all his powers to appease her anger; finally she opens the pool and sets the animals free. The audience hears their movements at the bottom of the sea, and soon afterward the shaman's gasping breathing, as if he were emerging from the surface of the water. A long silence follows. Finally the shaman speaks: 'I have something to say.' All answer. 'Let us hear, let us hear.' And the shaman, in the spirit language, demands the confession of sins. One after another, all confess their miscarriages or their breaches of taboos and repent.

M. Eliade, Shamanism, Op. Cit., PP. 294-6; summarizing Knud Rasmussen, Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos (Copenhagen, 1930), PP. 124 ff.

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