Traditional religion among the Eskimo people had a strong
element of magic centered on the shamans, whom they called
angekok. Eskimos consulted their shamans at important times,
such as before a hunting expedition or when ill. The nature of
the ceremonies employed on those occasions may be inferred
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Eskimos
from the account of Captain G. F. Lyon, who once employed
an angekok named Toolemak to summon a tomga (familiar
spirit) in the cabin of a ship. He gave an account of the ceremony
that was used, as follows.
In complete darkness the sorcerer began vehemently chanting
to his wife, who responded with the Amna-aya, the favorite
song of the Eskimo. This song lasted throughout the ceremony.
Toolemak began to spin around, shouting for the tomga while
blowing and snorting like a walrus. His noise, agitation, and
impatience increased steadily, and at length he seated himself
on the deck, varying his tones, and rustling his clothes.
Suddenly the voice seemed smothered, as if the shaman was
retreating beneath the deck. It became more distant, ultimately
sounding as if it were many feet below the cabin. Then it ceased
entirely. In answer to Lyons queries, the sorcerers wife declared
that the shaman had dived and would send up the
In about half a minute a distant blowing was heard, approaching
very slowly, and a voice different from the shamans
was mixed with the blowing. Eventually both sounds became
distinct, and the old woman said that the tomga had come to
answer the strangers questions. Lyon asked several questions
of the sagacious spirit, receiving what he understood to be an
affirmative or favorable answer by two loud slaps on the deck.
A hollow yet powerful voice, certainly not Toolemaks,
chanted for some time. A medley of hisses, groans, shouts, and
gobblings like a turkeys followed in swift succession. The old
woman sang with increased energy, and because Lyon conjectured
that the exhibition was intended to astonish the
Kabloona, he said repeatedly that he was greatly terrified. As
he expected, this admission added fuel to the flame until the
spirit, exhausted by its own might, asked leave to retire. The
voice gradually faded and an indistinct hissing followed. At first
it sounded like the tone produced by wind on the bass cord of
an Eolian harp. This was soon changed to a rapid hiss like that
of a rocket, and Toolemak, with a yell, announced the spirits
At the first distant sibilation Lyon held his breath, and twice
exhausted himself; but the Eskimo conjurer did not breathe
once. Even his returning, powerful yell was uttered without previous
pause or inspiration of air.
When light was admitted Toolemak was in a state of profuse
perspiration and exhausted by his exertions, which had continued
for at least half an hour. Lyon then observed two bundles,
each consisting of two strips of white deerskin and a long piece
of sinew, attached to the back of the shamans coat. He had not
seen them before and was told that they had been sewn on by
the tomga while Toolemak was below.
The performance had much in common with that of a Western
medium at a spirit séance. The angekoks claim to visit the
dwelling places of the spirits they invoke and give circumstantial
descriptions of these habitations. They have a firm belief in
their own powers.
The explorer Dr. Elisha Kane (18201957) considered it interesting
that wonder-workers from indigenous cultures and
postindustrial societies had so much in common. He observed
I have known several of them personally, and can speak
with confidence on this point. I could not detect them in any
resort to jugglery or natural magic; their deceptions are simply
vocal, a change of voice, and perhaps a limited profession of
ventriloquism, made more imposing by the darkness. They
had, however, like the members of the learned professions everywhere
else, a certain language or jargon of their own, in
which they communicated with each other.
While the angekoks are the dispensers of good, the issintok,
or evil men, are the workers of injurious spells, enchantments,
and metamorphoses. Like the witches of both Englands, the
Old and the New, these malignant creatures are rarely submitted
to trial until they have suffered punishmentthe old Jeddart
justicecastigate auditque. Two of them, in 1818, suffered
the penalty of their crime on the same day, one at Kannonak,
the other at Upernavik. The latter was laudably killed in accordance
with the old custom. . . . custom being everywhere the
apology for any act revolting to moral sense. He was first harpooned,
then disembowelled; a flap let down from his forehead
to cover his eyes and prevent his seeing againhe had, it appears,
the repute of an evil eyeand then small portions of his
heart were eaten, to ensure that he should not come back to
Kanes observations of Eskimo shaman practice have special
interest because he became the husband of Margaretta Fox,
one of the Fox sisters, the first modern Spiritualist mediums.
Kane, Elisha. Arctic Explorations in Search of Sir John Franklin.
London T. Nelson, 1885.
Merkur, Daniel. Becoming Half Hidden Shamanism and Initiation
among the Inuit. New York Garland, 1992.
Walker, Daniel E. Witchcraft and Sorcery of the American Native
Peoples. Moscow University of Idaho Press, 1989.