Excerpts From Fridtjof Nansen's 'Eskimo Life'
./enesbit.html ./ransome.html ./tolkien.html ./index.html

Author’s preface

For one whole winter we were cut off from the world and immured among the Greenlanders.  I dwelt in their huts, took part in their hunting, and tried, as well as I could, to live their life and learn their language.  But one winter, unfortunately, is far too short a time in which to attain a thorough knowledge of so peculiar a people, its civilisation, and its ways of thought - that would require years of patient study.  Nevertheless, I have tried in this book to record the impressions made upon me by the Eskimo and his polity, and have sought to support them by quotations from former authors.  There may even be things which a newcomer sees more clearly than an observer of many years standing, who lives in their midst.

On many points, perhaps, the reader may not think as I do.  I cannot, it is true, find that whatever is is very good; I am weak enough to feel compassion for a declining race, which is perhaps beyond all help, since it is already stung with the venom of our civilisation.  But I comfort myself with the thought that at least no words of mine can make the lot of this people worse than it is, and I hope that the reader will accept my observations in the spirit in which they are written... the truth before everything.  And if in some points I should appear unreasonable, I must plead as my excuse that it is scarcely possible to live for any time among these people without conceiving an affection for them - for that, one winter is enough.

During the long, dark evenings, as I sat in the low earth-huts and gazed at the flame of the train-oil lamps, I had ample time for reflection.  It often seemed to me that I could see these hardy children of Nature pressing westward, stage by stage, in their dog-sledges and in their wonderful skin-canoes, along the barren ice coasts; I saw how they fought their way onward, and, little by little, perfected their ingenious implements and attained their masterly skill in the chase.  Hundreds, nay, thousands of years passed, tribe after tribe succumbed, while other and stronger stocks survived - and I was filled with admiration for a people which had emerged victorious from the struggle with such inhospitable natural surroundings.

But in melancholy contrast to this inspiriting picture of the past, the present and the future rose before my eyes - a sad, a hopeless mist.

In Greenland the Eskimo fell in with Europeans.  First it was our Norwegian forefathers of the olden times; them they gradually overcame.  But we returned to the charge, this time bringing with us Christianity and the products of civilisation; then they succumbed, and are sinking ever lower and lower.  The world passes on with a pitying shrug of the shoulders.

‘What more can one say?  Who’s a penny the worse
Though a beggar be dead?’

But this people, too, has its feelings, like others; it, too, rejoices in life and Nature, and bleeds under our iron heel.  If anyone doubts this, let him observe their sympathy with one another, and their love for their children; or let him read their legends.

Whenever I saw instances of the suffering and misery which we have brought upon them, that remnant of a sense of justice which is still to be found in most of us stirred me to indignation, and I was filled with a burning desire to send the truth reverberating over the whole world.  Were it once brought home to them, I thought, people could not but awaken from their indifference, and at once make good the wrong they had done.

Poor dreamer!  You have nothing to say which has not been better said before.  The hapless lot of the Greenlanders, as well as of other ‘native’ races, has been set forth on many hands, and always without avail...

I know very well that my voice, too, will be as a cry sent forth over a flat expanse of desert, without even mountains to echo it back.  My only hope is to awaken here and there a feeling of sympathy with the Eskimos and of sorrow for their destiny.

Fridtjof Nansen

Godthaab, Lysaker:
November 1891.

Chapter 2…  First lessons in the kayak.

After I had been some time practising, and the others saw that I got on tolerably well, some of them felt inclined to try too.  Sverdrup was the first to get himself a kayak, and he soon became very proficient.  Balto had begun to express his eagerness to try as soon as he arrived at Godthaab, and had asked me whether I thought it was difficult.  The Danes, none of whom understood the art, represented to him the danger of it, and told him how many lost their lives over it.

Balto, at no time distinguished for his courage, had given up the idea, and quietly looked on while I was out on the water.  But now that Sverdrup had begun too, the temptation became too strong.

Both Sverdrup and I told him that it was not the easiest thing in the world to sit a kayak, and that he would have to mind what he was about.  But Balto was now in a great state of elation, and said he was sure he could manage it, as he was used to driving a Lapp reindeer sledge.  Sverdrup pointed out to him that the two processes were not exactly identical, but Balto stood his ground and determined to make the experiment.  Sverdrup’s canoe was carried down; there were a number of spectators gathered round to watch, and I paddled about a little way from shore ready to fish him out. 

Balto placed himself in the kayak, made himself comfortable, and tucked his great pelisse round him.  He made all his preparations with the most confident air, and evidently intended to show us what a Lapp really could do when he tried.  When he was ready he eagerly seized the paddle in both hands and boldly gave orders to push off.

But no sooner did the canoe touch the water than its steadiness began very perceptibly to diminish, and Balto’s expression grew less confident.  Yet he was determined to carry it off well, and even helped to push the canoe along.  At last it was so far out that only the point was left resting upon the shore.  Balto’s valour now gave place to most absolute terror, while at the same time the kayak slid out into the water and began to rock uncomfortably.  Then came some desperate flourishes with the paddle in the air, which were apparently preparatory to strokes in the water; his face was one picture of horror and despair; he made frantic efforts at some unholy ejaculation, but no further than the first letter, ‘D___ D___ D___’ could he get.  His mouth and the whole concern went under together, and his emotion vanished in a simple gurgle.  All we could see was the bottom of the canoe and his great square cap floating on the surface of the water.

I paddled up, but luckily the water was so shallow that Balto could touch the bottom with his hands, and the kayak was so near the shore that the spectators could pull it and its occupant out.  Balto was greeted with a pitiless shout of laughter from the bystanders, especially the girls.  Then he got out of the canoe, and as he stood there on the rocks, throwing his arms and legs about, while the water poured out of his voluminous garments, which now hung close and lank about his body, he looked for all the world like an ordinary scarecrow.

The first thing he said was, ‘Well, I am almost wet.’  Then he reflected a moment, and added with all the fervour of conviction, ‘And I will say that that kayak is a very devil of a boat.’

It was some time before Balto tried the kayak again.  Soon after this Dietrichson had one made, and was not long in learning the use of it.  His success induced Kristiansen to try his luck, and even brought Balto to the point once more.

Both of them set to work to build their own vessels.  The Greenlanders helped them with the frames, and they were then covered with skin, as usual by the Eskimo women.  As soon as they were ready both the beginners set about practising vigorously.  Balto’s experience had, however, made him cautious, and he had the outriggers put on at once.  Kristiansen was more reckless, and frightened us all by starting without these supports and going right out to sea.  But he got on surprisingly well.

Towards the end of the winter all the members of our party except old Ravna were often to be seen out in their kayaks after sea-birds...

But when one has acquired a mastery of the kayak and of the two-bladed paddle, one can get through the water in all sorts of weather at an astonishing speed.  The kayak is beyond comparison the best boat for a single oarsman ever invented.

Chapter 12  Religious Ideas…

Ilisitsoks (Wizards and Witches) and Tupileks or Gand (Messengers)

For the most part, however, it is people of another class who are guilty of such misdeeds as killing others by magic, bewitching their weapons, and the like.  These are the so-called ilisitsoks, who may be either male or female.  These Wizards and witches are much hated.  It used to he held that most evils, especially death and disease, were due to them; and if an old woman was suspected of being an ilisitsok she was remorselessly killed.  This cannot surprise us, when we remember how our own ancestors, with the priests at their head, used to burn their witches.  While the angekoks [heathen Eskimo priests] commune with the spirits in the presence of other people, the ilisitsoks’ dealings with the supernatural powers are carried on in the deepest secrecy and always to noxious ends.  They must be instructed in secrecy by an older ilisitsok and must pay dear for the teaching.  It does not seem to be clear what supernatural powers they have dealings with; they are doubtless different from those known to the angekoks, and are purposely kept secret.  In their diabolical arts they use many different properties, as for instance human bones, the flesh of corpses, skulls, snakes, spiders, water-beetles, and the like; but their most potent device consists in making tupileks.  

A tupilek is prepared in the deadliest secrecy of various animals’ bones, skins, pieces of the anorak of the man who is to be injured or portions of the seals he has caught; all this being wrapped together and tied up in a skin.  Finally, it is brought to life by dint of singing charms over it.  Then the ilisitsok seats himself upon a bank of stones close to the mouth of a river.  He turns his anorak back to front, draws his hood up over his face, and then dangles the tupilek between his legs.  This makes it grow, and when it has attained its proper size it glides away into the water and disappears.  It can transform itself into all sorts of animals and monsters, and is supposed to bring ruin and death upon the man against whom it is despatched; but if it fails in this, it turns against him who sent it forth.  These tupileks remind us strongly of the widespread belief both in Norway and Iceland in gand or ‘messengers,’ and it seems scarcely doubtful that the Eskimo have borrowed this conception from our ancestors in Greenland.  The ‘gand’ in Iceland is also a fabulous, magic creature, sent forth by wizards, with the power of transforming itself into every possible shape; and if it does not succeed in destroying the person against whom it is sent, it returns and kills the sender.  It can, however, in Greenland, no less than in Iceland and Norway, be snapped up by other wizards or witches, and its evil influence thus averted.

Although not mentioned by Nansen, the tupilek, made from various pieces of animal carcass, seems also analogous to the golem, of Jewish mythology.  The latter was made from clay into a figure which according to legend could be brought to life by a rabbi putting a piece of paper bearing the name of God into its mouth, or writing EMETH [truth] on it’s forehead.  It could be later deactivated by removing the first letter leaving the word METH [death].  This is a very ancient myth, and was expressed most famously in the legend of the golem’s protection of Jewish ghettos during the pogroms [organised massacres] in central Europe during the Middle Ages.  See also the novel The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, [first published in serial form in 1913-14; translated and published in English in 1928].  Meyrink’s monster differs from the classic golem in that it resembles, indeed, is the double, of the story’s hero.  The book was filmed in 1920, and became a fundamental influence on the horror genre of the cinema. 

The original Jewish golem was a precursor of the monster in Mary Shelly’s story ‘Frankenstein’ [written between 1816 and 1817] which differs from the clay golem in that here the monster is manufactured from human parts by a scientist.  The climax of this story, coincidentally, takes place in the high Arctic.  The ‘robot’, the ceramic golem’s mechanical counterpart, derives from a 1920 play written by Karl Kaper, R.U.R..  The abbreviation standing for Rossum’s Universal Robot, from the Czech word robota, which means forced labour.  [Editor].

Rink sees in these ilisitsoks and their connection with the powers of evil a possible survival from an older or primæval faith in Greenland, which is persecuted by the priests of the new faith, the angekoks.  Just so do we find that witchcraft among us consisted largely of remnants of the old heathenism and was, therefore, bitterly persecuted by the Christians.  There seems to be much in favour of this ingenious conclusion of Rink’s.  It appears to me possible, however, that as the tupilek is descended from the ancient Scandinavians’ belief in gand or ‘messengers,’ so the origin of the whole witch-lore may be found in the same quarter.  There seems to be sufficient points of likeness to justify such a conjecture.  It is by no means improbable that precisely this belief in the power of the Evil One, the contact with Satan, the Black Book and so forth - in a word the whole belief in wizardry which lay, and to some extent still lies, at the very root of the superstitions of our race, even deeper, one might almost say, than the belief in God - might have been the first thing borrowed by the Eskimo in their dealings with our forefathers [i.e. the Viking Norse].  This rapid and easy way of obtaining supernatural power must have been particularly attractive to them...

For the full text of Nansen's 'Eskimo Life'' see

Site established September 2005      © Copyright 2005, 2006  Simon J Browne    Contact: simonjbrowne@hotmail.co.uk
Pablo Software Solutions