More Wisdom from Aua

Taissumani: 2008-08-08

By Kenn Harper

Last month I wrote about some of the Inuit beliefs that the Greenlandic-Danish explorer and ethnographer, Knud Rasmussen, learned from the Inuit shaman, Aua, in Foxe Basin in 1922. In his questioning of Aua, Rasmussen asked about Inuit religious ideas, and in particular about the soul.

Aua replied:

"We ignorant Eskimos living up here do not believe, as you have told us many white men do, in one great solitary spirit that from a place far up in the sky maintains humanity and all the life of nature. Among us, as I have already explained to you, all is bound up with the earth we live on and our life here; and it would be even more incomprehensible, even more unreasonable, if, after a life short or long, of happy days or of suffering and misery, we were then to cease altogether from existence. What we have heard about the soul shows us that the life of men and beasts does not end with death. When at the end of life we draw our last breath, that is not the end. We awake to consciousness again, we come to life again, and all this is effected through the medium of the soul. Therefore it is that we regard the soul as the greatest and most incomprehensible of all."

Aua explained that most shamans divide the soul into two parts. These were, he said, "inuusia, of which we say that it is one with the spirit of life, and the spirit of life is something a living human being cannot do without. The other part of the soul is tarninga, perhaps the most powerful part of the soul, and the most mysterious, for while tarninga gives life and health, it is at the same time the site of disease, or the spot where any sickness enters in."

Aua recounted to Rasmussen the Inuit belief that in the very earliest times, there was no death among human beings. But the island on which they lived, said by some to be the island of Mitligjuaq in Hudson Strait, became so over-populated that eventually an old woman, with power in her words, began to shout, asking that human beings be able to die, or soon there would be no room left for them on earth.

Aua continued: "Mysterious as the manner in which death came into life, even so mysterious is death itself.

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

"We know nothing about it for certain, save that those we live with suddenly pass away from us, some in a natural and understandable way because they have grown old and weary, others, however, in mysterious wise, because we who lived with them could see no reason why they in particular should die, and because we knew that they would gladly live. But that is just what makes death the great power it is. Death alone determines how long we may remain in this life on earth, which we cling to, and it alone carries us into another life which we know only from the accounts of shamans long since dead.

"We know that men perish through age, or illness, or accident, or because another has taken their life. All this we understand. Something is broken. What we do not understand is the change which takes place in a body when death lays hold of it. It is the same body that went about among us and was living and warm and spoke as we do ourselves, but it has suddenly been robbed of a power, for lack of which it becomes cold and stiff and putrifies. Therefore we say that a man is ill when he has lost a part of his soul, or one of his souls, for there are some who believe that man has several souls. If then that part of a man's vital force be not restored to the body, he must die. Therefore we say that a man dies when the soul leaves him."

Aua pointed out to his questioner that it was somewhat unusual to be asked to think about these things, and that usually such subjects were far from people's minds. "In our ordinary everyday life we do not think much about all these things," he explained, "and it is only now you ask that so many thoughts arise in my head of long-known things; old thoughts, but as it were becoming altogether new when one has to put them into words."

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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