Old thoughts becoming new – wisdom from Aua

A story from the Fifth Thule Expedition

A four-legged mountain spirit seen outside the snowhouses one dark evening at Aua’s camp. Drawn by Apak, Aua’s daughter. (Drawing from “Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, Vol. 7, no. 1,” facing page 129)

By Kenn Harper

Knud Rasmussen made two extended visits to the camp of the shaman Aua, as well as hosting the old man and his wife at expedition headquarters at Danish Island. On these occasions the aging shaman shared his wisdom with the enquiring ethnologist.

Inuit life had been governed by a complex system of taboos that regulated behaviour. Inuit, guided by their leaders, of course knew what had to be done in any given situation. But Rasmussen wanted to know more than what actions were required — he wanted to know why.

The Inuit, frustrated, could often give no answer. And Rasmussen, perhaps equally frustrated, wrote, “They regarded it as unreasonable that I should require not only an account, but also a justification, of their religious principles.”

One evening, tired of the repeated question of “Why,” Aua suddenly invited Rasmussen to follow him outside, where a storm was raging.

Aua calmly remarked, “In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?”

At just that time hunters were returning unsuccessfully from a day’s hunting for seals. Aua turned the tables again, and asked his companion, “Why?” Rasmussen had no answer.

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The shaman led him to Kublo’s snowhouse where the qulliq gave little light and his children shivered under a skin blanket.

“Why should it be cold and comfortless in here?” the shaman asked.

“Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful, the children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?”

At the dwelling of his sister Natseq, Aua asked, “Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil; she has lived through a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days’ end. Why? Why?”

They returned silently to Aua’s snowhouse.

“You see,” Aua began.

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“You are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life. We explain nothing; we believe nothing. But in what I have just shown you lies our answer to all you ask.

“We fear the weather spirit of earth, that we must fight against to wrest our food from land and sea. We fear Sila.”

“We fear dearth and hunger in the cold snow huts.”

“We fear Takannakapsaaluk, the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beasts of the sea.”

“We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering. We fear the evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and the earth, that can help wicked shamans to harm their fellow men.”

“We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.”

“Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard of in our forefathers’ stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not the same as those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways.”

Aua had explained clearly and succinctly to Rasmussen why his question must remain unanswered.

On another, Aua explained some facts about death to Rasmussen.

“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.”

It was unusual, though, to think of such things, Aua explained.

“In our ordinary everyday life we do not think much about all these things,” he said.

“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 is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Soothsayer on

    I’ve read excerpts of this conversation somewhere before. There is so much to say, yet I find it difficult to organize my thoughts well.

    I love Aua’s bravery in confronting a universe filled with so much tentativeness and uncertainly, to be at some kind peace with so many unknowns (and how else could it be?) and to admit of them is a profound and unusual honestly, we don’t see much of today.

    Would our new world “shamans” (used loosely even a little ironically), the Christian pastor or priest, ever admit to as much ignorance? (Good luck)

    Why, why, why…. is what scientists ask.

    I don’t know, in so many cases, is how the true philosopher might answer.

    Great discussion.

  2. Posted by Tulugak on

    Inuit knowledge and spirituality stemms from 5000 years of living in the Arctic, through thousands of generations. Christianity stemms from 2000 years of books and swords across the world, mostly disconnected from mother earth. Aua’s wisdom is admirable as it is a wonderful connection between Inuit (humans), the animal kingdom and mother earth. Inuit spirituality deserves as much respect as any other spiritual beliefs if not more since it is so closely connected to the realities of the Arctic.

    Thank you Kenn for telling these stories that are so interesting!

    • Posted by The domesticated ape on

      I’m not up for defending Christianity, but its roots are much deeper than 2,000 years. Also, to explain its succession over competing cosmologies I don’t think it is sufficient to invoke its connection to violence and power alone, granted, neither can those be ignored.

      Shamanic beliefs functioned well within a much different kind of world than we know today, and as Aua has shown us above, one filled with a deep ignorance of nature itself.

      That might sound counter-intuitive to those who believe traditional knowledge was in perfect harmony with the world that surrounded it, but as we can plainly see here there was much that was unknown, and much of what was unknown to Aua is known to us today (what, for example, causes the wind?).

      In terms of ‘knowledge’ it was in some real sense an age of darkness.

      • Posted by Kpikinuk on

        It is 2000 years old I don’t what makes you think it’s not show us it’s not the case

        • Posted by The domesticated ape on

          Christianity is a branch of Judaism that would not exist without it’s parent religion and is connected to it all the way back to Genesis, giving it roots that are at least 4,000 years old.

  3. Posted by Mosessi on

    Thanks Ken!

    Absolutely enjoy your work and contributions to maintaining past practices shunned by a beautiful Ancient People influenced and almost made into mainstream Western Culture and Practices.

    IMO, Inuit will get past that Western Religion as a whole Culture was brain-washed into conversion will not be done with Cultural practices by words shard as oral traditions for millennia and time immemorial supersedes a valued and true own religious practices by respecting the true master is Land and Weather and the intangible way Inuit so strongly maintained such a long history as one of the Worlds most Ancient Peoples and Languages.

    Th Old Ways tried and true must not be tucked away and hidden and let a Western System win…Inuit need to know their history and you are teaching Inuit their own history. Thank you so kindly and so very much for your work. I’d like to meet you one day over coffee.

    • Posted by Lamark on

      Understanding history is a great thing, but doing so is not going to resurrect the past. It seems unlikely in the extreme that anyone is going to see the world in the way Aua did again. Is that what you are expecting?

  4. Posted by Silas on

    There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.
    Shamans knew that there is a higher power/spirits than the regular people did because they dealt with spirits. They just didn’t know the extent of those powers/spirits, they only dealt with the spirit(s) that came to them, good or evil.
    Aua would have known or understood better than the regular people about the things or spirits that the qablunaat brought to them.

  5. Posted by asianik isumalik on

    Ken is a wonderful writer and I truly enjoy the stories that he contributes. It’s the people in comments that sometimes bring up things that they don’t really know facts about. In my life I’ve heard 2 former shamans tell their families about how they wouldn’t wish shamanism on their worst enemy as it involves demons. People often tend to glamourize shamanism but it’s not something to fool around with according to people who have been there. Just a thought.

  6. Posted by Philosophical Materialism on

    To all Tulugaq and all others committed to the belief that shamans had extraordinary abilities and powers, consider the words of Rasmussen:

    ” Such manifestations as I had an opportunity of witnessing myself were, I must confess, disappointing to the critical observer. Acquainted as he would be with his neighbors’ life and doings, it was not difficult for the angakoq to hit upon something done or left undone by one or another. The trance like state into which he cast himself was not impressive in itself, and as for the spirits supposed to be present, one can only say that they did not make their presence felt. The wizard stood in the middle of the hut with his eyes closed, talking in a strained, unnatural voice; the rushing of mighty wings, which in the old stories accompanies such spiritual visitations, was conspicuous by its absence.”

    Page 128: Across Arctic America

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