Eskimo Folk-Tales | Annotated Tale

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THESE stories were collected in various parts of Greenland, taken down from the lips of the Eskimo story-tellers themselves, by Knud Rasmussen, the Danish explorer.

                No man is better qualified to tell the story of Greenland, or the stories of its people. Knud Rasmussen is himself partly of Eskimo origin; his childhood was spent in Greenland, and to Greenland he returned again and again, studying, exploring, crossing the desert of the inland ice, making unique collections of material, tangible and otherwise, from all parts of that vast and little-known land, and his achievements on these various expeditions have gained for him much honour and the appreciation of many learned societies.

                But it is as an interpreter of native life, of the ways and customs of the Eskimos, that he has done his greatest work. "Kunúnguaq"--that is his native name--is known throughout the country and possesses the confidence of the natives to a superlative degree, forming himself, as it were, a link between them and the rest of the world. Such work, as regards its hither side, must naturally consist to a great extent of scientific treatises, collections of facts and specimens, all requiring previous knowledge of the subject for their proper comprehension. These have their great value as additions to the sum of human knowledge, but they remain unknown to the majority of men. The present volume is designed to be essentially a popular, as distinct from a scientific work.

                The original collection of stories and legends made by Knud Rasmussen under the auspices of the Carlsberg Foundation has never yet been published. In making the present selection, I have endeavoured to choose those which are most characteristic and best calculated to give an idea of the life and thought of the people. The clearest variants have been chosen, and vague or doubtful passages omitted, so as to render the narratives easily understandable for the ordinary reader. In many cases also, the extreme outspokenness of the primitive people concerned has necessitated further editing, in respect of which, I can confidently refer any inclined to protest, to the unabridged English version, lodged with the Trustees of the Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen, for my defence. For the rest, I have endeavoured to keep as closely as possible to the spirit and tone of the originals, working from the Eskimo text and Knud Rasmussen's Danish version side by side.

                The illustrations are by native Eskimo artists. They are not drawn to illustrate the particular stories, but represent typical scenes and incidents such as are there described. In the selection of these, preference has been given to those of unusual character, as for instance those dealing with the "tupilak" theme, and matters of wizardry or superstition generally, which the reader would find more difficult to visualize for himself than ordinary scenes of daily life.

                As regards their contents, the stories bring before us, more clearly, perhaps, than any objective study, the daily life of the Eskimos, their habit of thought, their conception of the universe, and the curious "spirit world" which forms their primitive religion or mythology.

                In point of form they are unique. The aim of the Eskimo story-teller is to pass the time during the long hours of darkness; if he can send his hearers to sleep, he achieves a triumph. Not infrequently a story-teller will introduce his chef-d'oeuvre with the proud declaration that "no one has ever heard this story to the end." The telling of the story thus becomes a kind of contest between his power of sustained invention and detailed embroidery on the one hand and his hearers' power of endurance on the other. Nevertheless, the stories are not as interminable as might be expected; we find also long and short variants of the same theme. In the present selection, versions of reasonable length have been preferred. The themes themselves are, of course, capable of almost infinite expansion.

                In the technique of an ordinary novel there is a certain balance, or just proportion, between the amount of space devoted to the various items, scenes and episodes. The ordinary reader does not notice it as a rule, for the simple reason that it is always there. The Eskimo stories are magnificently heedless of such proportion. Any detail, whether of fact or fancy, can be expanded at will; a journey of many hundred miles may be summarized in a dozen words: "Then he went away to the Northward, and came to a place." Thus with the little story of the Man who went out to search for his Son; the version here employed covers no more than a few pages, yet it is a record of six distinct adventures, threaded on to the main theme of the search. It is thus a parallel in brief to the "Wandering" stories popular in Europe in the Middle Ages, when any kind of journey served as the string on which to gather all sorts of anecdote and adventure. The story of Atungait, who goes on a journey and meets with lame people, left-handed people, and the like, is an example of another well-known classical and mediæval type.

                The mythical stories present some interesting features when compared with the beliefs and folk-lore of other peoples. The legend of the Men who travelled round the World is based on a conception of the world as round. There is the tradition of a deluge, but here supported by geological evidence which is appreciated by the natives themselves: i.e. the finding of mussel shells on the hills far inland. The principle of the tides is recognized in what is otherwise a fairy tale; "There will be no more ebb-tide or flood if you strangle me," says the Moon Man to the Obstinate One.

                The constellation of the Great Bear is explained in one story, the origin of Venus in another. The spirits of the departed are "stellified" as seen in "The Coming of Men." There seems to be a considerable intermingling of Christian culture and modern science in the general attitude towards life, but these foreign elements are coated over, as it were, like the speck of grit in an oyster, till they appear as concentrations of the native poetic spirit that forms their environment.

                We find, too, constant evidence of derivation from the earliest, common sources of all folk-lore and myth; parallels to the fairy tales and legends of other lands and other ages. There is a version of the Bluebeard theme in Ímarasugssuaq, "who, it is said, was wont to eat his wives." Instances of friendship and affection between human beings and animals are found, as in the tale of the Foster-mother and the Bear. Various resemblances to well-known fairy tales are discernible in such stories as that of the Eagle and the Whale, where the brothers set out to rescue their sisters from the husbands who hold them captive. Here too, we encounter that ancient and classical expedient of fugitives; throwing out objects behind to check pursuit.

                The conception of the under-world, as shown in the story of Kúnigseq and others, is a striking example of this kinship with ancient and well-known legends. Kúnigseq comes to the land of shades, and meets there his mother, who is dead. But she must not kiss him, for "he is only here on a visit." Or again: "If you eat of those berries, you will never return." The under-world is partly an Elysium of existence without cares; partly Dantesque: "Bring ice when you come again, for we thirst for cold water down here." And the traveller who has been away from earth for what seems an hour, finds that years of earthly time have passed when he returns.

                Spirits of the departed appearing to their kin upon earth do so with an injunction "not to tell." (In England we write to the newspapers about them.) Magic powers or gifts are lost by telling others how they came. Spirit gifts are made subject to some condition of restraint: "Choose only one and no more." "If you kill more than one seal to-day, you will never kill seal again hereafter."

                The technique of the fairy tale is frequently apparent. One test fulfilled is followed by the demand for fulfilment of another. Qujâvârssuk, having found the skeleton as instructed, is then sent off to search for a lamb stone. This, of course, apart from its æsthetic value as retardation, is particularly useful to the story-teller aiming principally at length. We also find the common progression from one great or splendid thing to other greater or more splendid; a woman appears "even more finely dressed than on the day before." English children will perhaps remember Hans Andersen's dog with "eyes as big as saucers ... eyes as big as Rundetaarn."

                The use of "magic power" is of very frequent occurrence; it seems, indeed, to be the generally accepted way of solving any difficulty. As soon as the hero has been brought into a situation from which no ordinary way of escape appears, it then transpires--as an afterthought--that he is possessed of magic powers, when the rest, of course, is easy. A delightful instance of the extent to which this useful faculty can be watered down and yet remain effective is seen in the case of the village where no wizard can be found to help in time of famine, until it is "revealed" that Íkardlítuarssuk "had formerly sat on the knee of one of those present when the wizards called up their helping spirits." In virtue of which very distant connection he proceeds to magic away the ice.

                There is a general tendency towards anthropomorphic conception of supernatural beings. The Moon Man has his stock of harpoons like any mortal hunter; the Mountain Spirit has a wife and children. The life and domestic arrangements of "spirits" are mostly represented as very similar to those with which the story-teller and his hearers are familiar, much as we find, in early Italian paintings, Scriptural personages represented in the costume and environment of the artist's own place and period.

                The style of narrative is peculiar. The stories open, as a rule, with some traditionally accepted gambit. "There was once a man ..." or "A fatherless boy lived in the house of the many brothers." The ending may occasionally point a sort of moral, as in the case of Ukaleq, who after having escaped from a Magic Bear, "never went out hunting bear again." But the usual form is either a sort of equivalent to "lived happily ever after," or a frank and direct intimation: "Here ends this story," or "That is all I know of so-and-so." Some such hint is not infrequently necessary, since the "end" of a story often leaves considerable scope for further development.

                It is a characteristic feature of these stories that one never knows what is going to happen. Poetic justice is often satisfied, but by no means always (Kâgssagssuk). One or two of them are naïvely weak and lacking in incident; we are constantly expecting something to happen, but nothing happens ... still nothing happens ... and the story ends (Puagssuaq). It is sometimes difficult to follow the exact course of a conversation or action between two personages, owing to the inadequate "he" which is used for both.

                The story-teller, while observing the traditional form, does not always do so uncritically. Occasionally he will throw in a little interpolation of his own, as if in apology: "There was once a wifeless man--that is the way a story always begins." Or the entertainer starts off in a cheerfully familiar style: "Well, it was the usual thing; there was a Strong Man, and he had a wife. And, of course, he used to beat her...."

                Here and there, too, a touch of explanation may be inserted. "This happened in the old days," or "So men thought in the olden time." There is a general recognition of the difference between old times and new. And the manner in which this difference is viewed reveals two characteristic attitudes of mind, the blending of which is apparent throughout the Eskimo culture of to-day. There is the attitude of condescension, the arrogant tolerance of the proselyte and the parvenu: "So our forefathers used to do, for they were ignorant folk." At times, however, it is with precisely opposite view, mourning the present degeneration from earlier days, "when men were yet skilful rowers in 'kayaks,' or when this or that might still be done 'by magic power.'"

                And it is here, perhaps, that the stories reach their highest poetic level. This regret for the passing of "the former age," whether as an age of greater strength and virtue, greater courage and skill, or as the Golden Age of Romance, is a touching and most human trait. It gives to these poor Eskimo hunters, far removed from the leisure and security that normally precede the growth of art, a place among the poets of the world.

                 W. W. Worster.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Introduction
Tale Author/Editor: Rasmussen, Knud
Book Title: Eskimo Folk-Tales
Book Author/Editor: Rasmussen, Knud
Publisher: Gyldendal
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1921
Country of Origin: Greenland
Classification: Introduction

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