If I were to re-christen this weblog with a name less grand and perhaps a bit more true, I’d have to call it something like, “Thoughts on an Empty Stomach,” or perhaps, “Mind-Farts Before Breakfast”! Because that’s how it comes about: I get up around 4:00 or 5:00, shower, drink coffee (sitting outside if there’s no wind and it’s above 5 degrees), then start picking up books and letting my thoughts wander wherever they want.
So this morning I am going back and forth between poems of the Inuit and the poetic debates of Job and his three friends/adversaries (Chapters 3-21 in the KJV before I am able to put it down). This seems bizarre at first, but eventually (as usual) a pattern emerges. Dissatisfied with my single anthology of Inuit song texts (Richard Lewis, ed., I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, Simon and Schuster, 1971), I go online and search Knud Rasmussen – the great Danish/Inuit polar explorer and anthropologist who is responsible for collecting most of the best song-texts we have. His expeditions took him across the Inuit world, from East Greenland to eastern Siberia.
The Humanistic Texts site includes a page of “Eskimo Songs and Thoughts” collected by Rasmussen. The dialogue with a shaman reprinted below is what made me realize the kinship between these otherwise vastly different bodies of work from two very different sorts of deserts. Of the several discourses on poetics, only the one by Orpingalik (the last selection below) was familiar to me.
For several evenings Knud Rasmussen, Aua, a shaman, and other Eskimos had discussed rules of life and taboo customs of the Iglulik Eskimos. They did not get beyond a long statement of all that was permitted and all that was forbidden, for whenever Rasmussen asked “Why?” they could give no answers.
As if seized by a sudden impulse, Aua took Rasmussen outside with him, where the snow was being lashed about in waves by the wind, and said:
“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?”
Aua then led him to Kublo’s house. A small blubber lamp burned with but the faintest flame, giving out no heat whatever; a couple of children crouched, shivering, under a skin rug on the bench. Aua asked Rasmussen:
“Why should it be cold and comfortless in here? Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if he 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?”
Rasmussen made no answer, and followed him out of the house, into a little snow hut where Aua’s sister, Natseq, lived all by herself because she was ill. A third time Aua looked at Rasmussen and said:
“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?” . . .
“You see, 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 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 [the weather].
“We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts.
“We fear Takfinakapsfiluk, 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, Iglulik Eskimo
(Compare, for example, Job 14)
Oh! You strangers only see us happy and free of care. But if you knew the horrors we often have to live through, you would understand too why we are so fond of laughing, why we love food and song and dancing. There is not one among us but has experienced a winter of bad hunting, when many people starved to death around us and when we ourselves only pulled through by accident. I once saw a wise old man hang himself, because he was starving to death; he had retained his senses and preferred to die in time. . .
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo
In days gone by, every autumn, we held big feasts for the soul of the whale, feasts which should always be opened with new songs which the men composed. The spirits were to be summoned with fresh words; worn-out songs could never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to the big quarry. And it was the custom that during the time when the men were finding the words for these hymns, all lamps had to be extinguished. Darkness and stillness were to reign in the festival house. Nothing must disturb them, nothing divert them. In deep silence they sat in the dark, thinking; all the men, both old and young, in fact even the youngest of the boys if only they were old enough to speak. It was this stillness we called qarrtsiluni, which means that one waits for something to burst.
For our forefathers believed that the songs were born in this stillness while all endeavored to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst. That is how the sacred songs are made!
Majuaq, Alaskan Eskimo
12 Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof.
13 In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men,
14 Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.
10 But none saith, Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night . . .
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
30 The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
31 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves–we get a new song.
Orpingalik, Netsilik Eskimo