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p. 83


THE tales and traditions, the relation of which forms one of the principal amusements and entertainments of the Greenlanders, appear to be instructive, and not without signification in regard to the study of the origin and development of traditions in general.

Firstly, it must be observed that the natives themselves divide their tales into two classes—the ancient tales, called oĸalugtuat (plural of oĸalugtuaĸ), and the more recent ones, called oĸalualârutit (plural of oĸalualârut). The first kind may be more or less considered the property of the whole nation, at least of the greater part of its tribes; while the tales included under the second are, on the other hand, limited to certain parts of the country, or even to certain people related to each other, thus presenting the character of family records. The Eskimo are, more than any other nation, spread over a wide extent of country, only occupied by themselves, and thus are little acted upon by alien settlers. The inhabitants of their extreme western bounds, with their native means of transport, would have to traverse somewhere about five thousand miles before reaching the dwellings of their countrymen in the farthest east, p. 84 and in this journey would meet only with scanty little bands of their own tribes settled here and there, generally consisting of less than a hundred souls. Their little hamlets are severed from each other by desolate tracts of ten to twenty—nay, even hundreds of miles. Though there is every probability that the various tribes of these vast regions have originated from one common home, their present intercourse is very limited; and it may without exaggeration be asserted that the inhabitants of Greenland and Labrador, and those of the shores of Behring Strait, cannot in any likelihood have communicated with each other for a thousand years or more, nor have they any idea of their mutual existence.1 In accordance with this isolation, a closer study of the traditions will also show how wide a space of time must be supposed to exist between the origin of the two classes of tales. The greater part of the ancient tales probably date from a far remoter period than one thousand years; the invention of the more recent traditions, on the other hand, must be supposed in most cases not even to go back so far as two hundred years, and they chiefly comprise events concerning families living in the very district where they are told. It may, however, be taken for granted, that in days of yore such new tales may have appeared at any time; but after a short existence they were gradually forgotten, giving place to others, and so on, continuously alternating during the lapse of ages: while the ancient tales have been preserved unchanged, like some precious heirlooms which it would have been sacrilege to have touched. The definition we have here tried to give of the two classes is, however, by no means exhaustive, nor without exceptions. In our collection will be found stories which undoubtedly must have originated between the two p. 85 periods described, and therefore should form an intermediate or exceptional class, if the division were to be complete and fully carried out. There are, moreover, many others which we are at a loss how to classify.

The art of story-telling is in Greenland practised by certain persons specially gifted in this respect; and among a hundred people there may generally be found one or two particularly favoured with the art of the raconteur, besides several less tolerable narrators. The art requires the ancient tales to be related as nearly as possible in the words of the original version, with only a few arbitrary reiterations, and otherwise only varied according to the individual talents of the narrator, as to the mode of recitation, gesture, &c. The only real discretionary power allowed by the audience to the narrator is the insertion of a few peculiar passages from some other traditions; but even in that case no alteration of these original or elementary materials used in the composition of tales is admissible. Generally, even the smallest deviation from the original version will be taken notice of and corrected, if any intelligent person happens to be present. This circumstance accounts for their existence in an unaltered shape through ages; for had there been the slightest tendency to variation on the part of the narrator, or relish for it on that of the audience, every similarity of these tales, told in such widely-separated countries, would certainly have been lost in the course of centuries. It would also appear that it is the same narrators who compose the more recent stories by picking up the occurrences and adventures of their latest ancestors, handed down occasionally by some old members of the family, and connecting and embellishing them by a large addition of the supernatural, for which purpose resort is always had to the same traditional and mystical elements of the ancient folk-lore. Undoubtedly the ancient tales have originally been invented in a similar way, but at a time when the p. 86 different tribes were living in closer connection with each other and perhaps endowed with greater originality. It is to be supposed that the real or principal traditions, with the power of continuance through many centuries, are only produced after long intervals, and at certain periods peculiarly qualified for their production. As regards the Greenlanders, probably a new era of this kind may have arisen from the time of their being Christianised, many of the recent tales exhibiting considerable similarity to Christian legends. The elementary parts used in composing all kinds of tales being very numerous, it may be seen from the collection itself that, notwithstanding the stability and limited number of the ancient tales, the narrators, by help of the interpolations mentioned, and by their power of manufacturing modern tales, possess means for an almost unlimited variety at their story-telling entertainments.

The traditional tales, or rather the traditional elements of the ancient as well as the more recent tales, would never have been able to withstand the influence of centuries among these scattered and isolated bands if they had not been one of the most important means of maintaining their national life. Generally, all sorts of mythical traditions are looked upon chiefly as materials to aid in the search for historical facts. But with regard to a stage of culture like that of the Greenland Eskimo before their conversion to Christianity,1 the traditions in reality may be said to comprise the whole national store of intellectual or moral property—viz., religion, science, and poetry at once, these manifestations of culture being but very imperfectly represented separately in a more specialised form.

In the first place, the traditions are to be considered as including a system of religion and morals as well as of laws and rules for social life. Such knowledge as p. 87 they convey is unconsciously imbibed by the native from his earliest childhood through listening to the story-tellers, exactly as a child learns to speak. And when the Greenlander nowadays is in doubt about any question regarding the superstitions or customs of his ancestors, he will try to find an answer by looking for some sample out of his tales, ancient or modern, the latter also containing elementary parts of ancient origin kept up in this manner by succeeding generations. The information used for our introductory remarks has also been chiefly derived from this source.

Ethnologists and travellers will find themselves mistaken if they expect to discover traditions that might supply direct information regarding the origin and history of the Eskimo. The more recent tales only may be said to include such real historical material, and that merely relating to family matters and events going back as far as four or six generations. The author has often made inquiries among the natives about events that have taken place two or three hundred years ago, and more especially about such occurrences as might be supposed to have impressed themselves deepest upon the memory of the population,—as, for instance, the first arrival of European ships, or even the terrible smallpox epidemic of comparatively recent date—viz., 1733-34. But these attempts have been almost entirely without result; and, as already said, the tales dating from an intermediate period are either very scanty, or at least must be supposed devoid of any historical interest. It may be considered certain that the present tribes of the nation have not the remotest idea of their common original home, nor of the migrations and rovings by which their ancestors have peopled the territories now occupied by them. Still, it may be supposed that at least a part of their oldest tales have originated in true historical events—are, in a word, "myths of observation;" but in order to extract any reliable historical information p. 88 from this source, the following precautions have to be observed:—

Firstly, it not unfrequently seems that a series of occurrences happening within a limited period of time, and bearing some resemblance to each other, have in various cases been reduced to a single record which, so to speak, represents them all in one. This is confirmed by one of the few stories which undoubtedly dates from a period intermediate between ancient and modern times. When the Eskimo invaded the southern part of Greenland, they soon commenced hostilities with the ancient Scandinavian settlers, who were at length defeated, or totally disappeared. Among the generations immediately succeeding these events, there must doubtless have existed several traditions about the numerous feuds which must be supposed to have occurred between the parties; but by-and-by they were forgotten, with the exception of one or two which had perhaps been preferred to the rest, and listened to with most satisfaction. Of these, two tales still remain. The most remarkable one is now claimed as belonging to both the districts in which the ruins of the old colonies are found, each of which claims to be the homestead of the heroes mentioned in the tale. Among the older and most widely-spread tales, we need only refer to one treating of a man who wished to cross the frozen ocean, and for this purpose caught different wild beasts, which he trained to pull his sledge. It is not improbable that this story represents a whole series of similar tales, originating from the period when the Eskimo got their first dogs by domesticating some species of wild animal, such as the wolf.

Next, it must be remembered that no tale could maintain its existence unless it was entertaining to the audiences to whom it was related from time to time, and especially unless it was easy to comprehend without any elaborate explanation. For this purpose p. 89 the tales had to be localised, or adapted to the different countries in which the tribes in course of time came to settle down, carrying their original traditions with them—as, for instance, when told in Greenland, their heroes were described as inhabitants not only of Greenland, but even of various districts of the country, according to the location of the narrator and his listeners. And, moreover, when foreign nations and animals unknown in Greenland happened to be mentioned in the ancient tales, they were generally, as time went on, transformed into supernatural beings, with which the imagination of the Greenlanders forthwith peopled the vast interior of their land, as well as the adjacent sea.

Besides religion and history, these traditional tales also represent the poetry of the inhabitants of the frozen North; and this element has mainly inspired their listeners with that love for them which still continues. They present a true picture of what is likely to have formed the principal objects of the people's imagination, of what is considered great and delightful on one side, and hateful and dreadful on the other, in human life as well as in nature. They continually picture to us the great struggle for existence, which has caused personal courage and strength to be acknowledged and admired as the first condition of happiness; and per contra, the idea of improving and securing the comforts of life by the aid of property is only very scantily developed in them. Not even to the almost universal sentiment of love do we find the poetry of Greenland affording much room. No wonder that such a scarcity of objects, and such simplicity of passions and feelings in these details of human life, render them uniform and rather fatiguing to us; but, on the other hand, we cannot but admit that their inventors have exhibited a peculiar skill in producing effect and variety with the help of such very scanty materials. Closer examination will scarcely fail p. 90 to discover real poetical feeling in their way of causing the highest perfection to be developed from the very smallest beginnings, as well as in their art of holding forth the dangers on one side and the means of overcoming them on the other, just as it might suit the narrator's object of arresting the attention of their audience. The poetical elements are also closely connected with the religious contents, and many religious opinions may further be regarded as emblematical or poetical. Such, for example, are expressions for certain ideas—such as, for instance, certain human qualities, the voice of conscience, an invisible ruling justice, and several powers of nature in their relation to mankind. A tendency to figurative expression is also shown in their habit of representing mankind in different stages of sexes and ages as personifications of certain common human qualities. For instance, the old bachelors always represent some ridiculous oddity; the wife is in general represented as with no care but of providing for her household, or how best she can economise; the poor widow is represented as especially excelling in benevolence and mercy; a band of five brothers, generally called "a lot of" brothers or men, represent haughtiness and brutality, and "the middlemost" of them, moreover, mean envy.

The materials upon which the author has founded this collection have been written down partly by natives, partly by Europeans, from the verbal recital of the natives, and in the latter case to a large extent by the author himself. The manuscripts collected in this manner amounted to upwards of five hundred sheets or two thousand pages, and could be referred to about fifty native narrators or story-tellers. Several difficulties were met with in collecting these materials. The mode most generally adopted by travellers when making inquiries among a so-called barbarous or foreign people about their traditions is that of selecting certain facts as subjects p. 91 for questioning them upon, such as how their country was originally peopled, if their first ancestors came from the West or from the East, if they happened to know anything about a great deluge, &c. By this mode of inquiry the natives most likely, finding that they have no real information to offer, in order to satisfy the questioner and get rid of the trouble he causes them, will be influenced in their answers chiefly by what they think the questioner would best like to hear. The only way to acquire the information wanted is simply to make the natives relate what forms the principal subject of the stories told at their own assemblies. To make them understand that this was all we desired caused, however, the first difficulty. The next arose from their fear of being accused of heathenish superstition by revealing those superstitious tales to strangers. In consequence of these hindrances, several Europeans whom the author had specially requested to make investigations among the natives with whom they lived, came to the erroneous conclusion that no traditions at all, or only the most trifling ones, existed in the country. Lastly, it may easily be imagined that part of the manuscripts forwarded to him were in an incomplete and exceedingly illegible condition—some of them, indeed, conveying no meaning whatever.

The principal tales have for the most part been collated from more than one version, and all the variations have been most carefully examined and compared for the purpose of composing a text such as might agree best with the supposed original and most popular mode of telling the same story. In the first and principal part of the collection, the tales are in general to be considered as a nearly literal rendering of the verbal narratives, with only the omission of the more arbitrary reiterations and interpolations already referred to.

The natives who have contributed to this collection p. 92 were inhabitants of the following parts of Eskimo-land:—

South Greenland; or the west coast of Greenland up to 67° N.L.

North Greenland, or the same coast from 67° up to 74° N.L.

East Greenland, and


Of these regions South Greenland, in which the author chiefly resided, has supplied the lion's share; while, on the contrary, the east coast has furnished us with only a few tales, which are not even written down in that part of the country, but were picked up on the west coast from east-coast people who had wandered round Cape Farewell into the Danish settlement. From Labrador only sixteen tales have been obtained, from materials written down by Moravian missionaries resident in that country in the years 1861-63, and one half of those are undoubtedly identical with Greenland tales, some passages of them even exhibiting the most striking verbal conformity. Besides the tales written down in North Greenland in 1861-63, the author was furnished with a very valuable collection written down by natives there in the years 1823-28, but never published.

It has generally been an easy task to make out whether the written relations had the character of true folk-lore, or might have been of foreign origin—i.e.,either from European sources or to be traced to mere individual invention. Only a few instances of this still remain doubtful.

The entire collection of manuscripts consisted of more than five hundred tales, which, however, by uniting those which were judged to be identical, have been diminished to less than three hundred. Of that number, in this edition a great many have been omitted or given in an abridged form, as being more or less of only local interest.



p. 84

1 When Dr Kane first visited the small tribe of Eskimo living in Smith's Sound, they were apparently astonished to find that they were not the only people on the face of the earth.

p. 86

1 The last pagan died in Danish Greenland only a few years ago.