Monday, May 12, 2014
The title of this image is "Working to Beat the Devil." The caption states "Eskimo Medicine Man, Alaska, Exorcising Evil Spirits from a Sick Boy."
The original photograph was taken some time between 1900 and 1930 and was in a personal collection until Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington gifted it in 1951 to the Library of Congress' Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection. Today, its considered to be in the public domain, and numerous dealers are selling postcard reprints of the image on eBay.
I've seen this photo pop up a few times on various websites and Facebook groups and was struck by the unique subject matter, but also by the fact that this image was so similar to another that I had featured awhile back called the Hami! The Hami, or the Most Dangerous Thing, was a photograph featuring a member of the Koskimo tribe of British Columbia wearing the ceremonial costume depicting a spirit known for abducting young men. That photo was part of a very famous study by the photographer Edward S. Curtis around 1914. I was positive that this photograph must also be a part of that series.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything to tie The Eskimo Exorcism to Curtis, nor any photographer for that matter....but I did find some fascinating information about the subject matter from the book, My Life with the Eskimo, by Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
According to Stefansson, the Mackenzie Eskimo tribe believed that disease was caused by one of two things; 1. The victim's soul was stolen, causing chills, shivering, and lassitude. Or...2. A bad shaman has sent a spirit, or tuurngait, to possess the victim, making him ill in any number of ways. Tuurngaits were neither naturally bad nor good, but simply did the bidding of those who summoned them.
Allegedly, sickness was quite easily remedied if it were just a simple soul stealing; all you needed to do was find the soul and reunite it with the body. However, ridding a spirit from a person was a completely different matter, and the only thing that could offer relief was an exorcism.
To complete the exorcism, the shaman, or Angakuit, would engage in chanting, drum beating, ventriloquism, conjuring acts, and even the observance of taboos by family members of the victim or even complete strangers. For example, a shaman would tell the mother of the victim that she was not allowed to change her socks until the sickness of the child was cured. If she broke that rule, the child would remain ill. And, apparently from the looks of this photograph, strange and frighteningly comical costumes also played a vital role in the practice until more and more tribes converted to Christianity and the old ways were slowly phased out, to be remembered through eBay and FB shares!