Everything is alive! And this is not only true of the world we see. Countless spirits occupy the air, the ground, the sea and remote areas far from human habitation.
Some are friendly, most are hostile and all are more or less unpredictable. Anybody who does not understand how to stay friends with them risk their wrath. But that is not all. A mysterious power pervades and fills our entire existence.
It was difficult for an ordinary person to hold his own in such an incomprehensible and dangerous world as this. But in olden times, it was part of the everyday life of the Inuit and it explains the importance of the role played by the shaman, medicine ma or Angakok (Greenlandic version).
When you feared evil, it was essential to be on good terms with these inexplicable, hidden and unpredictable forces. It was important not to offend life, prey or nature. As a consequense, rituals and taboos must be followed unconditionally so as not to disturb the equilibrium- the balance of nature.
And the shaman – male or female- was the link that ensured that things were done the right way.
It was often sickness or bad hunting that made it necessary to commune with the spirit world. The mother of the sea, the moon man and the entrail seizer are some of the more familiar, powerful spirit beings and it required great courage to stand up to these great spirits so the settlement could have happier days. It was the angakok´s responsibility to take dangerous journeys to pacify these beings.
Shaman training took a long time and it was difficult and dangerous. The training consisted of a practical part and a theoretical part and usually started in childhood. The teacher had to be an older, experienced shaman. It was often the young men who, either of their own accord or after being pointed out by family or neighbours, became apprentice angakoks. Some sources suggest training period of 3-4 years, others up to 12 years.
Rebirth The apprentice shaman sought solitude in the wilderness to achieve rebirth and the strenght to contact the helping spirits who would support him in a world inhabited by strong and not always friendly powers.
The theoretical part consisted of gaining knowledge of ordinary shaman techniques, the invisible world and learning about myths and legends retold by an experienced shaman.
The practical part had to take place in secrecy out of consideration for the others in the community. One of the purposes of this part was to get hold of as many helping spirits as possible.
An important element was the death-rebirth experience. What usually happened, was that the apprentice sought a place of solitude and found a rubbing stone - a smooth stone which he rubbed monotonously in circles on a flat rock until he either went into a trance or lost consciousness. Whilst in this state, the apprentice experiences that a large being, usually a huge magic bear, comes and devours him. Later he wakes up, is reborn, and experiences himself fleeing. He has now become a different person with the power to commune with his helping spirits.
These special shaman stones can still be found out in the countryside of Greenland in remote and inaccessible areas. They often have a shallow depression and are smooth as silk, after being used for generations.
As mentioned, the intension was to acquire as large an arsenal of helping spirits – toornat – as possible, and in addition – a toornaarsuk - a more personal helping spirit. This is often illustrated on e.g. the harpoon throwing stick, where a small being with two “arms” and the lower body of a seal is explained as a toornaarsuk-figure.
The drum was the most important tool in making contact with toornat – the helping spirits. Spells and magic songs were also used during the séance.
Anyone could use amulets, but they were used in particular by the shaman when he needed extra protection when he made contact with the spirits.
When the training was deemed to be complete, an initiation ceremony, witnessed by the settlement took place and when it was over and acknowledged a new shaman was ready.