Monday, June 20, 2011

Whale Hunting Shamans

Along some of Alaska's coast, the rocks are covered with petroglyphs of men and whales. These were carved by shaman whalers as part of the rituals whereby they gained the secrets of the sea and offered thanks for its bounty.

Among the Alutiiq people, shaman harpooners who lived apart from the tribe dominated whaling:

“Whalers were essentially loner shamans,” explains Harvard-educated archaeologist Sven Haakanson, himself an Alutiiq person and lifelong Kodiak resident with deep appreciation for the artistry of the glyphs. “They were solitary, considered very spiritual. They worked alone, except perhaps when training an apprentice, and were probably a bit feared, because of the power and knowledge they had.”

Part of their special status came from the unique hunting practices they developed. Alutiiq whalers used lances tipped with sharp stone points coated with poison to take their prey. To keep the poison—derived from plants that still grow on Kodiak—from washing off in the sea, a strong adhesive was needed, namely fat. Sven says this need was behind the Alutiiq practice of mummifying gifted hunters following their deaths. “A whaler needed the fat of a powerful dead person, not just anyone, because they believed incorporating the spiritual essence of that person into their hunting gear enhanced its power. So if you were a great hunter, you were honored by being mummified.”

The shaman-whalers used fat harvested from these mummies to coat their spear tips and enhance their chances of success.

It was dangerous work, according to Sven. “If you cut yourself while readying your lance and the poison got in there, it would kill you in about a minute.” Chasing a whale across the bay, alone, in a single-man boat was no picnic either. With luck, a hunter would strike the whale in the fluke or tail, delivering the poison which began to do its work. Then the whaler would lay a long line of mummy fat across the mouth of the bay, to create a spiritual barrier that kept the whale from fleeing to open ocean.

Next, the shaman-hunter would return to shore for a fast of three days, the time it usually took for a paralyzed whale to drown, surface and be brought in on the currents.

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