Charlatanism: realms of deception and religious theater

In so far as individuals can always be found who misuse their authority to promote their own selfish aims, the [Inuit], in this respect, exhibit nothing peculiarly distinguishing them from any other nation - Hinrich Rink, Danish Greenland, Its People and Its Products, 1877.

Many social scientists have noted that humans are a particularly cooperative and interdependent species. One under-emphasized consequence of being such a cooperative and socially dependent species, however, is that we are quite vulnerable to deception from others. Put another way, people can sometimes benefit greatly by deceiving each other—individually or cooperatively with allies—in strategic ways.

Perspectives of human sociality often emphasize large, group-level benefits of human cooperation. For example, anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson describe an evolutionary history where “natural selection within groups favoured genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame.” However, sometimes the individuals who “functioned well in such environments” were not necessarily the ones with the most “pro-social motives”, but those who could effectively manipulate others. Part of functioning well, and increasing one’s reproductive success, in the extremely social environments of human societies, can revolve around taking advantage of the empathy and shame and trust and general ignorance of others.  

Inuit shaman of Greenland known as angakkoq or angakkut, despite commonly being considered some of the most productive and intelligent individuals in their society, were often reported to have had little compulsion about taking advantage of the status accorded them. Many angakkut would tell people that their souls were damaged, and offer to repair them, in return for a gift. Some would also claim the right to sleep with any man’s wife, and anyone who denied them that would be threatened with an early death or other horrible tragedies. One example during the early 18th century was described by Norwegian missionary Niels Egede. Anthropologist Merete Demant Jakobsen recounts the episode, writing that,

A young woman has denied the angakkoq his right to sleep with her and has been told that she will give birth to a seal instead of having children that could have been angakkut. Niels Egede is called to her bedside and asked to feel her stomach: ‘I said that it was not my profession to feel the stomach of women, and that it was impossible that it could be true’. He then asks whether she had eaten anything unusual and is told she had eaten raw barley. He suggests that she should drink water and the woman is well next day and convinced that he is stronger than the angakkoq as he can make seals disappear.

In the early 20th century, one angakkuq named Maratsi was described by Danish botanist Christian Kruuse thusly: “He has a difficult personality and has committed murders, theft, threatening women who will not sleep with him with soul stealing, and so on.”

Of course, this aggressive and nakedly self-interested conduct can generate a great deal of resentment, as I discussed previously in my article on sorcery. Jakobsen writes that,

The ambiguity in attitude among the Greenlanders to their angakkoq seems to be characteristic of the many encounters that [Niels Egede’s missionary father] Poul Egede meticulously reports. On the one hand they are seen to have great respect for their angakkoq and his skills, whilst on the other they seem to take any chance to get back at him because of the fear he induces and the power he possesses.

Another 18th century missionary, David Crantz thought that due to their “superior intelligence”, angakkut should, “be deservedly considered as the physicians, philosophers, and moralists of Greenland,” while also noting that their “intercourse with the spiritual world is merely a pretence to deceive the simple, and that their frightful gesticulations are necessary to sustain their credit, and give weight to their prescriptions.” Jakobsen adds that for many of the ethnographers who went to Greenland from the 17th to the 20th century, “The angakkut are seen as intelligent manipulators of their stupid fellow countrymen who are credulous and easily persuaded by any trickster’s performance.” Jakobsen gives a description of one such performance,

The spectators assembled in one of the houses after dark and then the angakkoq is tied, his head between his legs and his hands behind his back and the drum next to him. The light is put out and, while the spectators sing a song that they claim was made by their ancestors, the shaman begins conjuring and conversing with toornaarsuk, the great spirit. ‘Here the masterly juggler knows how to play his trick, in changing the tone of his voice, and counterfeiting one different from his own, which makes the too credulous hearers believe, that this counterfeited voice is that of Torngarsuk [a sprit-being], who converses with the angekkok’. The shaman manages to work himself loose and is believed to ascend into heaven through the roof of the house to meet with the souls of the angakkut puullit, the chief angakkut. Hans Egede [Poul’s son and Neil’s brother], although giving a detailed description of the séance, carefully establishes his own detached attitude to the performance. He has no doubt about the conjuring and falsity of the shaman’s work.

“The helping spirit amô, called by the tied up angakkoq, enters a house during a séance. The drum is seen floating across the floor. Karale Andreassen, The National Museum of Denmark. From Ib Geertsen (1990): Kârale Andreassen. En østgrønlandsk kunstner, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk.” From ‘Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing’ (1999) by Merete Demant Jakobsen†.

“The helping spirit amô, called by the tied up angakkoq, enters a house during a séance. The drum is seen floating across the floor. Karale Andreassen, The National Museum of Denmark. From Ib Geertsen (1990): Kârale Andreassen. En østgrønlandsk kunstner, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk.” From ‘Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing’ (1999) by Merete Demant Jakobsen†.

Due to their skill in performances such as these, as well their role in healing and executing witches or other sorts of criminals, Danish geologist Hinrich Rink noted in the 19th century the dilemma faced by missionaries in trying to end the power of the angakkut,

One of the first reformatory steps was that of doing away with the angakoks. As a matter of course the high priests of paganism could not exist in friendly harmony with the propagators of the new faith. But here two peculiar circumstances have to be kept in view. In the first place, on account of the amalgamation of religious observances with the social customs and laws, totally subverting the authority of the angakoks was the same as abolishing the only institution that could be considered to represent appointed magistrates and law-givers. Secondly, the class of angakoks comprised the most eminent persons, both as regards intellectual abilities, personal courage, and dexterity in pursuing the national trade.

The kind of self-interested deception and spiritual manipulation used by the angakkuts is given a greater scale and scope in the numerous all-male secret societies we see in the ethnographic record. I described many of these societies in a previous article, noting of the Amazonian and New Guinea cases in particular, where,

Male cult members whirl their bullroarers and play their sacred flutes in private, hidden away from the uninitiated. The women and children are told that these sounds are the voices of their ancestors, and spirit beings. Among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea, men would wear full body costumes during cult ceremonials, while the women would be told they are materialized spirits. Men from neighboring villages were often asked to wear the costumes – and were given yams and sprouted coconuts in return – in order to prevent the women from suspecting it was males from their own community in the costumes.

Arapesh men’s ritual costume. From  The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh  (1980) by Donald Tuzin.

Arapesh men’s ritual costume. From The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh (1980) by Donald Tuzin.

As with many other societies with these sort of men’s cults, Ona hunter-gatherer men of Tierra del Fuego, would impersonate spirit-beings as a way to exercise social control over the women and children. The only European to be initiated into the Ona men’s cult, explorer Lucas Bridges offers a description of its origin and practices in his excellent book the Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948);

the men invented a new branch of Ona demonology: a collection of strange beings--drawn partly from their own imaginations and patly from folk-lore and ancient legends--who would take visible shape by being impersonated by members of the Lodge and thus scare the women away from the secret councils of the Hain [men's cult]. It was given out that these creatures hated women, but were well-disposed towards men, even supplying them with mysterious food during the often very protracted proceedings of the Lodge. Sometimes, however, these beings were short-tempered and hasty. Their irritability was manifested to the women of the encampment by the shouts and uncanny cries arising from the Hain, and, it might be, the scratched faces and bleeding noses with which the men returned home when some especially exciting session was over.

During Bridges’ own initiation into the men’s cult, cult members made loud shouts and yells while in the men’s lodge, and then cut themselves with glass and stone, and made their noses bleed using pointed sticks, to give the illusion to the women and children that they had to fight dangerous spirit-beings and protect Bridges from them during his initiation. Bridges also describes numerous examples of men impersonating spirit-beings and terrorizing the women and children. Bridges also floats the idea that at least some women might know what’s going on, but that they may pretend to be ignorant out of fear of being killed if they indicate they’re aware of the deception. Bridges also notes that the terror of the teen boy initiates before they become aware of the subterfuge is genuine, so the deception seems to have been remarkably successful in being maintained.

Of course, even with all of the violent coercion and deception of the men’s cults, as with the figure of the angakkut, we can point to some of the functions these kind of social roles and institutions play. As I wrote previously,

The presence of warfare and marriage exchanges with enemy groups offers some plausible functional explanations for the men’s cults. The men can plan their military excursions while in the men’s house, away from the ears of potential enemy sympathizers (their wives and the wives of the other males). The secret rituals and rites may help socialize young boys into becoming effective warriors. Herdt writes of the various functions of the men’s house: “These include military training, supervision and education of boys in the masculine realm, the transmission of cultural knowledge surrounding hunting magic and warrior folklore, the organization of hunting, some separation or recognition of the differences between men and women, the socially sanctioned use of ritual paraphernalia and musical instruments such as flutes and bullroarers, and so forth. These distinctive customs anchor the men’s world in the clubhouse throughout Melanesia.”

With the Inuit angakkuts and the men’s cults we are looking at the ways higher status males in particular used deception and religious justifications to dominate society, but spiritual manipulation has also been commonly used by lower status women in many societies to illicit important benefits, such as greater social standing and support. Anthropologist I.M. Lewis wrote of the way beliefs about spirit possession could used by women whose social position was insecure;

This sex-linked possession syndrome we are tracing seems to be equally prevalent in India and in South East Asia generally. In Utter Pradesh disaffiliated malevolent spirits, or ghosts, haunt the weak and vulnerable and those whose social circumstances are precarious. Thus the young bride 'best by homesickness, fearful that she may not be able to present sons to her husband and his family may label her woes a form of ghost possession'. And, 'if she has been ignored and subordinated, the spirit possession may take an even more dramatic and strident form as a compensation for the obscurity under which she has laboured'. Amongst the Havik Brahmins of Mysore, where as many as twenty per cent of all women are likely to experience peripheral possession at some point in their lives, the pattern is similar. Here it is again mainly insecure young brides (or older, infertile women) who are most exposed to this form of possession. More generally, women as a class are considered weak and vulnerable and thus easily overcome by spirits which, flatteringly, are believed to be attracted by their beauty. In possession, the spirit conveys 'its' demands, causing the husband and his family to mount an expensive ceremony designed to placate it and to persuade it to leave the sick host. Until waves have gained more secure positions in their families of marriage and have given birth to heirs, the illness is liable to recur, thus granting the sick woman all the attention and influence which she is otherwise denied.

Lewis adds that, “Women are, in effect, making a special virtue of adversity and affliction, and, often quite literally, capitalizing on their distress.” Ethnographer Gerhard Lindblom described women pretending to be possessed in order to get material goods from their husbands among the Kamba of East Africa, writing that,

Although the women are more superstitious than the men, it does happen that an intelligent and artful woman may make use of the spirits to get her own desires satisfied. For instance, she may for a long time have longed for a piece of many-coloured cloth, but her lord and mater has not been pleased to grant her desire. She pretends to be possessed, makes a terrible noise, and says that the spirit can only be appeased with a piece of cloth. To recover his lost domestic peace the otherwise dignified Kamba husband gives himself no rest till he has found the desired object, then the spirit disappears.

Lindblom also describes one such case where a married woman asked her husband to kill a fat buck for meat. The husband refused, as he had designated that animal for a religious offering the next time it was needed. Some days later the wife started twitching and uttering shrill cries, exhibiting symptoms that the Kamba consider to be the result of spirit possession. Her husband asked her what was the matter, and she conveyed that she was possessed by a spirit who wanted the buck meat. The husband went to hunt the buck, while the wife, elated at her success, began singing a lullaby to her child which contained lyrics mocking her husband for falling for her deception. Her husband happened to return earlier than expected and overheard her. Outraged, he ended their marriage and sent her back to her father.

That humans are particularly cooperative and reliant on each other to survive is undoubtedly true. Among individuals in every society—either on their own, or in coalitions with others—you’ll find people taking advantage of this fact.