Book Review: The Arctic Hysterias
Strange things are done in the midnight sun, say the poets who wrote of old. The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold. The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see are chronicled in The Arctic Hysterias, psychiatrist Edward Foulks’ description of the culture-bound disorders of the Eskimos1.
For example, kayak phobia:
When hunters row out their kayaks in the still water, they are often becalmed with the sun’s bright glare reflected in their eyes, as from a mirror. Suddenly, as they wait patiently for seals to rise to the surface, they are gripped with a paralysis which prevents their moving a muscle. They sit as if petrified, and they say they have a feeling that the water is rising over them, but they cannot lift a hand. Then, if a slight wind curls the surface of the sea, they are freed of the spell and come out of it. The poor victims often become so frightened that after one experience they never dare venture out alone again [Freuchen 1935:242].
This experience has occurred rather commonly to Greenland Eskimos and is called Kayak-Angst, Kayak-Dread, or kayak phobia. As many as ten to fifteen percent of all hunters in Greenland at the turn of the century suffered this malady . . . The condition has been compared to “break-off” which occurs in jet pilots who lose perception of reference points while flying at high altitude […]
The fear of death by drowning is of constant concern to the Eskimo, and with good reason. Between 1901 and 1930 there were 1023 deaths by accident in Greenland; eight percent were due to drowning and ninety-four percent of these were kayak accidents.
Unlike the jet pilot, the Eskimo apparently prefers to suppress personal hardship and misfortune from himself and especially from others . . . Developing the necessary defenses and coping mechanisms to personally deal with his anxiety is correspondingly hindered. If he attempted to discuss his difficulties with others, he would very likely be shamed by their joking laughter and ridicule. Anxiety and stress once started thus becomes chronic and ultimately leads to persistent anxiety states and interpersonal withdrawal.
Or qivitoq, aka “hermiting behavior”:
Freuchen mentioned a young man who expressed his loneliness for his wife to other men while hunting. He was accordingly ridiculed and told “to stay at home and sew and care for the lamps, or employ your mouth for the talk of men.” One man in the group decided to emphasize the predicament of the lamenter by taking his wife away from him. He was told that if he were lonely enough to want her back, he should figure out how to retrieve her. Overt aggression was not customarily expressed by the Eskimo. In past years, an angry man was considered a mad man, and among the Polar Eskimos such a person might be killed (Shackleton 1939:136). Thus, the young man withdrew and cried for three days. His own abducted wife laughed at him and chided him for his weakness. He then decided that he could no longer live with his people and went to live alone inland as a hermit. He became a qivitoq - a ghost who may never return home.
Or sociogenic suicide:
People in the prime of their lives whose relationships with members of their group had been threatened were candidates for suicide. There were several ways one’s relationships might be come threatened. One occurred when a person became socially or physically disabled and a hardship on the community. He would soon realize the growing dissatisfaction among his associates. The group would initially resort to teasing, joking, and ridiculing him. If these mechanisms failed to produce the desired changes, the group ceased all communication with him; even his friends and kin might not speak to him or look at him. Frequently relatives admonished the individual to the point of encouraging him to do away with himself. Rasmussen mentions a young man who was told by his foster father, “I wish you were dead! You are not worth the food you eat.” And they young man took the words so seriously that he declared he indeed would not eat again. To make the suffering as brief as possible, the same young man lay down stark naked in the bare snow and was frozen to death.
But the granddaddy of them all - and the namesake of Foulks’ book - is Arctic hysteria, aka piblokto. A sufferer suddenly snaps, engaging in bizarre, dangerous, and violent behavior. She may tear off her clothing, run out naked into the tundra, and jump into the icy water. Or she may try to kill herself or others, sometimes even her own children. Other behavior is simply bizarre: trying to walk on igloo ceilings, or gathering random rocks as if they are great treasures. When the hysteric’s friends and family notice the attack, they restrain the victim - usually it takes more than one person; an Arctic hysteric has the strength of several men. After a few minutes, the victim returns to her normal self. She remembers nothing.
In 1911, explorer Harry Whitney described a case of Arctic hysteria in Greenland:
It was upon our return to Etah on the evening of the sixteenth that I observed for
the first time a case of piblokto among the natives. Piblokto is a form of
temporary insanity to which the Highland Eskimos are subject, and which comes
upon them very suddenly and unexpectedly. They are liable to have these attacks
more particularly at the beginning or during the period of darkness. Tukshu began
suddenly to rave upon leaving the boat. He tore off every stitch of clothing he had
on, and would have thrown himself into the water of the Sound, but for the
restraint of the Eskimos. He seemed possessed of supernatural strength, and it was
all four men could do to hold him. With the knowledge that his madness was
temporary and he would shortly be himself again, with no serious consequences
to follow, I cheerfully watched his astonishing contortions. It would have been a
very serious matter however had Tukshu been attacked while in the boat; and it is
very serious indeed when piblokto attacks one, as it sometimes does, when on
the trail, or at a time when there are insufficient men to care for the afflicted one.
Robert Peary, on his way to discover the North Pole, wrote:
There exists among these people a form of hysteria known as piblocto (the same name as given to the well-known madness among their dogs), with which women, more frequently than men, are afflicted. During these spells, the maniac removes all clothing and prances about like a broncho. In 1898 while the Windward was in winter quarters off Cape D’Urville, a married woman was taken with one of these fits in the middle of night. In a state of perfect nudity she walked the deck of the ship; then, seeking still greater freedom, jumped the rail, on to the frozen snow and ice. It was some time before we missed her, and when she was finally discovered, it was at a distance of half a mile, where she was still pawing, and shouting to the best of her abilities. She was captured and brought back to the ship; and then there commenced a wonderful performance of mimicry in which every conceivable cry of local bird and mammal was reproduced in the throat of Inaloo. This same woman at other times attempts to walk the ceiling of her igloo; needless to say she has never succeeded. A case of piblocto lasts from five minutes to half-an-hour or more. When it occurs under cover of a hut, no apparent concern is felt by other inmates, nor is any attention paid to the antics of the mad one. It is only when an attempt is made to run abroad, that the cords of restraint are felt.
Dozens of other Europeans traveling through the Arctic in the first half of the 20th century told similar stories.
Foulks’ book starts as a survey of Eskimo mental illness, but soon focuses into his investigation into the causes of Arctic hysteria. As a psychiatrist in northern Alaska, he was well-qualified to study this topic. But progress was slow.
He originally thought calcium deficiency might cause Arctic hysteria. The Eskimo diet was calcium-poor, and the long polar night prevented the body from producing Vitamin D. Calcium deficiency sometimes causes weird mental health problems. It all seemed to fit. But it wasn’t calcium. A team of epidemiologists tested Eskimos living a traditional lifestyle in Alaska, and found that their calcium was normal (nobody is sure why; something they’re doing seems to work for them). A psychiatrist in New York, overly invested in the hypothesis, ate a traditional Eskimo diet for one year, but found his calcium levels didn’t change. And Foulks was able to test calcium levels in ten piblokto patients at his psych hospital; they were all normal. It wasn’t calcium! Other biological hypotheses - like hypervitaminosis A - fared equally badly.
Foulks eventually accepted that piblokto was probably a culture-bound illness. Most his patients were from unusually traditional backgrounds. Larger, more Westernized villages had lower piblokto rates (and higher rates of Western illnesses like depression and alcoholism).
In my review of Geography Of Madness, I mentioned a few explanations for culture-bound illnesses. For example, maybe knowing about them made people have them more, or else knowing about them made psychiatrists diagnose them more often, or knowing about them made people fake them for secondary gain.
Foulks’ explanation of piblokto is none of these. He thinks Eskimo society is so different from Western society that Eskimos end up with a different psychic structure, one that handles stress in different ways.
You can start to sketch out his thesis from the descriptions of kayak phobia and qivitoq above. At the risk of sounding like a judgmental Westerner who thinks other societies are worse than his own, Eskimo society is worse than mine. There is no privacy - after all, igloos have no walls. Nobody ever gets a moment alone, except on hunting trips. Everyone is watching each other and talking to each other all the time. In all this watching and talking, nobody ever compliments or praises anyone else, or expresses happiness or gratitude (the closest Foulks comes to admitting an exception to this rule is that a wife may sometimes smile when her husband arrives home from a weeks-long hunt). But they mock each other’s failures all the time, forever. That quote about qivitoq at the top of this post is pretty typical. Any Eskimo who makes a mistake or just fails to conform will be the butt of everyone’s barbs until they die - often of suicide2
I guess this is what the trads mean when they talk about “tight-knit community”, and it certainly has its advantages:
Law enforcement [in Eskimo villages in Foulks’ day] is in most cases not directly punitive. Offenders are usually simply asked to stop. If illegal behavior continues, the matter is brought before the council, who in turn asks the offender to publicly account for his behavior. It would appear that the mere public confession of rule violations before mutely disapproving neighbors in the council in most cases serves the purpose of controlling deviant behavior.
But it takes a toll. Foulks, writing in 1970 before they invented political correctness, describes the Eskimos as having a “childlike” mental structure. He is not certain they even have an unconscious. The unconscious handles feelings of guilt, but the Eskimos have only endless omnipresent shame. Rather than a Jungian collective unconscious, the collective is their unconscious.
So piblokto (Foulks suggests) is something like a child’s temper tantrum, a response to stress from a mind without the complicated hydraulic pumps we use to repress and sublimate it. Or at least it has different hydraulic pumps, shunting it in different directions.
If this were true, we should expect to see similar conditions in other shame cultures; Foulks does not explore this as much as I would like, but at least gestures at running amok in Malaysia.
Like koro, neurasthenia, and other culture-bound illnesses, piblokto is endangered. Peary saw plenty of piblokto just hanging out in 1910s Greenland, but Foulks had to spend years in an Alaskan psychiatric hospital just to see a handful.
The contrast is actually very striking. Every Arctic explorer from about 1900 to 1930 had the most amazing stories about piblokto. Every Eskimo village he encountered would have jaw-dropping piblokto incidents (sometimes caught on grainy black-and-white film). It seemed like one of the defining features of Arctic life.
Foulks could barely find any. The ten or so cases he scrounged up after years of searching probably vaguely qualified, but seemed less intense than the explorers’ descriptions. A few seemed to fade into more Western disorders like schizophrenia. And this was in the 1970s. I cannot find primary sources reporting any cases of piblokto after Foulks’.
Western writers have had a field day with this, suggesting maybe piblokto was a racist invention of the early explorers, or part of a racist plot by psychiatrists to to denigrate/romanticize/annoy the Eskimos (eg here, here). Alternately, maybe the Western explorers were oppressing/raping/colonizing the Eskimos, and piblokto was a correct response to the stress of having Westerners around.
Although these papers are long on name-calling and short of explanations of exactly what was going on, I don’t want to throw them out entirely. Something does seem odd about the situation. Some writers say that Eskimo oral tradition doesn’t talk about it as much as you would expect from how often the explorers reported it (or at all). Everything we know about this condition comes from about fifty case studies, most by explorers with no medical training. Sometimes they did rape/colonize/oppress the natives, and even when interactions were friendly, they were often in inherently stressful contexts like serving as native guides on expeditions to discover the North Pole.
I can’t figure out what it would mean for the whole thing to be fake; there were too many clear stories by too many different explorers, all similar to each other and to Foulks’ own report. The explorers were usually in multi-person parties who read each others’ memoirs and could have mentioned if they were false. There were too many photographs. Maybe some people could have exaggerated a little, but not much. I’m left with two hypotheses:
First, piblokto, like koro, dies out as its host culture westernizes. Even a little bit of westernization is fatal to piblokto; the only people who encountered truly uncontaminated Eskimo societies were the early explorers. Everyone else was too late.
Second, piblokto was a reaction to the very particular stress of being an Eskimo meeting a Western explorer for the first time. This isn’t how mental disorders usually work, right? Exotic stress responses for one particular kind of stress that you can only have once, and then you never experience it again? The only reason I take it seriously is that it exactly matches Sorenson’s report of a weird weeklong mass hysteria among the Andamanese - which he describes as the death throes of a premodern form of consciousness encountering and getting replaced by modern consciousness. This feels a little magical to me - one explorer coming in and asking for help finding the North Pole doesn’t seem like enough to cause society-wide vibe collapse. Still, it kind of fits.
I said before that for any culture-bound illness, you can find one or two scattered examples far away from the relevant culture. So: I’ve seen one US case that sort of looks like piblokto.
The diagnosis I ended up giving was “panic disorder with psychotic features”. The psychiatrically knowledgeable among you might notice this isn’t a real diagnosis. But I think it fits. The attacks usually happen during times of stress or disturbed somatic state (eg after a hangover), and a reliable trigger seems to be worrying that the attacks might occur, starting to obsess over the possibility, and gradually psyching himself into believing he’s having one. They last about a panic-attack-length-of-time, and are treated by the same drugs that treat panic disorder.
Could piblokto also be a panic attack variant? I notice that one of the most common symptoms is trying to escape. Everyone talks about “running out of the igloo into the dark winter night”, but remember that igloos on dark winter nights are very crowded spaces with a bunch of Eskimos huddled together. This sounds a lot like the traditional panic symptom of claustrophobia/need to escape confined spaces. One of Dr. Foulks’ patients described a ringing in the ears just before a piblokto episode, which I associate with panic attacks as well.
I looked to see whether there was any reason to think panic attacks could cause people to jump into icy cold water, and I found that one common treatment for panic attacks is called “the ice diver technique”, where you submerge your face into a bowl of water full of ice cubes; apparently this stimulates some reflex which is good in some way. This seems a little too cute to be relevant, but I thought it was funny.
Panic attacks aren’t a perfect match: piblokto can involve making creepy animal noises and attempting to kill family members. I’m not sure how to think about this. I notice that Arctic Hysterias includes dozens of stories of hysterics trying to kill themselves or other people, and none of them succeeding (except for one man who lit a fire that he then died in). Does this mean they’re not really trying that hard? Is this the culture-bound part, where people think that’s how you’re supposed to behave during a panic episode? Or am I wrong, and this is completely unrelated?
One more thing: Dr. Foulks found that all ten of his piblokto patients had a history of severe otitis media, ie ear infection, including some partial deafness. He didn’t know what to do with this information. Perhaps all Eskimos have otitis media - they’re huddled together in very dry, cold air a lot of the time, and had no access to antibiotics until recently. Sometimes ear infections spread to the brain; maybe this signifies some kind of brain damage. Maybe it’s a vestibular thing?
So far it’s all pretty mysterious.
Foulks is an old-school medic, not the flavor of modern anthropologist who uses the word “colonialism” a dozen times per page. This makes him a remarkably good recorder of all the colonialism going on around him. He’s not there to judge; he is as close to having no political motive as a chronicler ever gets. He’s just taking psych histories in the middle of a slow-motion breakdown of his patients’ society.
The typical Eskimo who Dr. Foulks examines came from a small village that still practiced the traditional ways. The older men were hunters, and wanted their children to be hunters too. But the village might have also had a church (staffed by white missionaries), a school (perhaps linked to the Bureau of Indian Affairs) and maybe a clinic or general store. Many older people would be dependent on welfare from the Alaskan government.
Children would live their early years in the village, then:
By the eighth grade . . . many youths are sent away from the security of their homes in the village to boarding high schools for American natives, located in various parts of the country. Most go to Mt. Edgecumbe, near Sitka, Alaska, others to Chimawa in Oregon.
While many look forward to this experience as a chance to get out of their small, “boring” village into the hub of “excited” Western living, in most cases they return home disillusioned about their seeming inability to fit into life outside. At the same time, having been away from the village three to four years, they are inept at the skills necessary to be very successfu there as well. Milan (1964:61) mentions that these boys who have just returned from years at school are noticeably more attentive to what older hunters tell them, especially when out on the sea ice, and they seem to feel slightly disadvantaged byt the time lost in the boarding school. This factor may have contributed much to the demasculinized image that one of our subjects had of himself after returning from not only four years at Mt. Edgecumbe, but from a year of academic failure at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, as well. It might be mentioned, however, that attending university is extremely exceptional for these villagers, there having been only two individuals during the past fifteen years having done so, and unsuccessfully at that.
Youths who have returned from high school without skills, or those who for intellectual or other reasons never attended high school, often find themselves included in various government training programs. The story of a young Eskimo man from North Alaska illustrates the stresses such youths may experience. Sam was a man without skills who was chosen by the Fairbanks Office of Economic Opportunities for training in kitchen work at nearby Elison Air Force Base. He was flown from his village and established in a room in a military dormitory outside Fairbanks. He was trained in cleaning floors and paid a fairly substantial salary. Some of it he carefully saved in order to buy a new snow machine for use once he returned to his village. With the reaminder of his money, however, he sought to maintain the visiting and social patterns he had formerly been accustomed to at home. During his hours away from mopping floors, he became very lonely and longed for the companionship of friends and relatives. Visiting friends and relatives is in the village a constant activity throughout the day. Being alone, unless on a hunting trip, was rarely experienced. Sam found he did not have the social skills necessarily to quickly establish new friendships, since those skills were never learned at home - people there know one another from childhood on. Making “new” friends as a foreign experience. A few Westerns in Fairbanks, however, are willing to provide quick friendship to lonely youths from the villages, especially those who are employed and have a few dollars to spend. White girls from bars in the center of town aggressively made it a point to talk to some of these village boys. Sam interpreted this friendliness as courting behavior, and within a week or so was pining after “his girl, Sally”. Sally was employed by the drinking establishment and enjoyed Sam’s fifty dollar per bottle California champagne every Saturday night, but obviously had no other more seriousl designs on him. The situation, in addition to trouble over drunkenness, resulted in final frustration and despair for Sam, who returned to his village after several months somewhat richer in dollars, but not for his experience.
Eskimo girls from North Alaska seem to acculturate into Western society with perhaps greater ease than the boys, in contrast to the situation reported by Chance (1966) at Barter Island. The female role of housewife in the villages parallels that in Western society, and many young women born in North Alaska now live with white husbands in urban areas of Alaska or the “lower forty-eight” states. Young men, as have been pointed out, seem to find it more difficult assuming the academic or technical skill necessary to making a living outside the village. Thus, young men for the most part return to the village after forays at Westernization; young women do not. This has created an excess of young, eligible bachelors, many of whom aggressively seek female companionship, many times with the married women of the village. This, quite naturally, leads to some trouble and reinforces the jealous attitudes husbands often exhibit toward their wives.
The young men returning to the village who are willing to put forth some effort to learn the Eskimo hunting ways are promptly set against it because of the oftentimes harsh methods of training. Nelson (1969:386-387) aplty summarized the situation of the young men in Wainwright in observing:
Although in former years there was some verbal instruction of youths by older men, there seems to have been a greater emphasis upon practical ‘on the job’ training. This sort of training still persists today. The young hunter accompanies older men on their hunting trips and learns by observing them. If he succeeds in duplicating their actions properly, he is rewarded by silent acceptance. If he should make an error, he is chastised and teased. This ridicule continues beyond that which takes place at the time. The other men are also told of his failings so that they can join in [. . .]
Today, the system is the same, but the response is different. In Wainwright there was only one man in this age group who was willing to learn the skills of hunting. There were many others who did not know these skills and were not willing to undergo the tribulations involved in learning them. This is partially due to the methods of training the physical and psychological difficulties of learning to hunt. The young man must be willing to shrug off continual ridicule and teasing for his efforts, and seldom is able to strike a counterblow. The would-be hunters of the past have been required to endure this ‘hazing’ treatment because for them there is was no alternative. Today, however, the youth who returns to the village after completing his formal education is, in the first place, not interested, and must, in addition, face the continual frustration of a learner, if he does attempt to hunt.
Descriptions like these leave me at a loss. Clearly Eskimos have not had a fun time assimilating into Western society. Equally clearly, we err by romanticizing the societies they had pre-contact - something the Eskimos themselves have no interest in doing. Reading this book, I was left with a sense of hopelessness, like these people are cursed, and all the West has done is offer them a new poison to break the monotony of the old.
Despite these sorrows, people no longer protest their lot by tearing at their clothes, jumping into frozen water, and trying to kill everyone they see. Instead, they’ve just turned Northern Alaska and Greenland into the dual alcoholism capitals of the world. Long live social progress!
I follow Foulks’ lead in using “Eskimo” instead of the alternative “Inuit”. The Eskimos include two subgroups, the Inuit and the Yupik, and Foulks is writing about both. Previous claims that “Eskimo” had an insulting meaning have not been borne out by the latest scholarship. Cf. Give Up Seventy Percent Of The Way Through The Hyperstitious Slur Cascade.
In Suicide Hotspots Of The World, I wrote about how Greenland had the world’s highest suicide rate, and that this seemed to be a general feature of Eskimo communities. In that post, I argued that this post-dated contact with white society, and was probably a combination of colonialism and alcohol. But Foulks has a lot of horror stories about even traditional Eskimo cultures, where once someone is disabled or embarrasses themselves or is just bad at conforming, their family and community start hounding them to commit suicide, ratcheting up the social pressure until they comply. He attributes this to ancient polar winters, when there would be too little food and too many mouths to feed, and mouths would have to be eliminated until the equation balanced. This sounds plausible to me, but I don’t know how to square it with the official Greenland data suggesting low suicide rates at the very beginning of contact.