A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do Eskimo men lend their wives to strangers?

January 21, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I want to clear up a question about a certain Eskimo social custom. The question is whether Eskimos loan their wives to strangers. I have heard this claim in various social gatherings as an example of how we might resolve jealousy issues, but I am skeptical and wonder whether this is an urban legend or has specific contextual constraints.

I guess I wasn't the only kid who ever dreamed of running away to join the Eskimos. I notice you use the present tense "loan." Did you have travel plans in case I gave the right answer? Sorry to disappoint, but the Eskimos have gone and let Christianity ruin a beautiful thing. Since the coming of the missionaries, that sort of thing just doesn't happen any more. Besides which, it never really worked quite the way a certain sixteen-year-old used to imagine.

It's true Eskimo men sometimes let other men sleep with their wives. But did they offer that privilege to any horny schmuck who showed up on the front stoop? Generally not. The lending of wives to perfect strangers happened occasionally in some places, but it was never the widespread custom it has been made out to be.

There were several contexts in which a husband would let another man sleep with his wife. The most widespread was ritual spouse exchange, practiced in one form or another in every region where Eskimos lived, from eastern Greenland to the Bering Sea. This sort of spouse exchange was always associated with a religious purpose, and was always done at the instigation of an angekok (shaman). Often the point was to effect some desired outcome, such as better weather or hunting conditions.

The best known example of ritual spouse exchange was the "putting-out-of-the-lamps game" played in Greenland. This was a sort of combination of seven minutes in heaven, Roman orgy, and prayer meeting. The prayer-meeting aspect failed to overcome the objections of the early Christian missionaries, one of whom called it the "whore game." Those guys really know how to ruin a party. To play at home: gather together a number of married couples (according to some sources, singles could play too); wait for the angekok to contact the spirits; turn out the lights; screw a random member of the opposite sex; turn on the lights. The idea seemed to be that the spirits would be more willing to cooperate if you did it that way. Who are we to disappoint the spirits? This game was played only in Greenland, but other spouse-exchange rituals were practiced elsewhere. One example from Alaska was called the "bladder feast," which sounds a bit less appetizing. (Despite the name, the bladders weren't eaten, and sex was only a minor part of the festivities).

Another type of wife-sharing had nothing to to do with religion, but it wasn't just about sex either. This was reciprocal spouse exchange, sometimes described as co-marriage. It was found in all or almost all areas inhabited by the Eskimos, although it was rare in some regions. Even in areas where it was common, many couples did not participate. Co-marriage was not entered into lightly since it usually resulted in lifelong bonds amongst all members of both families. Besides the obvious motive of sex with a new partner, the purpose was to strengthen economic and friendship bonds between the two families, who could depend on each other in times of need.

Generally each married couple maintained its own household. Every so often, each man would move into the household of the other couple (often in another village), taking over the other man's responsibilities, rights, and privileges. The practice is often called "wife exchange," but more logically it should be "husband exchange" since it was almost always the husbands who changed places. The exchange might last any length of time, with a week or so being typical. The husbands would then move back to their own houses until the exchange was repeated, which might be in a few months, or maybe never. The family-type bonds remained in force even in cases where the actual exchange was made only once. Participating couples might have such arrangements with one other couple or with several.

Now we come to the meat of the question: wife-lending, in which the husband let another man sleep with his wife without getting access to the other man's wife in return. The popular conception is that it was a matter of common hospitality to offer this service to any man traveling without his own wife. This is certainly not an accurate interpretation. As far as I can tell, no Eskimo male was ever expected to offer his wife to a visitor, and nowhere did it happen as a matter of course. Most Eskimo men traveled with their wives so it wouldn't come up very often anyway. Husbands did occasionally volunteer to lend their wives to visitors, but there seems to have been a general aversion to doing so. If, on the other hand, a guest brashly asked to borrow the wife, the rules of hospitality might make it hard to refuse. It would usually be considered rude to make the request, however. If the host had more than one wife (roughly one in ten did), he might be more willing to offer one of them to a guest, but that was still not the universal custom. If a traveler was offered his host's wife it was usually implicit that the host would have access to the guest's wife at some time in the future.

Sometimes an unmarried woman, usually a widow, would be offered (or would offer herself) to the traveler.  Unmarried people of both sexes had considerable sexual freedom, and nobody thought less of them for exercising that freedom.  But a traveler hoping to find an unmarried woman to exercise with might have been disappointed since there weren't very many of them.  Girls tended to marry as soon as they reached sexual maturity, and widows and divorced women usually remarried quickly.

The common Western misconception of widespread wife-lending to unfamiliar travelers may have several roots. The practice was apparently more common among the Aleuts than Eskimos, and these two groups have often been lumped together. Aleuts are not really Eskimos, but they are related and sometimes described as "Eskimoid" (which just sounds silly to me). Another factor we can never overlook is Western misinterpretation. If an early missionary saw a strange (to him) Eskimo offered someone else's wife, he might assume he was a stranger to the host's family as well. But this could easily have been a case of co-marriage with a distant family. Finally, it may be that Eskimo men were more inclined to offer their wives to unfamiliar white men than to unfamiliar Eskimos. There are frequent reports (by whites) that Eskimo men wanted their wives to sleep with white men in order to make fine sons. I can't help suspecting that was an ego-boosting self-delusion on the part of the whites, but such reports are common enough that they can't be entirely dismissed.

The idea that all these customs are a cure for sexual jealousy couldn't be further from the truth. Keep in mind that husbands let their wives sleep only with men of their choosing, not every man who wanted her. When a man traveled away from home, he would take his wife with him if at all possible, partly to keep her from sleeping with random men. If for any reason the wife couldn't accompany him on a trip, he would usually leave her in the care of a trusted friend (who would normally expect sexual access to her in return) or a relative (who would not). If he left her alone he ran the risk not only that any number of other men might try to sleep with her, but that one of them would marry her. (Bride capture of either single or married women was a common means of obtaining a wife.) Infidelity, defined here as sexual relations outside marriage and without the spouse's permission, was a serious matter. Murder of one man by another was not uncommon in traditional Eskimo society, and jealousy over women was probably the single leading motive. Divorce was also common, especially among couples who had no children, and infidelity was a common cause.

An obvious question is how the wives felt about being swapped. The evidence is sketchy, because most Western observers apparently didn't think it was an important question. The little information available indicates that the women were usually willing--if not always enthusiastic--participants. They had, at least in theory, a veto power over all such arrangements, but exercising that power might lead to her husband beating her. As a last resort, women (and men) had an absolute right to divorce, simply by moving out of the house or by kicking the spouse out.

A sixteen-year-old's fantasy might revolve around a compliant lump of flesh, such as the callow might imagine a traditional Eskimo woman to be. But there are examples of Eskimo women beating their husbands and throwing them out of the house for even suggesting a wife-swapping arrangement. Now that I'm older and wiser, I have to say, "Damn, but that's my kind of woman!"

Finally, I suppose I have to justify my use of the term "Eskimo" instead of "Inuit" because I know I'll catch flak from some of our Canadian readers for using the E-word. The two words are not synonymous, "Eskimo" being the broader of the two. "Inuit" refers specifically to speakers of the Inupik language, of which there are about a dozen dialects. Canadian Eskimos are commonly called "Inuit" (singular "Inuk"), and that is perfectly appropriate there, since Canadian Eskimos are Inupik speakers. But "Eskimo" is still generally the preferred term in Alaska, since only some Alaskan Eskimos, those from the northern part of the state, are Inuit. Eskimos from the western and southern part of the state speak one of a related group of about six languages (or dialects) collectively called Yupik. Speakers of these languages are "Yuit" (singular "Yuk"), not Inuit, though the two words share a common origin and both mean "the people." The few thousand Eskimos of extreme eastern Siberia are also Yuit. The Eskimos of Greenland are Inupik speakers and so are correctly called Inuit, but they generally prefer to be called "Kalaallit" after Kalaallit Nunaat, their name for Greenland. The common objection to the use of "Eskimo" is that it comes from an Algonquian word meaning "eaters of raw flesh." That no longer seems so certain, as Cecil alluded to in this column. Some linguists now believe it may come from an Algonquian word meaning "netters of snowshoes." In either case, there is no other word besides "Eskimo" that can refer to all Eskimos.

Further reading:

Eskimo Marriage: An account of traditional Eskimo courtship and marriage by Rolf Kjellström

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