Arctic hysteria

Edward F. Foulks

The transformation of Arctic hysteria

As has been the case with other culture-bound syndromes, the subject of Arctic hysteria has been much debated for well over a century. Arctic explorers and adventurers returned from expeditions with many romanticized versions of native life which often included tales of how Eskimos behaved when they became upset. Their descriptions of Eskimos having bizarre tantrums reminded many of the hysterical fits so commonly observed among psychiatric patients studied by Freud and his colleagues at the tum of the century. The outbursts were thus termed the Arctic hysterias, and were understood according to prevailing psycho-analytic theories which argued that human psychology was the same worldwide, and that the Eskimo disorder was basically no different than those seen in the clinics of Charcot and Freud.

On the other hand, there were many features of Arctic hysteria which appeared to be specifically related to Eskimo life and beliefs. The dramatic descriptions of early explorers provided many colorful examples of the unique mental disorders manifested by these people whose culture differed so much from our own. In 'the context of a developing tradition of cultural relativism in American anthropology, Arctic hysteria was considered a mental disorder specific to the Eskimo, and took its place among other culture-bound syndromes.

The research discussed in this paper indicates that Arctic hysteria behavior is culturally patterned, and for centuries has represented stylized Eskimo expressions of overwhelming affect usually generated by interpersonal conflicts. While Arctic hysteria can be partially understood in universal psychological terms, a more complete understanding is offered by considerations of the unique framework of Eskimo culture. The ritualized patterns of Arctic hysteria behavior repeat themselves and become manifest in various cultural contexts; in the trances and soul trips of the Eskimo shaman; in collective seances; in modem collective charis- matic religious services; in expressions of personal distress; and in modem patterns of drinking alcohol. Arctic hysteria behavior has meaning to the Eskimo and com- municates and confums a system of beliefs concerning the nature of the human soul.

Many travelers in the Arctic including Cranz (1820), Rink (1875), Bertelsen (1905), R. Peary (1907), Steensby (1910), Whitney (1911), and Rasmussen (1927) reported frequent trance-like episodes of acute onset and short duration which Eskimos called pibloktoq. A more recent study conducted by Ehrstrom in Greenland (1951) included a series of 1,073 Eskimos whom he examined for medical and emotional disorders. Of these, he found twenty cases of pure hysteria, presumably of the dissociative or conversion types, twenty-six cases of "kayak phobia" (fear of being alone in the kayak at sea) and eighty-one cases of psychophysiological disorders. He concluded that the incidence of hysterical neurosis was higher, and psychophysiological disorders lower, than among peoples in more intense contact with Western civilization. On the basis of this finding, Parker (1962: 78)'speculated that in the past the dramatic forms of Arctic hysteria were more common, and that psychophysiological disorders are now becoming increasingly prevalent as more and more contact is maintained with the Western world.

Hysteria has been observed among the Eskimo in other areas of the Arctic as well. The Eskimos of the Hudson Bay region still distinguish hysterical behavior from other forms of behavioral disturbance, such as epilepsy, acute melancholic withdrawal, and depression with paranoid hostility (Vallee 1966). Several cases which Jane Hughes (1960) felt resembled pibloktoq were observed among the Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Her informant related:

Once and awhile X does acting, slapping faces, screwed around... I thought at first she was partly shaman out of mind a little bit I think... I've heard something... hollering behind me, it was X. I seen her a little bit, she was making faces like that with wrinkled eye, she was winking her one eye so tight and seems to me that part of her face was shrinking. I didn't look, I hates to keep looking at her like this, scared me so much. I think she was out of mind... But few minutes afterwards, she is become Okay (Hughes 1960: 68).

In her survey of the inhabitants of Sivokok, Alaska, she found forty-six individuals neurotic and thirty-five with psychophysiological disorders, which roughly corresponds to the frequencies of these disorders cited by Ehrstrom in Greenland. In addition, there were twenty people with organic brain syndromes, nineteen mentally defectives, and six psychotics. Interestingly, she discovered eighteen who manifested seizures (Hughes 1960).

Regarding Arctic hysteria in Alaska, Nachman, a psychologist with the US Public Health Service, reported:

We do not have at present any accurate record of the incidence of hysterical spells which might be closely related to (Arctic hysteria), but our clinical experience suggests that they are not infrequent. One typical kind of account is of a teenage girl who has sudden outbursts of excited behavior, sometimes with convulsions or paralysis or anesthesias for which no organic basis can be found, who yells and tears her clothes and performs some bizarre acts, then becomes drowsy, and is later amnesic for the experience. Another is of the man in his 20's or 30's who had spells (again sometimes giving rise to suspicions of convulsive disorders which remain unconfirmed) of sudden violence in which he will tear up the house, shoot up the town, or take off onto the tundra ill-clothed in severe weather. The documentation of the meaning of such episodes has usually been too fragmentary to permit any definitive statements about them. The fragments, however, suggest that they often serve in the case of the girls, as protests about sexual threats and temptations which cannot safely be acknowledged and in the case of the men, as escapes from humiliations around the inability to meet the responsibilities of married life. There is still another set of behaviors ... child beatings which also show many of these characteristics... (they have not been studied in Alaska though their occurrence in both white and "native" populations is reported to be high). The essential dynamic here, as in the other kinds of episodes we have considered - is a sudden loss of control in an otherwise reasonable person - frequently with either denial or genuine amnesia for the act afterward.

Ronald C. Simons and Charles C. Hughes, The Culture-Bound Syndromes, 307-308. © 1985 by D. Reidel Publishing Company. EDWARD F. FOULKS


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Pibloktoq - Arctic hysteria

Piblokoq also known as "Arctic hysteria" is a disease that affects people in circumpolar region in the winter months. It has been documented since the 1800’s and has many theories of possible source. Affecting more adult women then men, while having no confirmed cases of children affected. When a person begins a episode of this disorder they will begin to scream, shout, curse, break items, tear clothing, and run out into cold temperatures. Some result in comas or seizures. It has been found that the illness did not begin until the natives of these lands began to meet outsiders from Europe and America. here are many theories of reasoning for why this happens to this culture. Some suggest that it is because of stress or overload from the over culture mixing and loss of their natural ways. The pressure to make it in the changing world may begin to overwhelm the susceptible. While others have suggested that is because the natives have raised their children like "savages". Lack of vitamin C or Vitamin D even calcium amounts have been tested. But no concrete evidence has proven any theory or reasoning to give a good cause.

People who are non-native to the land have reported all of the case reports of these rage-type episodes expressed by this culture. Which could show that it is something very common for this group of people and they expect these types of actions to happen from time to time. Not a large surprise to see caregivers for those who have frequent episodes. Those who live among those affected often or those who live within the communities are to see these types of attacks. The language barrier in the semi polar region causes difficulty to the outer world with the lack of words that can be translated back and forth to help understand the illness. This reason alone may cause the delay in cause diagnosis, without communication it is impossible to get quality symptoms and results.

Rachel D. Higgs, “Pibloktoq – A study of a culture-bound syndrome in the circumpolar region," The Macalester Review, (2011) 1:1-9.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. and Ackerman, Robert E. "An Interdisciplinary Approach to Mental Disorder among the Polar Eskimos of Northwest Greenland," Anthoropoligica (1960) 249-260.


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