Soap-eating in the Arctic

U 17.1988-9: The land of the Eskimos (eaters of soap)

Bloom contemplates various places abroad, moving from those with specific associations, such as “Ceylon (with spicegardens supplying tea to Thomas Kernan)” to those with associations based on clichés: “Niagara (over which no human being had passed with impunity), the land of the Eskimos (eaters of soap)”.

Gifford is silent on the soap-eaters; Slote cites the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which Joyce is known to have drawn on), which notes that Eskimos “sometimes, but not habitually [eat] blubber” (1910: vol. 9, p. 769/1)

Joyce seems to have been fascinated or amused by stories – true or false - of how other peoples lived (see, for example, The Shah's nose and ears and A postcard from Bolivia, elsewhere on this site). He was also intrigued by the “freak shows” that were popular forms of entertainment in Dublin and elsewhere in his day (see Roll up for the human ostrich and Marcella, the Midget Queen). Both of these strands form aspects of this story.

“Eskimo” fact and fiction

Accurate popular knowledge about the Inuit and associated peoples – at the time collectively known as “Eskimos” – was is short supply in western European in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth. Tales were told by sea captains who encountered groups of Eskimos on their travels. Towards the end of the nineteenth century more “scientific” information was starting to be gathered by anthropologists – but this often relied in traditional lore as much as collected data.

It was known that Eskimos ate blubber (tissue in which fat is stored) and tallow (rendered fat) in some form from the animals which they captured. Twenty-first century encyclopaedias tell us:

All parts of the seals are either eaten or used [by the Inuit]. The blubber and meat of the seals are eaten raw, while the intestines are either boiled or eaten raw.

Laura P. Appel-Warren in Ken Albala Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia (2011), volume 1 ch. 'Inuit', p. 191

Akutuq, sometimes called "Eskimo ice cream", is a favourite treat for many. This delicacy is a dessert made with whipped fat and berries. To make this desert one recipe calls for grated reindeer tallow, seal oil, and water. (p. 191)

The fact that tallow can be used to make candles and soap seems to have confused Europeans into making an incorrect link between the eating of blubber and tallow by Eskimos and the eating of the related product, soap.

Travellers’ tales

The Canadian Arctic explorer and ethnologist Vilhjálmur Stefánsson (1879-1962), who himself courted controversy on other Eskimo issues, is adamant that soap-eating amongst the Eskimos is a myth:

That Eskimo children eat soap is ridiculous on the face of it. I have never seen Eskimos eat candles, nor heard of a case. But if they did eat tallow candles it would be no stranger than the eating of tallow in any other form. Tallow is only suet, and many a well-ordered meal in our country still includes suet pudding.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson Adventures in Error (1936), p. 240

Stefánsson was prompted to make these statements because of information he encountered in his own source, Physical and Commercial Geography (1910), by the anthropologists Herbert Gregory, Albert Keller and Avard Bishop:

Blubber is devoured in great quantities, and the ravenous eating of tallow candles and even soap by Eskimo children is well attested. (Pt. 2 ch. 8, p. 148)

Western interest in the habits of the Eskimo were piqued by Captain George Lyon in the Private Journal […] of the H.M.S. Hecla during the Recent Voyage of Discovery under Captain Parry (1824), where we find early reference to the supposed soap-eating of the Eskimo:

I saw him cast many longing looks at the tempting piece of yellow soap which we were using, until at length his repeated Ay-yāā’s of admiration determined me on making him happy, and he devoured it with delight. (Ch. 3, p. 132)

This incident was widely reported, in Englosh and in French texts. It inspired poetry and crept into the Western mythology of the Eskimo:

O! Esquimaux, I will eat soap and candles with thee to eternity, rather than dine off I know not what, with those who think themselves thy superiors.

Characters and Opinions (1825), p. 201

The Polish litterateur and journalist Karol Edmund Choiecki joined Prince Napoléon’s expedition to the North Sea in 1856, and reported on a similar eventuality in Greenland:

Les femmes semblent plus réfractaires encore que les homes au contact de l’eau. Un morceau de savon, que l’un de nous eut l’ironie d’offrir a nos hôtes du bord, fut divisé en morceaux égaux et mangé per ces demoiselles.

Karol Edmund Choiecki Voyage dans les Mers du Nord à bord de la corvette La Reine Hortense. (1857), p. 245

Another reference from the same period alludes to a similar practice:

Little presents – a knife, a file, a saw, or a lump of brown soap, highly esteemed for its medical properties, for the Esqimaux eat their soap, instead of wasting it upon their outsides.

M. Jones Dr. Kane - the Arctic hero (1866), p. 123

Perhaps the Eskimos were genuinely confused by this western soap. It seems that descriptions of soap-eating are restricted to occurrences when Eskimos are offered soap by westerners.

A circus Eskimo

Another celebrated occurrence of the myth was promoted by the alleged Eskimo dwarf Ólöf Krarer. In fact, she was an Icelander who migrated to North America and, unable to find regular work, joined a circus. Recognising the credulity of her audiences (who had never seen a real Eskimo and were prepared to believe anything about their culture), she invented and promoted an eccentric life-history for herself, in which she was an East Eskimo who had moved to Iceland in the 1870s, and then migrated further to the United States.1

Her biography was ghost-written in Albert S. Post’s Olof Krarer, the Esquimaux lady: a story of her native home (1887). According to Ólöf – who publicised the account in hundreds of lectures given by her across the United States – she was an Eastern Eskimo:

I was born in Greenland, on the east coast. I am the youngest of eight children. My three sisters and four brothers are all living in Iceland. My father is living in Manitoba. My mother died in Iceland when I was sixteen years old. (p. 1)

She told a credulous public about the strange customs and conditions of the Eskimos:

There was no chance to play round and romp inside the snow-house. We just had to sit with our arms folded and keep still. It was in this way that my arms came to have such a different shape from people’s arms in this country. (p. 2)

Many people are disappointed when they see me, because I am not darker colored, with black hair […] When a baby is born in my country it is just as white as any American baby, and it has light hair and blue eyes. But the mother does not wash it with soft water and soap, as they do in this country. ("Infant Esquimaux", p. 12)

They sometimes, also, would churn mutton tallow, or whale oil, in the sheep’s milk, and make a kind of butter. Whale oil makes a better butter than the tallow, and I think I would like it even yet. (p. 22)

The press loved her stories. Newspapers noted her lectures around the country, and the popular magazine St. Nicholas retold much of her story in Augusta de Bubna’s “From the Frozen North” in the August 1890 issue. The magazine reprinted the regular photos of Ólöf, here in her Eskimo costume (see p. 869), and reminded readers, on the same page, that “Olof Krarer, a young Eskimo woman, now visiting this country, is probably the only educated Eskimo lady in the world”.

“Ólöf Krarer” frequently mentioned in her talks that her Eskimos knew nothing about washing. The American public was therefore not surprised to hear that:

When Miss Krarer reached Iceland in 1873 she was given a cake of soap, which she promptly ate.

Wichita (Kansas) Daily Eagle (1890), 2 December, p. 3

Over twenty years later the Washington Post retold Ólöf’s story, based on the St Nicholas article of 1890, and reiterated the old tale that she “ate her first cake of soap”.2

For more accurate details on Ólöf Krarer, see Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir’s Ólöf the Eskimo Lady: A Biography of an Icelandic Dwarf in America (University of Michigan Press: 2010).


So when Bloom the credulous refers to “Eskimos (eaters of soap)” (perhaps mimicking the regular explanation “eaters of raw flesh”) he is simply reiterating the popular myth circulating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, promoted by “Ólöf Krarer” and others, that Eskimos really did eat soap – even if only by mistake.

John Simpson


1 The deception was first exposed in 1892.

2 Washington Post (1913), 16 March p. ES11.

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