Arctic Madness

The Anthropology of a Delusion 

By Pierre Déléage

Translated by Catherine V. Howard

The French missionary linguist Émile Petitot (1838–1916) spent twenty years near the Arctic Circle in Canada, publishing numerous works on First Nations languages and practices. Over time, however, he descended into delirium and began to summon imaginary persecutions, pen improbable interpretations of his Indigenous hosts, and burst into schizoid fury. Delving into thousands of pages in letters and memoirs that Petitot left behind, Pierre Déléage has reconstructed the missionary’s tragic story. He takes us on a gripping journey into the illogic and hyperlogic of a mind entranced with Indigenous peoples against the backdrop of repressive church policies and the emergent social sciences of the nineteenth century. Apocalyptic visions from the Bible and prophetic movements among First Nations peoples merged in the missionary’s deteriorating psyche, triggering paroxysms of violence against his colleagues and himself. Whoever wishes to understand the contradictions of living between radically different societies will find this anthropological novella hard to put down.

“Take a young priest from his native France, throw him into the depths of the Arctic snow among ‘savages,’ and see what happens. Pierre Déléage follows Petitot’s steps toward insanity and finds his legacy in a wealth of linguistic and ethnographic materials. A great little book.”

— Alcida Rita Ramos, author of Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil

“This book offers a fascinating analysis of Emile Petitot’s life in the Canadian Northwest. As in the Amazon or the Congo, madness and hysteria affected some explorers and missionaries suddenly confronted with inner solitude. Although Petitot was an exceptional ethnographer of the Dené peoples, his case remains a sad yet intriguing example. In this book, Déléage carefully explores his writings and provides insightful views on his delirium, illustrating both a generic mental dysfunction and an idiosyncratic personality.”

— Frédéric Laugrand, coauthor (with Jarich Oosten) of Inuit Shamanism and Christianity


Pierre Déléage is an anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He has conducted ethnographic research on shamanism among the Sharanahua in the Peruvian Amazon, investigated the invention of writing systems by Indigenous peoples in North America, and explored the limits of scientific objectification.

Catherine V. Howard is an anthropologist translator of works from French, Portuguese, and Spanish into English. She earned her PhD from the University of Chicago and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among the Waiwai in the Brazilian Amazon.

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Chapter 1. Persecution Mania: A Missionary among the First Nations

Chapter 2. Interpretation Delusions: Israelites of the North Pole

Chapter 3. Prophetic Frenzy: Anticipating the End Times


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