Body Rituals Among the Nacirema
By Dr. Horace Miner
By Dr. Horace Miner
The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave that they are not often surprised, even by the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logical possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, the anthropologist is most likely to believe that they exist in some yet undiscovered tribe. In this light, the magical beliefs and rituals of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.
Professor Thomas Linton first brought the rituals of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologist twenty years ago, but the culture of these people remained poorly understood until my recent excursion with them.
Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology their nation was originated by a culture hero named Notgnihsaw. The Nacirema are a group of people whose desolate location has left them virtually unchanged for the past 200 years.
Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved greatly in the past 100 years. While much of the average Nacirema’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of these ritual activity is the the appearance and health of their body. Now, while such concerns is not uncommon, the ceremonial aspects of the Nacirema show very unique characteristics.
The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly. They appear to believe that a woman/man’s only hope is to avoid showing the bodies natural tendency to grow weak and sick. They attempt to do this by performing daily rituals and ceremonies that appear to have a religious, or magical, origin.
Every dwelling in Nacirema society has one or more shrines devoted to the purpose of these rituals. The more powerful the individual is in there society the more shrines they will have in their dwelling. In fact, dwellings are often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it posses. While each family dwelling has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not public ceremonies, but private ones. The rites of these rituals are normally only discussed with children, however, I was able to establish such a positive rapport with the Nacirema that they agreed to allow me to examine and describe these rituals.
The focal point of the shrines is a box (or chest) which is built into the wall of the shrine. Within this chest are kept many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he or she could live. These potions and charms are often obtained from “medicine men” who hold a high status with in the Nacirema society. The medicine men do not actually provide the charms and potions but instead will write, in an ancient and secret language, the ingredients down. This writing is understood only by lesser medicine men who create the required potions and charms.
After the charm and potion has been used the container is not disposed of. Instead it is placed back in the box located in the dwelling’s shrine. Since these magical potions are for specific illness the charm-box of the shrine is usually overflowing. Although the natives are very vague regarding this tradition I can only assume that the idea of keeping these old potions and charms is to insure that their presence in the shrine will help protect the worshiper.
Every morning members of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, then they mingle different sorts of potions and charms, and proceeds with a brief ritual of purification. These rituals vary, depending on the gender of the occupant. Below is an example of the daily body rituals which are performed only by men: Each morning males in the society will enter the shrine with a sharp tool. The men will then use this sharp tool in a cleansing ritual which involves scraping and lacerating the surface of their face. The men will then apply a potion to their lacerated face. This potion has a strong stench and it reportedly will burn and irritate the skin where ever it is applied.
Women in the Nacirema society also perform daily cleansing and purification rituals in the shrine. The ritual of the women tend to take twice as long as the men and it is also done in secrecy and private. Women in the Nacirema society will daily use a combination of dyes to paint and decorate their faces. Often times these decorations are designed to attract a potential mate.
The Nacirema avoids exposure of his or her body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the shrines, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results if the body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry by another host, even if the intruder is the Nacirema’s partner. This secrecy is also extended to reproduction and intercourse. Intercourse is a taboo topic and extreme efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by using magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women will often dress as to hide their condition. The actual birth takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.
Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves.
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