Monday, February 25, 2013

Body Rituals Among the Nacirema

Body Rituals Among the Nacirema

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.  


  1. we have rock and sand thats what we call mexican we eat a lot ofrocks and sand

  2. We compete with other countries on whos better. The countries can't even get along and leave eachother alone.

  3. The Nacirema love to throw around balls to eachother and into a small circle on top of a stick. This circle has a string put into a complex pattern and they have to make the ball get into the circle for this game they enjoy.

  4. In a place where human interaction is cut off. No longer speaking. The people in the "Talk" culture take part in not talking, Kind of contradicting is it not? One could say they are not human if they don't talk but they are. They still eat and do everything else. They make their lives more complicated than they need to be. They do this intetionally, thinking it will enhance their lives when really it looks as if they are falling into an entrancement. They use expensive messengers that cost an enormous amount of money. Most can't even afford so they have their parents do it for them. They constantly use there fingers to type these messages. Causing pain. Why might one do this? They like to think it is more private than speaking, that this way other people have no knowledge of what is being typed rather than said. They have done this not out of the blue but over time becoming more and more into their way of communication. One that is useless. People often get confused as to what the other person is trying to say because they hafve no tone in the message saying whether it is sarcastic or not. It is more complicated but it is their way of life.

  5. In the American culture, teenagers usually compete in contests. Generally, the group of competetors consists of ten to fifteen people, In order to paricipate in the competiton, first, all of the participants have to meet at a designated time to prepare how they will beat the other competitors. They have these meetings about four times a week. Before the contest, the group of people participating dress in matching garments with matching shoes. The participants get to practice for twenty minutes before the contest officially begins. Once the contest begins, five participants from each group of fifteen start to fight to win points. The participants do get to have a brief break to recollect themselves in the middle of the battle. People are frequently substituted. Who ever has the most points is the winner of the battle.

    Hailey Buss.

  6. Jenna Kempen: In the culture of the Nacirema, multiple children of the same sex from different tribes get together in one building to gather and stay together for a long duration of time. They bring supplies to survive the night. All of the children present gather for one large feast when it is time to consume food. All of the children get rest in the same room in the general area of the other children. When the ritual is over the tribal children give thanks to the buildings owner.

  7. There is a place were people will try to dominate you and everyone around cheers for the people that are getting hurt or even hurting others. the only thing that is safe here is the plastic armor. sometimes the people watching even end up in fights. If you dont come out on top people will look down on you. the people responsible for this act are old men who push theese guys hard just to destroy others but yet every year but people enjoy to watch theese kind of things even though there just teenagers.eddy

  8. People will be on this box for hours on end. And none of it is useful in life. There are many diffrent types of ways to play and many different versions. People from all over get together without being together and play together. The box shuts off and on by its own and is just a jumble of movments on glass. They dont do anything at all.-- Josh Mader

  9. At around the same time of year, every year, the people of the Nacirema society have a week long celebration. Everyday of the week, they are required to put on certain costumes that are related to the theme of that particular day. At the end of the week long celebration, all of the Nacirema people gather together and watch a large group of people participate in a battle between two different sides. These battles are very important and popular in the Nacirema culture. - Megan

  10. Kids of this culture have activities that they play. Large groups of kids gather around and cheer and scream for their side to win. This event also is were kids indulge in a large feast while watching the activity being played. Players of this sport are normally males and put on helmet on and pads all over their body. The reason they do this is because they tackle and hit eachother to prevent eachother for winning. Alec Riegsecker

  11. in this culture, two tribes gather together around a large patch of grass, and the younger fmen of the two tribes get dressed in attire that represents their tribes. there, on the grass the two tribes will compete against eachother, tackling eachother and beating them up to reach victory. The majority of the two tribes gather around to watch this ritual.

  12. This occurs around the same time every year. There are usually two different Nacirema tribes that have a gathering to watch this event. Their children will use a piece of wood to hit a sewn circular object as far as they can when it is thrown at them from a person of the opposing tribe. Once they hit it, they run as fast as they can to get to their destination. If a person from the opposing team catches the circular object before they get there, the person who hit the object has to go back in sit in a little shelter until it is their turn again.

  13. There is a 4 year competition that most of the population takes part in. This is where people do really hard and time consuming activities throughout 9 months of the year. These activities take time away from fun things in life, and add a lot of stress to life. At the end of the competition, only the person that endured the hardest and most painful trials wins, and gets to make a speech. Even thought these activities are extremely hard, boring, and painful, the people who do them are often considered smarter people, and are thought to do well in the future. -Meghan Stecker

  14. In this community children are sent away at a young age for 7-8 hours a day for 9 months of the year. The children are expected to achieve the standards set for them by people who do not know them at all and do not know their strengths/weaknesses. Keeping that in mind though the children are all judged by the same scale set by someone who has no interaction with them to decide whether they are successful or not

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