Horace Miner <1>Reprinted by permission of the American AnthropologicalAssociation from American Anthropologist 58:3, June 1956. Not forsale or further reproduction.
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The anthropologist has become so familiar withthe diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situationsthat he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. Infact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have notbeen found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they mustbe present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, beenexpressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock.<2>In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema presentsuch unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an exampleof the extremes to which human behavior can go.Professor Linton <3>first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologiststwenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood.They are a North American group living in the territory between the CanadianCree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of theAntilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states thatthey came from the east....Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developedmarket economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While muchof the people"s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of thefruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spentin ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearanceand health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people.While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects andassociated philosophy are unique.The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appearsto be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debilityand disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man"s only hope is to avert thesecharacteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every householdhas one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individualsin the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulenceof a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centersit possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but theshrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer familiesimitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.While each family has at least one such shrine, the ritualsassociated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only duringthe period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able,however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine theseshrines and to have the rituals described to me.The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest whichis built in to the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magicalpotions without which no native believes he could live. These preparationsare secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerfulof these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantialgifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions fortheir clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then writethem down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understoodonly by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, providethe required charm.The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose,but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magicalmaterials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladiesof the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. Themagical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposeswere and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on thispoint, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magicalmaterials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the bodyrituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshipper.Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day everymember of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his headbefore the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font,and proceeds with a brief rite ofablution.<4>The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, wherethe priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below themedicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translatedas "holy-mouth-men." The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror ofand fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to havea supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for therituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, theirgums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their loversreject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists betweenoral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablutionof the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes amouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are sopunctilious<5> about care of the mouth,this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger asrevolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of insertinga small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magicalpowders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series ofgestures.
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<6>In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seekout a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have animpressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls,probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evilsof the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client.The holy-mouth-man opens the client"s mouth and, using the above mentionedtools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magicalmaterials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurringholes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged outso that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client"s view,the purpose of theseministrations <7>is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditionalcharacter of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return tothe holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continueto decay.It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Naciremais made, there will be careful inquiry in to the personality structureof these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man,as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amountof sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting patternemerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies.It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctivepart of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This partof the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face witha sharp instrument. Special women"s rites are performed only four timesduring each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up inbarbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovensfor about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seemsto be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso,in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies requiredto treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. Theseceremonies involve not only thethaumaturge<8> but a permanent group ofvestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctivecostume and headdress.The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it isphenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enterthe temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incompletehave been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because "thatis where you go to die." Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willingbut eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can affordto do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency,the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot givea rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived theceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until hemakes still another gift.The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped ofall his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure ofhis body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performedonly in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualizedas part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact thatbody secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whoseown wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himselfnaked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functionsinto a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitatedby the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the courseand nature of the client"s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand,find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation andprodding of the medicine men.Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anythingbut lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of theholy-mouth-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision,the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them abouton their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movementsof which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magicwands in the supplicant"s mouth or force him to eat substances which aresupposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to theirclients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact thatthese temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, inno way decreases the people"s faith in the medicine men.There remains one other kind of practitioner, known asa "listener." This witchdoctor has the power to exorcise the devils thatlodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believethat parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspectedof putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals.The counter-magic of the witchdoctor is unusual in its lack of ritual.The patient simply tells the "listener" all his troubles and fears, beginningwith the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed bythe Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is notuncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weanedas a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back tothe traumatic effects of their own birth.In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practiceswhich have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasiveaversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual faststo make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat.Still other rites are used to make women"s breasts larger if they are small,and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shapeis symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside therange of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammarydevelopment are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simplygoing from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at themfor a fee.Reference has already been made to the fact that excretoryfunctions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Naturalreproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo asa topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy bythe use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phasesof the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, womendress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret,without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do notnurse their infants.Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainlyshown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how theyhave managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposedupon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaningwhen they are viewed with the insight provided byMalinowski<9> when he wrote:Looking from far and above, from our high places of safetyin the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevanceof magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have masteredhis practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advancedto the higher stages of civilization.1 From"Body Ritual among the Nacirema," American Anthropologist 58 (1956):503-507. All notes were added by John A. Dowell, Department of AmericanThought and Language, Michigan State University.. <BACK>2 George Peter Murdock (1897-1996>), famous ethnographer. <BACK>3 Ralph Linton (1893-1953),best known for studies of enculturation (maintaining that all culture islearned rather than inherited; the process by which a society"s cultureis transmitted from one generation to the next), claiming culture is humanity"s"social heredity." <BACK>4 A washing or cleansingof the body or a part of the body. From the Latin abluere, to washaway. <BACK>5 Marked by precise observanceof the finer points of etiquette and formal conduct. <BACK>6 It is worthy of note thatsince Prof. Miner"s original research was conducted, the Nacirema havealmost universally abandoned the natural bristles of their private mouth-ritein favor of oil-based polymerized synthetics. Additionally, the powdersassociated with this ritual have generally been semi-liquefied. Other updatesto the Nacirema culture shall be eschewed in this document for the sakeof parsimony. <BACK>7 Tending to religious orother important functions. <BACK>8 A miracle-worker. <BACK>9 Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942),famous cultural anthropologist best known for his argument that peopleeverywhere share common biological and psychological needs and that thefunction of all cultural institutions is to fulfill such needs; the natureof the institution is determined by its function. <BACK>TheAssignmentPlease answer thesequestions and post your answers as a message in the Forum for this assignment.Who are the Nacirema?Which of their customs did you find the most interesting or unusual? Why?Briefly describe the Naciremashrine. Why do they have these shrines? Why do they do their ritual ablutionsin private?What is a latipso? Minernotes, "The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may evenkill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people"s faith in the medicinemen." Why is this?What do you think aboutthe Nacirema? Do you approve of them and their body rituals?Explain your answer fully.P.S.The American Anthropological Association modernized its annotation formatnot long after the original article was published. However, ProfessorDowell added his notes as footnotes, rather than as in-text notes, probablyto interfere as little as possible with the original article. Youshould know that most modern formats require in-text notation--that is,with the notes right in the text and enclosed in parentheses, instead ofappearing as footnotes.Invitations to Write