After living among them for many years, University of Michigan anthropologist Horace Miner wrote about the exotic habits and magical rituals of a tribe called the Nacirema. His ethnography “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” was first published in 1956 and was such a sensation that it is still an important part of college anthropology classes because it shows the extremes to which human behavior can go.
Body Ritual Among the Nacirema*
The fundamental belief of the Nacirema peoples is that the human body is ugly and weak. They hope to keep themselves free from debility and disease by building shrines in their homes and calling upon the powers of medicine men. Every household has at least one shrine, and the wealthier the family, the more shrines they have. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of an elaborate series of body-rites that parents follow to indoctrinate their young children.
The focal point of most shrines is a charm-box built into the wall
Inside these boxes, the Nacirema keep many curative potions, elixirs and tonics, without which natives believe they cannot survive. The real and imagined ailments of the peoples are many and because each requires its own special curative, charm-boxes are usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that even when people forget what they were for, they do not throw them away, perhaps hoping some of the magic is retained.
The Nacirema have a morbid horror of and obsessive fascination with the mouth
They believe the condition of their mouths has a supernatural influence on all social relationships. They are certain that unless they observe the proper rituals, their teeth will fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them and their lovers reject them.
Beneath the charm-box is a small font
Each day every member of the family takes a turn in the shrine room. They bow their heads before the charm-box and proceed with a brief rite of ablution in the font with holy waters secured from the community’s water temple.
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite
This involves a procedure which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. The ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out holy-mouth-men
These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes and prods. The use of these tools in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves ritual torture. The holy-mouth-man uses the above mentioned tools to enlarge any holes which decay may have created in the teeth so that supernatural substances can be applied. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that the treatments are painful and their teeth continue to decay.
Medicine men diagnose ailments
They decide what special healing ingredients are needed and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This secret language can be decoded only by special herbalists who mix the magical materials into potions.
High-ranking medicine men have a special temple of their own, called a latipsoh
This temple is the only place where the elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can be performed. These rituals involve a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress. The latipsoh ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that they continue to go willingly, in spited of how few of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover.
Supplicants entering the temple are stripped of all clothing and dignity
In everyday life, the Nacirema avoids exposure of the body and its natural functions. Psychological shock results when body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipsoh. A man whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a stranger while he voids his waste into a sacred vessel. that is immediately taken away. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta must be examined by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness.
Many anthropology and sociology professors use Horace Miner’s ethnography as their first class
After reading Body Ritual to students on Day One, I would ask for observations. Year after year, nearly all of the students’ comments were about how incredibly primitive and crude these people were. When productive discussion had been exhausted, I asked them to read these two words backwards: Nacirema and latipsoh.
When did you notice that Nacirema is American spelled backwards and latipsoh is hospital?
The story is deliberately phrased in such a way that most of us quickly draw the conclusion that the Nacirema are ignorant and superstitious peoples. It’s a wonderful example of how ethnocentrism can color our thinking and one of Miner’s points when he wrote it. Would it surprise you to hear that several university students in every class would get very angry and refuse to accept the entire premise?
The way Miner describes things using a different lens makes everyday things seem odd
He tricks us (but not maliciously) by avoiding modern everyday terms for which we already have a stereotyped set of assumptions. If he wrote that the people used toothbrushes, we would all immediately have a mental image of the one we use, right down to color, shape and brand.
Boar bristles attached to a stick suggest something quite primitive
Early toothbrushes were exactly that: small bundles of stiff bristles removed from the skin of hogs and tied to sticks. Today, entire lines of eco-toothbrushes have boar bristles attached to bamboo handles.
Medicine men are doctors, herbalists are pharmacists and holy mouth-men are dentists, of course
Their secret language is Latin. Brushing teeth, flossing and gargling are mouth-rite rituals, charm-boxes are medicine cabinets, magic potions are the things we put in us (pills, liquids) and the things we put on us (cleansers, creams, lotions, cosmetics). Miner’s noting that charm boxes are usually filled to overflowing with old medicines that don’t get thrown out is particularly clever, don’t you think?
Smithsonianmag.com says “The line between weirdness and normalcy depends entirely on your point of view.”
Miner wrote Body Ritual Among the Nacirema as a satire of mainstream American culture and the then-current anthropological fashion of over-mystifying professional journal articles. At what point did you realize his story was written as a send-up of the ethnographies written by the armchair anthropologists you read about last week?
The lesson not every university student grasped was how quickly we see behaviors different than ours as being primitive and superstitious, all the while firmly believing our own behaviors are not only superior but completely rational, too. People do not learn naturally to be non-judgmental. It takes a lot of training and practice and few of those who are not anthropologists or sociologists think it’s worth the bother.
Did you know the toothbrush was invented far back in hillbilly country? If it had been invented anywhere else, they would have called it a teethbrush.
*Over the years, I edited and re-edited Miner’s study as the typical college student’s attention span got shorter and shorter. Those who prided themselves on their multitasking skills always missed the important parts. My current version is only one-third the length of Miner’s, which leaves out twice as much as it keeps in. I’ve tried to stay as close as possible to the essence of his work while doing a bit of modernizing. You can read the 1,500 words I left out here in the original as printed in American Anthropologist.