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BODY RITUAL AMONG THE NACIREMA
Revised from “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” by Horace Miner,
American Anthropologist Magazine

58(3), 1956, pp. 503–7

The ritual of the Nacirema was first brought to the attention of anthropologists twenty 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 Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and
Tarahumara of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the
Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition
states that they came from the east.
Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed
market economy, which has evolved in a rich natural
habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic
pursuits, a considerable portion of their day is
spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the
human body, the appearance and health of which appear
as a major concern in the people’s belief. While such a concern
is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and
associated philosophy are unique.
The main belief underlying this ritual activity appears
to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural
tendency is to weakness and disease. Captive in such a
body, man’s only hope to avert these characteristics is
through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household
has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more
powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in
their houses and, in fact, the grandeur of a house is often
referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it
possesses.
The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest, which is
built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many
charms and magical potions without which no native
believes he or she could live. These preparations are
obtained from a variety of specialized practitioners. The
most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose help
must be rewarded with large gifts. However, the medicine
men do not provide the potions for their clients, but decide
what the ingredients should be and then write them down
in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood
only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who,
for another gift, provide the required charm.
Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every
member of the family enters the shrine room, bows his or
her head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of
holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of
cleansing. The holy waters are secured from the Water
Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate
ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.
The medicine men have an imposing temple, or
latipso

, in every community of any size. The more elaborate

ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can
only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies
involve not only the miracle-worker, but also a group of
assistants who move quietly about the temple chambers in
distinctive costume and headdress. The

latipso ceremonies

are so harsh that a fair proportion of the really sick
natives who enter the temple never recover. Despite this
fact, sick adults are not only willing, but eager to undergo
the long and drawn-out ritual purification, if they can
afford to do so. No matter how ill or how grave the emergency,
the guardians of many temples will not admit a
client if he or she cannot offer a rich gift.
The Nacirema have an unrealistic horror of and fascination
with the mouth, the condition of which is believed
to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships.
Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they
believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed,
their jaws shrink, and their friends desert them. They
also believe that there is a strong relationship between
oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual
cleansing of the mouth for children, which is supposed
to improve their moral character.
The daily body ritual includes a mouth-rite. This rite
involves a practice which strikes the unfamiliar stranger
as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists
of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth,
along with certain magical pastes, and then moving the
bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek
out a

holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners

have an impressive set of tools, consisting of a
variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of
these items in removing the evils of the mouth involves
almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holymouth-
man opens the client’s mouth and, using the abovementioned
tools, enlarges any holes which decay may
have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into
these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in
the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged
out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In
the Nacirema’s view, the purpose of these religious functions
is to arrest decay and to draw friends.
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.
W


HO ARE THE NACIREMA?
©2002 www.facingthefuture.org

Body Rituals Among the Nacirema�

A. Either take turns reading the passage or read the passage out loud.
B. Discussion
1. Ask and discuss the following questions with class:
a) What do you think about Nacirema rituals?
b) What rituals performed by the Nacirema seem most outlandish to you?� Why?
c) Enlighten students as to the moral of the lesson (that this is actually an interpretation of the American culture. Nacirema=American spelled backwards )
d) Ask students to identify Nacireman rituals with their own.
e) Explain the meaning of the word ethnocentrism (the idea that your race and culture are superior to others).