Miner – Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

by Horace Miner

[ Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in American Anthropologist, Vol. 58, No. 3. Pg. 503-507]

Points & Quotes:

The point, very simply put:

  • When described using exotic and evocative language, even the most mundane of activities can be made to appear magical or strange
  • Further, the fact that anthropology has described other cultures in this way has very likely caused us to view them as overly exotic and strange, focusing on their Otherness rather than finding similarities (e.g. we all do these kinds of odd things)
  • Because many of the activities we (in the West) find mundane are, indeed, strange to others
  • In Malinowskian terms, we are unable to fully see the “imponderabilia” of our own daily lives

“The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe.”

“The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. “

“The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. De­spite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hoghairs 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 a holy-mouth­ man once or twice a year. …
“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 their teeth continue to decay.”

“Professor Linton referred [to] a distinctive part of the daily body rit­ual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.”

“The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. …
“Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. …
“The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In every-day life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Ba thing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psycho­logical shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. …
“From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte. in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men

“There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. “

“In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat.”

“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. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski when he wrote:

“Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civiliza­ tion, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.”

Bronislaw Malinowski. Magic, Science, and Religion. 1948. pg. 70

Terms:

Nacirema—Strange and exotic tribal group in North America

Notgnihsaw—cultural hero and founder of the Nacirema, known for the “chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided”

latsipo—Main temples of the Nacirema medicine men

Annotation Summary for Ch 1 and 2 of From Savage to Negro

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “from American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 58, No. 3. (Jun., 1956), pp. 503-507”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Body Ritual among the N_acirema”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “HORACE MINER”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “T HE anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe.”

Page 1, Underline (Red):
Content: “Linton”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Professor Linton first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago (1936:326), but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They-ttre a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles.”

Page 1, Highlight (Yellow):
Content: “Nacirema”

Page 1, Underline (Red):
Content: “(1936:326),”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Notgnihsaw,”

Page 1, Highlight (Yellow):
Content: “Notgnihsaw,”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease.Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. “

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. De­spite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hoghairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the b1tndle in a highly formalized series of gestures. “

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth­ ,man once or twice a year.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ” The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite isevident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year afteryear, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay. “

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body rit­ual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size.”

Page 3, Highlight (Yellow):
Content: “latipso,”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ” Smallchildren whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In every-day life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Ba thing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psycho­logical shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. “

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: ” From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure,and may even kill the neophyte. in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men. “

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads ofpeople who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. “

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or bylimiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. “

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to bea 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. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski when he wrote (1948: 70) : “

Page 5, Underline (Red):
Content: “Malinowski”

Page 5, Underline (Red):
Content: “(1948: 70)”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan):
Content: “Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civiliza­ tion, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.”

Page 5, Underline (Red):
Content: “LINTON,RALPH 1936 The Study of Man. New York, D. Appleton-Century Co. “

Page 5, Underline (Red):
Content: “MALINOWSKI, Bll.ONISLAW 1948 Magic, Science, and Religion. Glencoe, The Free Press.”

Page 5, Underline (Red):
Content: “MU1WOCK, GEORGE P. 1949 Social Structure. New York, The Macmillan Co. “

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