I’m back amongst the Nacirema and their daily rituals.

My wife doesn’t recognize me these days. I’m now a clean-shaven man and according to her I look about 15-years younger. As I stood there whacking my beard, I remembered something one of my favorite professors at Western Kentucky University shared with us in a freshman level sociology class. Some of you may be familiar with it. It’s called Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Miner”

Here’s a brief excerpt from American Anthropologist 58:3, June 1956.

Professor Linton [3] first brought the ritual of the Nacirema 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 Tarahumare 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….

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 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 opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious [5] 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 hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.[6]

Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual, which is performed only by men. This part of the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

Okay, for those of you not familiar with these particular observations or didn’t get it, Nacirema is AMERICAN spelled backward. He’s talking about bathrooms, brushing one’s teeth, men shaving and women having their hair done once a week at a beauty shop. It’s all about the context.

If you want to read the full text (and it’s worth your while) click on this link www.msu.edu/~jdowell/miner.html .

By the way, my picture on this blog will stay the same for a while. I may post both and let one be my evil twin Skippy.

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One Comment on “I’m back amongst the Nacirema and their daily rituals.”

  1. Joan Carr Says:

    I really enjoyed that quote, Joe. It had me going there for a little while, until the scraping with a sharp instrument part.


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