Body Ritual Among the Nacirema Tribe
Nacirema culture spends a considerable portion of their days in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which is the dominant concern of the people.
The fundamental belief of the whole system is that the human body is ugly and that it will only wither away with disease. Trapped in such a body, man's only hope to stop these events is through the powerful use of rituals and ceremonies. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. I was able to speak with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.
The shrine is a box or a chest. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions that these natives believe they cannot live without. These potions are received from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the potions to 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 herbalist who, for another gift, provides the required charm.
In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated "holy–mouth–men." The Nacirema have an almost pathological 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, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them.
In addition to the private mouth–rite, people seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, prods, and other tools. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy–mouth–man opens the clients mouth and, using the above mentioned 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 client's view, the purpose of these ministrations is to stop decay and to draw friends. 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.
If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that 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 injuring the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women's rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but is equally barbaric. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour.
There are ritual fasts to 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. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman breast size development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee. A majority of women do not nurse their own infants.
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.
Revised by Sarah Joseph