The Exotic Rituals of the Nacirema

The Exotic Rituals of the ‚ÄčNacirema
Prof. Horace Miner
University of Michigan
As an anthropologist, I have traveled all around the world and have visited many different tribes
of people. On one of my journeys, I met an extremely strange tribe of people. They were called
the Nacirema tribe and lived in a distant part of the world. After living with the tribe for several
weeks, I observed many strange customs and practices which I will now detail here:
The Nacirema culture has a wealthy economy with many natural resources. Much of the
people's time is spent performing unusual routine activities. The focus of this activity is
the human body, the appearance and health of which are very important to these
people. The fundamental belief of these people is that the human body is ugly, smells
horribly, and is constantly falling apart. The only way to combat these fears is through
the complicated use of ritual and ceremony. These rituals take place in a holy shrine
within each house. Some powerful families have many shrines. While family members
all have access to these shrines, the rituals that take place in them are private and
secret. By chance, I was able to establish friendships with some natives who granted
me access to their holy shrines.
On the wall of the shrine is a box containing the many charms and magical potions the
natives think are necessary to stay alive. The natives are directed to use these potions
by strange magicians who speak to them through boxes made of sand, precious metals,
and decayed animals. These magicians convince the natives that, without the magic
potions and sacred rituals, they will have no friends and be thrown out of their villages.
One of these rituals focuses on the mouth. Although I was never able to witness this in
person, it was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog
hair into the mouth, along with certain magical creams, and then moving the bundle in a
highly formalized series of gestures. Good Nacirema also put strings between their
teeth, pulling and stretching, once or twice a day. Apparently, the Nacirema have an
obsessive horror and fascination with the mouth. They believe the mouth has 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 and their jaws shrink, due to
the foul stench of the evil spirits lodged there. When native peoples start to get rotten
teeth, instead of pulling the teeth out, they instead dig holes in them. Good natives put
strings in between their teeth at least once a day. When natives don’t feel well, they
may visit the shaman where they wait in a room with many other sick people. When ill, a
Nacirema shaman may recommend that the sick person pour hot liquid in their nose
using a long spout.
On the topic of beauty and adornment, there are some highly unusual rituals involved
that are different for the two sexes. An important aspect of adorning the Nacirema body
seems to be enduring physical pain and discomfort. Female natives do not like hair
anywhere except their heads. They spend many hours having their hair yanked out of
their skin. To attract men, Nacirema women will paint their faces and necks with many
colors. Native men scrape and lacerate their face with a sharp instrument. Some
Nacirema like to poke holes in their body with thick metal bars. They then will often put
jewels and other adornments (decorations) in them. The Nacirema also value art. One
form of art is where the natives brand their skin with the names of their tribe’s elders.
The Nacirema also have a strange obsession with their feet, believing them to be the
most sacred objects in the universe. This is especially true among those considered
adolescents, and most especially for the males of the tribe. One tradition includes
covering the feet in the dried shells of rotting animals. More important than the shells
themselves are the sacred markings that appear on them. These markings are often
painted on the shells with plant blood that has been cooked and prepared according to
secret rituals known only to a few tribal elders. The markings take strange and
meaningless shapes that do not reflect any part of Nacirema culture. One popular
marking seems to resemble a fishing hook even though the Nacirema do not live near
the sea. Another is a series of oddly parallel lines. Apparently, these markings endow
the wearer with large or small amounts of social prestige. Certain markings indicate
high status and Nacirema adolescents will trade away their finest possessions in order
to wear them. Those wearing less prestigious shells on their feet, without the fish hook
or line markings, are thought to be unimportant and often ostracized and ridiculed, even
by their closest friends.
On the topic of children, the Nacirema do not seem to be a very caring tribe. In fact,
shortly after giving birth, many Nacirema mothers will have their children sent away for
several hours and only have the child brought back for meals. The newborn children
are also subject to several body mutilations shortly after birth as several parts of their
body are physically cut off. Because of this, it is no wonder that the Nacirema have
such a tendency towards violence. Some Nacirema youth like to hit each other with
round objects as hard as they can. This custom is so common that even the adults
approve of it and encourage kids to do it. When the weather is right, parents will put
their children on a piece of wood and push them down a hill as hard as they can. The
children can be heard screaming as they plummet towards the bottom. When native
children come of age, it is common for them to leave their village and go to another
village to discover themselves. They live with other children, their same age, from
various other tribes around their region with no adult supervision.
The Nacirema are a very superstitious group. They put fruits in front of their huts with
evil faces on them to ward off spirits. The natives are also not a very social group.
They often don’t communicate face to face, preferring to communicate by writing down
their messages and delivering them to each other. For fun, the Nacirema tribe
watches two high ranking men in the tribe hit each other until they pass out from pain.
On special occasions, people of the tribe will paint their face and dress up in certain
colors to worship and honor their favorite warriors in battle.
One final bizarre new habit has emerged among the natives. They now believe that
they can communicate with distant tribes simply by moving their fingers in a highly
ritualistic manner, with the thumbs being especially important. Interestingly, this
mysterious communication only works when they are holding a small magical box
constructed from the remains of long-dead animals. If not in constant physical contact
with these mysterious amulets, the natives quickly become anxious and irritable, with
many insisting that they will certainly die a horrible death if this separation lasts more
than a few minutes.
In conclusion, my twenty-year study of the Nacirema’s has certainly shown them to be a
culture deeply committed to self-inflicted physical and mental pain. It is hard to
understand how they have managed to exist for so long with these strange customs.
Perhaps, though, it is hard to understand them because of our view from the civilized
and advanced modern world.