Friday, July 21, 2017

Summary: "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" / Horace Miner

"Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner (1956) is an ethnological account of the Nacirema, a tribe located in North America. According to Miner, the Nacirema culture presents a highly developed market economy but with a main focus on ritual activity which focuses on the human body and its appearance of health. The Nacirema believe the body to be ugly and detestable and seek to avoid its uncleanliness through ritual and ceremony.

The houses of the Nacirema culture according to Miner have shrines devoted to this purpose, which also feature a status symbols. Ceremonies are performed privately and are seldom discussed with the exception being children which need to be socialized into the ritual. The Nacirema, according to Miner, have "charm-boxes" as the focal point of their shrines which are full of magical materials, distributed at the discretion of medicine men which use a secret old language. All materials are retained in the overflowing charm-boxer, and though the people of the Nacirema sometimes even forget their original purpose they still hang on to the materials, believing that they somehow protect them. The Nacirema use their shrine daily for the purpose of ablution, with the aid of pure holy water coming from the Water Temple.

The Nacirema also have "holy-mouth-men" which rank below the medicine men in social status. The holy-mouth-men are entrusted with taking care of the mouth, which is an object of obsession for the Nacirema who believe that it has "a supernatural influence on all social relationships". Miner also says that the Nacirema associate a healthy with moral characteristics. This is why the children of the Nacirema are brought up on the "mouth-rite", which Miner describes as inserting into the mouth a bundle of hog hairs along with magical powders and moving it around. The Nacirema also routinely seek the somewhat torturous practice of the mouth-men which exorcise their mouths using elaborate tools and supernatural substances.

The men of the Nacirema perform a daily ritual of scraping their face with a sharp instrument. Women on the other hand bake their heads in small ovens four times a month.
The medicine men of the Nacirema have imposing temples called latipso in which elaborate ceremonies are being held for seriously seek people, with the help vestal maidens. Miner writes that the Nacirema are eager to undergo ceremonies at the latipso, believing that it would keep them alive. These ceremonies come at a hefty cost of gifts and include being naked in the presence of others, something the Nacirema never do elsewhere.

Miner also describes a witchdoctor called the "listener" who can exorcise demons from bewitched people. The Nacirema  believe that parents, especially mothers, bewitch their own  children. The listener treats people simply by listening to their talk of themselves.

Towards the end of  "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" Miner adds a few more characteristics of the tribe like "ritual fasts to make  fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to  make thin people fat" and a fixation with women breast size. On the other hand, intercourse is "taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act". Miner concludes that the Nacirema are "magic ridden people" whose survival is bewildering.  

Though Miner never discloses it in the article itself, "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" is a satirical account of American society itself. The meaning of the satire will be discussed in the analysis part of our summary.  

See also: The Nacirema Culture explained

These might also interest you:

Clifford Geertz: Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
Clifford Geertz – From the Native's Point of View

Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas



Good books to have on this topic:

     
  

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