Nacirema: Rituals and Beliefs

Nacirema: Rituals and Beliefs

Even among scientists and researchers, there are people with a good sense of humor, but the purpose of such falsifications is not always to make the audience laugh. Sometimes such jokes make scientists to step forward and to observe the problem in question from a different angle. In 1956, Horace Miner published an anthropology work describing the Naсirema tribe that lived in North America. Miner represented Nacirema as a group of people living in the territory between the Canada and Mexico, as well in the Caribbean region. In fact, Miner wrote a satirical article that ridiculed the Americans. The Miner article became a popular work, republished in many introductory textbooks and used as an example of a process analysis. The article received many requests for reprinting in the American scientific literature and it became a cause of the public discussion.

Nacirema is a term used actually in the anthropology and sociology regarding aspects of the citizens’ conduct of the United States of America. This neologism was created to deliberate a sense of self-elimination so that American scientists can look at American culture from a different point of view. It is not known whether Americans were funny after they found out that it was a satire of their daily life because if you read the word Nacirema from left to right, you get “American”.

In his article, Miner described their strange rituals in a very credible and colorful way. For example, Aborigines scraped and tore the skin of their faces with sharp objects, or put pig’s bristles with magic powders into in their mouths and rotated them to clean the teeth and tongues. Some of the popular aspects of the Nacirema culture include too much attention to visiting doctors, to taking care of the individual appearance, to exalting the mouth ritual and worshiping their cultural hero, known as Notgnihsaw (Washington in the reverse). These ritual practices also prescribe how a person should behave in the presence of sacred things. These sacred aspects are the rituals that Nacirema enjoins to observe throughout the life. Each culture has its own unique behavior patterns that seem strange to representatives of other cultural entities. The culture of Nacirema, invented and described by Horace Miner, serves a good example for it. His attention was focused on intricate bodily rituals of Nacirema that are very strange and exotic in the opinion of the Western man.

The conviction that the human body is ugly and initially prone to illness and senility is the main core of the whole system of Nacirema beliefs. A person doomed to have such a body can only hope for the operation of specific rituals and ceremonies. In each house must be several cult objects, especially for this purpose. The most important of them is a box, built into the wall of Nacirema huts. In this box are found amulets and various magical drugs, without which no member of the tribe can live. Drugs and amulets, as a rule, are made by several shamans, each of them specializes in specific fields. The most powerful of them are considered healers, and their help should always be generously rewarded. However, healers do not give medical potions to their patients, but only determine their composition and record it in some secret and ancient language. These words are understandable only to sorcerers and pickers of medicinal herbs and roots, who can prepare required potions.

Nacirema people have an almost pathological horror and awe of their mouth, the state of which, in their opinion, has a supernatural effect in all social relations. The people of Nacirema believe that if they do not perform a certain ritual, their teeth will fall out, the gums will begin to bleed, the jaws will begin to gape, and, as a result, all friends and lovers will disappear. Aborigines also believe in the existence of a direct connection between oral and moral qualities. For example, in order to strengthen the moral qualities of their children, they force them to perform ritual mouth rinses. As Miner points out, most of the day is spent on frenzied rituals. They are convinced that their bodies are ugly, therefore they perform rituals at home sanctuaries to bring themselves into a divine form. In each altar, there is a trunk with amulets and a small fountain to which members of a tribal family bow their heads before a ritual bath. Four times in the lunar month, women perform special rituals, during which they almost bake their heads in small ovens for almost an hour. Rituals are performed in a sacred bathroom in front of a sink with a first aid kit because they are obsessed with brushing their teeth. And the women of the 1950s used small hair dryers like an oven to make their hair styling once a week. Daily rituals, strictly observed by every member, includes specific manipulations with the oral cavity. However, despite the fact that these people are so anxious about their bodies, this ritual seems simply ungracious for the uninitiated people. A ritual food competition, adopted in the tribe, is nothing else than a competition on eating hot dogs in the modern America. Miner also described the ritual contest of this tribe, consisting in the destruction of ceremonial loaves. In the title of this ritual, there are two short words – “god” and “f…” Severely ill Nacirema should be sent to the sanctuary called latipsoh. If members of the tribe want to enter some of these sanctuaries, they should bring rich offerings. There are many more amazing rituals that make it possible to turn a fat person into a bad person and vice versa.

In fact, Miner gives much more details. He wanted to convey that, while we think of ourselves as a highly developed civilization, our rituals may seem rather primitive to someone reading an anthropological report about us. Almost any habitual action will seem strange if it is taken out of context and not considered as an element of the specific way of life of this people. The hygienic rituals of the Western people are no less strange than the custom that is spread on some Pacific islands, to knock out front teeth for the beauty purposes, or the customs of South African tribes whose representatives stick out their lips with special plates because they believe that this makes them more attractive. It is impossible to understand such actions and beliefs outside of the culture to which they belong. Every culture should be studied on the basis of its own meanings and values – this is the key rule of sociology. The sociologist must aspire to the greatest extent to avoid ethnocentrism, that is, attempts to evaluate a different culture, comparing it with his own. Since human cultures are very different from one another, it is not surprising that representatives of one culture often find extremely unsympathetic representations and behaviors adopted in another culture. Sociologists must be able to remove the blinkers of their culture if they want to see the life of other people in a true light. They must study other cultures without any prejudice, especially those that are strangely different.