Nacirema culture developed in a rich narural environment. Much of the people's time is devoted to making money. A large part of their money and considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body. The appearance and health of the human body looms as a major concern in the beliefs of the people.
The basic belief appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is toward old age and disease. Imprisioned in such a body, a person's only hope is to delay these characteristics through the use of the powerful unfluences of the ritual and ceremony. Every house-hold has one of more shrines in their house devoted to this purpose. In fact, the richness of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it posseses.
The focal point of the shrine is a box of chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept many charms and magical potions without which no natives believe they could live. These preperations are gotton from a variety of specialized persons. The most powerful of these are the medicine man, whose help must be rewarded with large gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curing potions for 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 herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm. The charm is not gotten rid of after it has served its purpose, but, is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are each for certain ills and the real or imagined diseases of the people are many, the charmbox is usually full or overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that poeple forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again.
Beneath the charmbox is a small fountain. Each day every member of the family individually enters the shrine room, bows their head before the charmbox, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of cleansing. The holy waters are gotten from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.
Another magical person, just below the medicine men in prestige is a specialist whos function is best translated "holy-mouth-man". The Nacirema have an almost deathly horror of and fascination with the mouth; the condition of which is believed to have a supernatual influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them.
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so concerned about the care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes a stranger as revolting. It was reported to this author that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth along with certain magical powders. Then the person begins moving the bundle in a highly formal series of hand movements.
In addition to the private mouth rites, the people seek out the holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of tools consisting of a bariety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The holy-mouth-man opens the clients mouth and, useing the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may habe created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into secions of these holes. In the client's view, the purpose of these activities is to stop decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is shown by the fact that their teeth continue to decay or even fall out.
It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be a careful look into the personality of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of the holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of pleasure in giving pain is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges. Most of the population then seems to show definite enjoyment in receiving pain. It was to these that one observer 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 cutting the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women's rites are performed only four times durring each lunar month, but what they lach in frequency is made of in barbarity. As part of this ceremony women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour.
The medicine men have a large temple, or latipsoh, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies are required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. The latipsoh ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whos education is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because "that is where you go to die." Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the lengthy ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the person or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the door keepers.
Few clients in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-man, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision the special maidens awake their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing a cleansing ritual. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh.
Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certain 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.
Miner, Horace (1956). "Body Ritual among the Nacirema." The American Anthropologist, 58:503-507.