Body rituals and strange practices.
A friend of mine recently introduced me to one of the more mind-blowing things I’ve read in the last few years.
It was a paper called “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”, written in the 1950’s by anthropologist Horace Milner, which describes the sanitary and medical habits of a certain North American tribal people. I’d really recommend reading the whole thing in full. It’ll take a good ten minutes but it’s so worth it.
In fact, the paper when published was so revelatory that it went on to be the most widely read article in the entire history of anthropology.
So anyway, like its title conveys, the paper talks about various body rituals of this “Nacirema” tribe, and describes the most peculiar aspects of their lives in considerable detail.
Each family’s home in this tribe, it says, consists of certain shrines in which the family members perform all their necessary bodily functions. Each such shrine has a chest in which the natives keep “charms and magical potions”, without which “no native believes he could live”.
The natives also have “an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth” and are very fussy about its care. To wit:
“The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.”
The paper then goes on to talk about certain “medicine men” in each community, and a temple called “latipso” that these medicine men reside in. Sick members are often taken to this temple to perform peculiar ceremonies on, in the hopes that it will cure them. However:
“The latipso 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 whose indoctrination 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 protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so.”
Strange things happen in latipsos:
“Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies […] involve discomfort and torture. […] At other times [certain vestal maidens] insert magic wands in the supplicant’s mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.”
And if that wasn’t enough, the Nacirema people also have another witch-doctor known as a “listener” in each community:
“This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals.”
The paper then talks a bit more about certain other practices, including “ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat”. On these practices it comments:
“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.”
“Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.”
Whew! A strange people, indeed.
But of course, by now you’ve probably guessed that there’s a gimmick, a catch to the whole piece:
The word “Nacirema” is simply “American” spelled backwards.
The paper is not about an esoteric indigenous tribe in a dense jungle somewhere, but about modern day Americans themselves - and thus by extension, pretty much the entire post-industrial-revolution, English-speaking world. It could as well have been describing any city in India.
Read it again. The mouth-rituals simply describe brushing teeth. Latipso is an near-palindrome of hospital. Medicine men are doctors, listeners are therapists. So on. The original paper goes into more detail that I’ve left out here.
The main idea behind it is to give us, as readers, a certain distance from which to observe our own society. It’s to shine an anthropological perspective on our primitive cultural habits and technologies, and to analyse who we are more objectively.
To put it another way, it’s a way of understanding how weird our life is. We’re probably not as “civilized” as we’d like to believe. If a historian read this paper a hundred years from now, they would probably think of us as utter savages in the same vein we think of other ancient cultures. Our daily customs and practices would seem as “backward” as those of other bygone societies seem to us today.
(What’s hilarious is that this paper was written seventy years ago. I can’t even begin imagine what it would read like if someone wrote it in 2022. I think I’d have a stroke.)
But I also think that it’s a great illustration of how misleading language can be, and how important context is. Notice that the paper doesn’t tell a single lie, and yet somehow paints a seemingly “false” picture about modern life to someone who’s actually a participant in it.
It makes you think about all those times you read about the customs of a long-dead civilization and had a visceral reaction. (“They do what everyday? How barbaric.”) And here we are, perhaps no better. The entire piece is sort of a troll, especially that cunning eye-wink of a final paragraph.
Mark Twain once said:
“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
Replace “white man” with pretty much any person in the English speaking western world, and what you get here is a reflection that is as unflattering as it is enlightening.