• “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”

    My post on Saturday about Axel Leijonhufvud’s paper reminded a reader (OK, it was my mom) of the 1956 paper in American Anthropologist titled “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” by Horace Mitchell Miner.

    Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

    More here.


    • “The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge[7] but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

      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. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.”

      So this pretty much parallels the American healthcare system, no? Latipso = hospital, Medicine men = doctors, Vestal maidens = nurses. Gifts = co-pays. Hard beds and pain, well some things never change.

      The only thing we need to examine now is whether the Nacirema have better medical outcomes than we do in the U.S.