All posts by c.flessen

I'm sort of a wanderer and jack-of-all-trades. Originally from the Philippines, I now live in Norway with my husband, daughter and a rambunctious little cairn terrier.

Nacirema culture

Just came across an article from, and feel I simply must share it. It’s very interesting, and absolutely entertaining. It reminded me of something I learned in my cultural anthropology class during my undergraduate years: that if we look at our own culture from an outsider’s perspective, it’s quite easy to notice that it is just as strange and alien as any other culture. Years later, I encountered something similar from an e-mail forwarded to me by a colleague – imagine how archaeologists excavating in the future (say, 1000 years from now) would interpret the humble toilet, esp. the john… 😀

Body Ritual Among the Nacirema by Horace Miner

[from; original text: American Anthropologist 58(1956):503-507,]

The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock. In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

Professor Linton first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east….

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.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative 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 disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

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.

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

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 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.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation and prodding of the medicine men.

Few supplicants 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-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they 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.

There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witchdoctor 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 counter-magic of the witchdoctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth.

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

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. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski when he wrote:

“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.”

* If you haven’t figured it out yet, the author was talking about American culture – or any present-day culture, for that matter. His reference to the toothbrush and toothpaste is a giveaway


No offense intended… just something I hope you all will find entertaining 🙂

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5- year phase-in plan that would become known as “Euro-English”.

In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of “k”. This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the second year when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”. This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent “e” in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the 4th yer people wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”.

During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.

If zis mad you smil, pleas pas on to oza pepl.


…just want to announce the upload of new pictures in my photos webpage. The pics are in the album entitled Munkholmen. Summer finally arrived here in Norway last week, so the hubby decided to take me on a trip to Munkholmen. The place is actually a small island north of Trondheim, about 15 minutes or less by boat into Trondheimfjord. Nowadays Munkholmen is very popular as a spot for sunbathing and swimming, but it is also a place that is steeped in history.

A short historical overview

The earliest history of Munkholmen dates back to the 10-11th centuries, during the time of Olav Tryggvason, the founder of Trondheim. It was said that he had the cut-off heads of his opponent, Håkon Jarl, and the latter’s servant, Kark, impaled on spears and displayed on the shores of the island as a warning to hostile visitors.

Later, in the 12th century, the Benedictine monks came and established a monastery on the island. It is at this time that the island got the name Munkholmen, from munk meaning “monk” and holm meaning “island” (I’m not sure about this island bit, so feel free to correct me). The island at present also lends its name to a brand of non-alcoholic beer, after the beer the monks brewed themselves. The monks’ beer was rumoured to have been alcohol-free and thus, Munkholmen at some point in time has been claimed as the place where non-alcoholic beer was invented… However, such claims are unsubstantiated, and (as our museum guide believes) are probably not true. In fact, a Trondheim archbishop on one occasion was forced to order the monks to “keep the noise down”, in response to complaints from the townsfolk! If their party noises got that loud, then they were probably brewing normal strength beer, if not something stronger /;^)

The 16th century saw the rise of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the subsequent decline of Munkholmen as the Benedictine monks eventually left following the arrival of the Reformation movement in Norway. It was not until the middle of the 17th century that a revival of interest in Munkholmen took hold. This time it was the king of Denmark* who saw the island’s potential and commissioned a plan to build a fort there before the war in 1658. When the fort was finally finished in 1661, it was seen as a suitable place to hold convicts. The cylindrical tower, in particular, was chosen for this purpose. Here the convicts’ cells were distributed among three levels, according to the gravity of their crime and their socio-economic/political status. The lowest level, the basement, was allotted for the worst criminals; conditions here are abysmal—very cold, very damp, and very dark. The ground level was given to the more common criminals, while the topmost level (2nd floor) was reserved for the rich and elite convicts. Here, the conditions are a stark contrast to those at the bottom level—each convict had a relatively spacious cell, each with a window looking out to a picturesque view of the fjord. Perhaps the most famous inmate in the Munkholmen prison was Peder Schumacher Griffenfeld, the former Chancellor of the Realm and favourite of King Frederik III who was accused of spying for Sweden. Griffenfeld spent 18 years in the prison, and is said to be the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s “The Prisoner of Munkholmen” and possibly “Les Miserables” as well.** Anyway, the prison closed around 1739 and later, the fort itself in 1893.

When World War II broke out, Munkholmen once again found its use. Situated just off the shores of Trondheim, the Germans who occupied Norway in 1940 deemed the island suitable for defending the mainland—particularly the [submarine] shipyard Dora, located further within the harbour. The prison tower was stripped of its wooden roof and two anti-aircraft canons were mounted on the topmost floor. Between the two canons was created a concrete observation capsule; from here alerts were relayed onto at least two other canons situated on the mainland. Nothing remains of these canons today, except for the concrete foundations upon which they were mounted.

At present Munkholmen is no longer used for military purposes, but as a recreational spot. Besides being popular for bathing during the summer, the fort ruins is now home to a restaurant, an amateur theatre, as well as a site museum. Sadly though, no traces of the monks after whom the island has been named remains today.


* also of Norway, as the two kingdoms were in an unequal union for more than 400 years until 1814.

** Dag-Ivar Rognerød

17.mai– Nasjonaldagen

…just a snapshot I took of two children happily at play while waiting for the parade last 17 May. I don’t know them actually, but I thought they were a perfect illustration of what 17 May is all about here in Norway.

The 27th of May has always been associated with two things here—children and bunads. This is the time of year that Norwegians (well… the women mostly) go out in their colourful national costumes, the bunad, and watch the parades before going to visit friends and/or relatives. It is actually the Norwegian National Day—the day the Norwegian constitution was established in 1816 after the country became independent of Denmark.

But unlike in most countries where national days are celebrated with fireworks and military parades, here in Norway it is the children who take centre-stage. Indeed, the days’ highlight is the so-called barnetoget, or children’s parade, where almost all the children from different schools participate. Parents actually take pains to wake up early just to bring their children to the parade assembly point, and then themselves patiently stand in line at the town centre, waiting for the children to come by and wave their flags with a cheerful “Hurrah!” (Sorry, no pictures of the children’s parade this year—didn’t manage to wake up early enough—perhaps next year…)

At first this had seemed strange to me, having come from a country where independence day is celebrated mainly by a military parade at the capital…but come to think of it, it makes sense. A nation’s future is all dependent on its children. National days should thus be dedicated to them, before anything else.