By Guest Writer Finn Johansson
Battle ritual among the Nacirema
In anthropological and ethnological research, scientists face new cultural specialties every day. Yet there are some rites, so deeply inherited by the practicing community, that ritual behavior might astonish even the most experienced researchers. Accessing those abnormalities from an empirical point of view in order to simplify cross-cultural communication is one of the main tasks of the rite-specified anthropologist. In order to do so, he often has to overcome his own fears and preserve his open-mindedness, even if every civilized muscle of his body wants to escape a situation so far away from what he is used to. Of course, to produce such a reaction of a scientist, one has to observe the extreme, the unexpected and the surprising. During the 25 years of my lifetime that I have spent working in the field, this kind of situation occurred only once. Rumors have been spread in the branch for years but they are still far away from the rituals brute exceptionality. What follows in this essay is the first immediate documentation of the most sacred ritual of the Nacirema, the Labto-of.
In order to understand the rite, the most essential shades of the practicing tribe have to be appreciated in advance. The Nacirema are a North American group whose scattered living territory is bordered by the Canadian Cree in the North, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico in the South and extends to parts of the Dutch Antilles. Little is known about their origin, but according to tribal tales, the Nacirema arose on the mystical eastern land of Poru. Their legendary first chieftain, Notginshaw, led the Nacirema on the backs of brown dragons with giant white wings that carried their descendants over the sea. Here they moved on, long silver monsters that tore the nature apart. According to oral narratives Poru was a perishing land whose history was shaped with countless bloody wars between the enslaved. It was also overpopulated by a high diversity of tribes. Epidemics spread rapidly and cost innumerable lives. Evidently this extreme environment has formed the violent culture of the Nacirema. Highly experienced in battle, it is not surprising that the Nacirema quickly overpowered the other tribes of the Americas. The native population became systematically murdered, enslaved or forced to change sides if they didn’t die in disease epidemics. Few survivors were hold in rural areas which were misused as natural prisons where they were forced to live under harsh conditions and faced a future without prospects.
During the following centuries the Nacirema didn’t abandon their violent habits and repeatedly waged war against other tribes, both in America and Poru. Eventually, they even split and fought their brothers and sisters in a terrible civil war. This led to the reunification of the remaining tribes under the lead of the legendary chief Eba-Nlocni, who finally forced a peace in their homeland, before he himself was assassinated. The Nacirema, tired of war, laid their weapons aside and focused on agriculture and preserving the peace among the tribes of North America. However, without the recurring violence, group solidarity began to dissipate and in its place, rituals began to emerge that would remind the people of their glorious sacred history, in much the way that Durkheim described among the Aboriginals of Australia. In various areas of the Nacirema’s land, ritual groups named after the most violent totems and tribes of the past were created that would re-enact traditional rivalries in a mock combat.
As a result, the Nacirema routinely fall back into old habits, at least in a symbolic fashion. In fact, a lot of what we know about the Nacirema’s history and tradition, we learned from their multiple rituals practiced until today. Horace Miner describes body rituals with violent and self-humiliating aspects that leave no trace of normal human behavior. Here I will discuss the Labto-of. This most sacred ritual recreates the violence between the various factions which once routinely emerged.
When I first got in touch with the Nacirema I was daunted by their domineering behavior towards foreigners. Also, like many other American tribes, they speak a complicated tongue which makes communication an omnipresent issue.However, despite the language barrier, I was able to obtain new insights into the particular and uncharted culture of the tribe.
After weeks I spent among them, my host finally granted me permission to observe the ominous Labto-of. It is a ritual battle that aims to honor both the countless wars the Nacirema fought in history and the era of agricultural growth. The ritual is performed by the members of two villages who face each other in a ritual battle around a sacred fruit: a stuffed raisin. Gathering the knowledge of centuries of agricultural tradition, the Nacirema have eventually been able to produce this fruit.Due to its extraordinariness it became a symbol of the tribe and the central object of the Labto-of.
An agricultural miracle: The Holy Raisin
Nacirema seldom let people who don’t engage in the combat get near the holy object, so I didn’t get the occasion to hold it myself. Definitely the raisin is not grown on the location of the Labto-of since the whole area is freed of any larger plants. It could grow under the earth, but I couldn’t spot traces of recent digging actions either. The participating individuals themselves don’t see the object before the imminent start of the fight. This fact leaves me even more astonished with the behavior of the fighters who seem emotionally attached to this raisin, even though they never seen it before. It can be explained with the natural content, which is elemental for the survival of the whole tribe. In fact, every Nacirema consumes a massive amount of the inner substance every day. When the raisin is ripe for spiritual use, the object’s surface is of a dark brown color. This holy raisins distinctive feature is that it never decays. It might still fulfill its duty after years of no use. Also it is very hard to break. Its durability during the battle shows the high resilience of this object. It can be kicked, punched and crushed, but never breaks. However, the Nacirema own a device to pierce through the surface and reach the precious inside. I can guarantee this since the holy raisin obviously has been opened before. The cut is clearly closed up with a magic cream which reacts with the raisin and becomes hard as soon as it touches it. Apparently the Nacirema open the fruit and place objects of holy value inside, which makes this raisin more sacred than others of its kind. In fact, it happens quite often that fighters try to rob the raisin in the heat of the battle. However, if they aren’t taken down, they usually don’t get very far since the place is encircled with high, angular walls on top of which several hundred tribe members gather.
The spectacle of the Labto-of
Before the main ritual begins, many smaller rites are practiced to increase the spiritual tension among the present members of the tribe. During those there are several major stakeholders playing their ritual roles.
It starts with animal battles. Each village leads an animal into the scene before the fight begins. The Nacirema sustained this tradition from Poru, where animal combats were a part of the all-embracing struggle for life. These heraldic animals celebrate the powers of the combatants and are part of the procedure that prepares the spectators for the core ritual. Roosters, eagles and amphibians of colorful appearances are trained to fight each other, causing the spectators to yell, cheer and enjoy themselves.
Afterwards the ceremony progresses with the reenacting of old marriage habits. Competing villages have a selection of its most beautiful pubescent virgins brought into the arena where the mock battle will occur and make a point of rousing the emotional intensity. The pieces of clothes, seemingly provisionally covering their extremities can be compared to the dress of African tribes. The women’s lips must be covered by animal blood since they shine in wet red and in their hands they hold instruments made of leaves, which they continuously shake in rhythmic movements when yelling at present tribe members. As Hall describes in his Dance of Life, the rhythm ties the people together and makes the spectators follow the virgins’ lead. Arrived on the place, the virgins immediately start to move in ritual salvation worshipping the earth. With rhythmic movements they illustrate fighting scenes. The virgins beat the air with their hands and feet and spectacularly catapult each other upwards imitating the arrows shot at Nacirema’s enemies. While doing so they keep on yelling and shouting powerful Nacireman terms. The men of the villages particularly enjoy this ritual presentation since they can eyeball the women of other villages and choose possible brides. For this cause they wear ritual headdresses which throw a shade on their eyes, thus no possible competitor can tell who the neighbor is glancing at. In doing so, jealousy-motivated attacks among the spectators during the ritual are effectively prevented.
Since the natural shape of head and face is considered as ugly in the culture of the Nacirema, clan-members take tremendous efforts to modify their appearance. Horace Miner already described the masochistic rituals performed by the holy-mouth men. Further people may also undergo extremely painful treatments including the indentation of the nose and dislocation of cheekbones in rituals performed by medicine men. However, this disturbing privilege is held by the more wealthy individuals. Nacirema of a lower stand commonly take advantage of the possibility to wear a headdress which modifies the head’s shape. Multiple kinds of headdresses also play significant roles in the Labto-of-ritual.
The present elders can easily be detected in the scenery. Usually nobody dares to choose a position closer to the ceremony than they do;further they wear a unique headdress that differs from the accessories worn by the participants. Unlikely elders of other tribes, sages of the Nacirema act conspicuously extroverted; however this only underlines the exceptionality of the tribal hierarchy. Their wisdom and experience is symbolized by a black ‘belt’ they wear on their heads. It covers the top and reaches both ears, where it closes in two plates. Those clinch the skull together in order to constantly slim it. The pain it inflicts can be detected by the gradual change of color of the face from white to red, depending on how active they participate in ritual dances which they perform during the ceremony. Because they are usually seriously obese and too old to take part in the main ritual, they fulfill the role of the elders which means to yell and scream until they lose their voices, while they stomp on the ground to praise the earth, the raisin grew on. The elders’ dances are the most uncontrolled and most spiritually steered part of the spectacle, yet it is not the main attraction. The Labto-of doesn’t really begin until the ritual warriors themselves rush into the arena.
Introducing the ritual warriors
The warriors participating in the Labto-of are entirely male. Traditionally, the woman holds a minor role in the war-shaped society of the Nacirema. Following the rules of the tribe, warriors are dressed in a certain way.
Hiding the disgrace of naturally shaped faces, the headdress covers up most of the head. In the front side multiple holes have been drilled in the surface to enable a small field of vision. To compensate this deficit, individuals use a cream of unknown ingredients fabricated and blessed by medicine men to paint numerous pairs of eyes on their cheeks. The Nacirema believe that this cream unleashes the furious power inherited in each of them and increases their speed and force on the battlefield. Other allowed gadgets are hidden in the mouth.They are object of a strange substance that seems to have some blurry fluid inside. Warriors bite and suck on these in order to access the substance which seems to provide them extra power. Because of the violence of the fights, the warriors affix these objects on their headdress so that they won’t swallow them and choke on them during battle.
The headdress also protects the warrior from heavy injuries, since opponents who jump on the heads of laying warriors might crack it open otherwise. Not only the senses available during combat are limited, also the combatant’s agility is restricted by the ritual armor. Its colorful decoration and drawings of the particular totem indicate which village the warrior represents. Resembling old agricultural devices pushed into the ground, the armor shapes the body like an upside-down shovel, going wide at the necks level and sitting tight on the ankles, thus the ability to accelerate is not heavily influenced.
The only weapon allowed is the human body.This precaution decreases the death rate, but makes the scenery appear even more barbaric from an external perspective. Due to the heavy armor, the weight of each player is increased. Individuals are dragged down before multiple opponents crush it with their weight until it stops moving. To be able to overwhelm an opponent in this dominating way, means earning the respect and the acknowledgement from the observing elders and tribe other members.
Every competing army has one soldier, the chief, who is higher in rank than the others. He orders his troops, and is the strategic mind of the faction.
Other than most of his soldiers, his armor isn’t very strong. His skin color is typically brighter than the others’ which appears to be a relic from the times of slavery. Also his physics is not comparable to the bodies of his soldiers.When the opponents reach him, he is beaten down immediately. He is not a very powerful warrior and seldom participates in aggressive actions himself. Furthermore, combined with the wisdom of the elders, the chief is leading the tribe’s troops. He is the face and mind of the village that even fighters of other villages recognize and fear. His strategic abilities are the key to success of the army, which also makes him the main target of the enemy’s attack.
The uniqueness of the chief has its reason within his connection to the holy raisin. Even compared to the other warriors, he has a way stronger bond to the holy object. Because of the weak outer appearance compared to his soldiers, it is to assume that chiefs don’t get in their position by being exceptional powerful fighters. Rather a patriarchal structure is possible. Some of the chiefs of the villages are related to each other and became chiefs as their fathers before them. So the spiritual ability to understand the raisin could be transferred by blood.
Before they are assigned to be the next chief of the local population, future leaders have to go through a year-long ritual training with numerous specific rituals. Generally they are taught by mentors who have been chiefs before them. Over years, the future leaders study the secrets of the raisin and get prepared for battle with countless simulations.Since the whole community has faith in his chief’s vocation, he carries a huge responsibility and has a high impact on the tribe’s reputation. The predominant method to earn prestige for the village is a good performance during the main ritual of the Labto-of – the fight over the holy raisin.
Escalation of violence in the ritual battle
Before the warriors face off against each other, there is a series of rituals to ensure that the competing armiesare one in mind and movement. At the beginning of each battle, a small group ceremony is performed. Each village’s warriors lean their headdresses on each otherin order to let the ancient spirit connect, clear their minds and connect their thoughts. The chief then speaks a last prayer that is only for the ears of his subordinates. During this he reveals secrets about the ritualraisin which will be fought over during the spectacle itself.After this last moment of peace, he orders them to prepare for battle in a secret language. The stance of the beginning is to stretch the legs, bow forward and touch the holy earth. The warriors then throw their heads back, bare their teeth, yell and send killing glances at the opponentsin order to threaten each other. The animalistic behavior escalates when the signal to fight appears.
As soon as the high tone occurs, both armies run together with their heads and the battle begins. The warriors, who are not thrown down by the first clash, immediately start to beat each other with bare hands; brutally wrestle each other to the ground before they try to crush their opponent. It appears as if there are no rules. It is obvious that the Nacirema unleash the violent potential of this tribe that isdeeply inherited in every individual. Old friends become enemies. From an anthropologist’s point of view, I have to say that the happenings during this ritual are of unique brutality. The heat of the battle is so overwhelming that the tribe members seem to lose control over their bodies and smash their opponent without reservation. Especially fighters with lank body compositions are in the disadvantage since they can easily be pushed down and quickly overwhelmed by the opponent before they disappear in the chaos. It’s a fierce combat, which does harm to most of the fighters. Some get their bones broken, hurt their muscles and tendons which make them incapable of fighting further. Even the experienced medicine men are not able to treatsome heavy injuries. Hence it occurs that members of the tribe suffer critical blows which leave no chance of saving their life and cause them to die during, or shortly after the old ritual ceremony.
The actual ritual can be seen as a violent dance of giving and taking, of holding tight and letting go. The sacred raisin, the central object of the rite, is shepherded in one moment and might be thrown up in the air in the next. Emotions play an eminent role in this ritual. The fighters show self-abandonment as they take care of each other during the battle, furious rage and dominance to the enemy and religious love to the sacred nut. However, the latter stays the strongest emotion experienced during the Labto-of. Even though 3, 4 or 5 enemies are about to overwhelm the holder, the fanaticism causes the warrior to disregard his own safety and willingly take serious injuries as long as the holy object stays safe.
Then, all of a sudden, a second signal appears and everything is over as quickly and surprising as it began. The warriors wake up from their ritual rage and immediately get their self-discipline back and might even help each other back on their feet. The whole ritual consists of countless of these rounds, which seem to represent the multiple wars the Nacirema fought in history. During the pauses eventual casualties are taken away and replaced from the reserves.
The combatants’ behavior during the breaks appears paradoxically to the immense brutality which reigns during the battle rounds. Before and after the battle, everybody on the field is friends and warriors of different villages reach out to touch the hands of other fighters and bump their bodies against each other as gestures of mutual respect and acknowledgement. They also knock their headdress together to keep up the spiritual unity under the fortunate era symbolized by the sacred raisin.
Hierarchy and command are also important to the battle, recreating many of the positions remembered from Poru. In the middle of the battle one of the fighters symbolically gives birth to the raisin and pushes it back between his legs, the chief then decides who is allowed to hold the raisin next. This decision process usually passes as it follows: The chief commands his army from behind who fights off the attackers at a signal. When his troops are getting in the disadvantage, he has to make use of his spiritual capabilities to save the raisin. He then stands still, lifts the raisin close to his chest and enters a second-long ritual trance state to build a kind of aspiritual connection to the raisin. While the chief is meditating, his warriors do everything to break through the enemy lines, where they engage in one-on-one-combat with the opponent. If they manage to win over their enemy they have proven worthy to hold the fruit. In the majority of cases the most successful warriors, who manage to defeat their opponents the fastest, are chosen to get hold of the raisin. If none of the single-combatants performs in this way, the chief may also hand the raisin to one of his defenders nearby. Once the raisin leaves the chief, it may never touch the ground. As soon as it does so, the blessed raisin’s spirituality gets disturbed and even the precious content can’t avert that the fighters immediately lose interest in the fruit.
Farmer’s references, little-earners and cultural understanding
If one of the fighters leaves with the raisin to one side of the set by coincidence, the spiritual power of the raisin is unleashed and transferred to the holder. He has to perform ritual dances which resemble those performed by the elders off the battle area. They bump on their chest and yell while they jump up and down. To calm him down, others might again bounce their headdress against each other. After the warrior, who left the field, has finished his dance, the re-enacting of farmers traditionally tilling their fields follows, before the usual battle-rounds start over: The raisin is pushed into the ground and hold by one warrior, before the most fameless fighter, the kicker, enters the scene and fulfills his single duty. He steps against the raisin and shoots it as far as any possible, where the opponents pick it up and the next round begins.
After hours of fighting, the Labto-of comes to an end and spectators as well as warriors leave the place together in harmony. The only purpose of the place is to serve as an arena for the weekly battles. In the meantime, the place is deserted. Ritual-interested foreigners occasionally show interest in the Nacirema’s tradition of the Labto-of. Most likely the happenings during the ritual will always stay a mystery for foreigners and they can only assume about the practiced rites – like I did in this essay. In fact, just Nacirema themselves seem to be capable of understanding the whole ceremony as it is. Then again, Nacirema don’t share the fascination for a strange ritual performed by people from Poru during which 22 suspender-wearing men hunt for one ball and fake injuries.
Edward T. Hall: The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. 1983
Horace Miner: Body Ritual among the Nacirema. In: American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 58, Nr. 3, Blackwell Publishing, 1956.
Horace Miner: Body Ritual among the Nacirema. In: American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 58, Nr. 3, Blackwell Publishing, 1956.
Nacireman is a dialect of an ancient language that was spoken in Poru. Only medicine men and the tribe’s sages are still capable of communicating in the original language. Due to its derivation, Nacireman is unrelated to any other language spoken in the Americas and consists of aligned sequences of sounds which can arduously be imitated by foreign tongues. Let me give an example to explain this further: The most crucial particle of the Nacirema’s language is only pronounced properly when strongly biting on the tongue, filling the mouth with air and slowly blowing it out between the teeth before opening up completely. While doing so, the upper lip has to be lifted to expose the incisors. This sound is almost silent, but if the biting-sequence is omitted, the phrase is difficult for native speakers to understand and it could easily be taken as an insult. Due to the significance of this particle concerning most coherent Nacireman sentences, the process of learning this language is not just challenging in terms of grammar rules, like any other language, but it is also painful to practice.
 Hall, E.T.: The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. 1983
Horace Miner: Body Ritual among the Nacirema. In: American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 58, Nr. 3, Blackwell Publishing, 1956.
Traditionally, the woman holds a minor role in the war-shaped society of the Nacirema. In fact, in history there was just one occasion when women successfully gained power over the male members. It was when the abolition of ‘Numbwater’ was executed. It is a natural, but toxic drug, produced with a centuries-old recipe from Poru. Frequent consumption causes the body and mind to decay. The substance attacks the consumer’s brain and can provoke serious neurological damage. Addicts become emotionally and intellectually ‘numb’, escalating until insanity. Very frequently, Nacirema men become incapable of performing their daily body rituals. Since Nacirema women are generally more obedient to these everyday rituals, they intervened and reached the temporary abolition of ‘Numbwater’ by the tribe leaders.
Finn Johansson is a student at Leuphana University in Lueneburg, Germany.
Originally Posted at Ethnography.com, October, 2015.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.