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In 1956, the American anthropologist Horace Miner published a seminal paper describing the peculiar health beliefs and practices of a tribe known as the Nacirema.1 ‘While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits’ he wrote, ’a large part of the fruits of these labours 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.’ He went on to describe the tribe’s fundamental belief that the human body is ugly and has a natural tendency to debility and disease. The only hope of averting this lay in ritual and ceremony. Because of this, Miner explained, every Nacirema house has one or more shrines, where the focal point is a box or chest built into the wall, containing ‘charms and magic potions without which no native believes he can live.’ These have all been prescribed by medicine men who write them down in a secret language for a fee. The medicine men dwell in what they call a latipso with a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately around the temple chambers in a distinctive costume and headdress. For supplicants who enter there, …
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