Magical Mass Migrations of the Nacerima.
by Ariel O'Neil
Late in the last century, during the winter of 1999, my husband and I were fortunate enough to have received a grant to study certain cultural aspects of the Nacerima. We wasted no time in getting to the sleepy village of Cruzin Santa, which is situated in an idyllic niche by the Pacific Ocean. Here, in a small population environment, we hoped to gain the confidence of local informants regarding the legendary mass migrations of the Nacerima.
The Nacerima have been shown by other researchers to be a people consumed by the need to control many otherwise uncontrollable facets of their lives by the use of ritual and magic. Horace Miner’s “Body Rituals of the Nacerima” (1956) brought to light the depth and breadth of this need for ritual and magic in his exemplary study of the obsessive body rites observed by the Nacerima. As will be demonstrated here, another area of Nacerima culture is equally permeated with ritualistic traditions: the highly ritualized, cyclic, yet spontaneous migrations of thousands of Nacerima during a rite known to them as “Gnivom,” (pronounced nhe-voom’). Curiously, only a portion of the population participates in any one ritual, and the selection seems random. Virtually all of the population belongs to one or the other of the two distinct religious groups that engage in this rite, each paying tribute to a different domestic deity. It should be noted that the elders who follow Naol Knab are sometimes spared this grueling ritual, and are freed from paying tributes if the temple priests determine that their life-long contributions have been sufficient. No such dispensation is available to the followers of Drol-D’nal, who often demands larger tributes each year.
The followers of Naol Knab seem to migrate less often, and there is a nuance of superiority in their attitude towards the followers of Drol-D’nal. There do seem to be some differences in the financial status of the two groups, with the Noal Knabs being more affluent, and required to make larger gifts, on the whole, than the Drol-D’nals. Amazingly, almost all of these migrations occur simultaneously, and within a small window of time, roughly the first forty-eight hours of each month. This window coincides with the timing of a mandatory gift-giving ritual called Tner by the followers of Drol-D’nal and Egagtrom by the followers of Naol Knab. The compulsory gifts are given to the respective secretive sect of holy people through the Reirracliam, a special caste of priest who is charged with blessing (for another small gift) each offering and delivering it to the respective temple’s holy people. It is believed that, once received by the temple priest/priestess, these gifts are then buried under large volumes of dried wood pulp. That ceremony is usually performed by highly trained women-initiates known as Yraterces (pronounced ee-rot’-er-sees). Our informants tell us that this practice protects the now-sanctified gifts from being usurped by evil spirits, and protects the believer from bad luck/evil while in their homes. There are cultural myths that tell of terrible creatures dressed all in black, with distinctive ‘crooked noses,’ that come to the homes of followers who fail to pay the required sum within the ritual interval. These creatures are purported to say frightening things to the home-dwellers, threatening everything from physical harm to the financial ruin of those who do not comply with the rituals. We were unable to find anyone who had actually seen one of these creatures, although many said that they knew of someone who had. In the face of this lack of direct evidence to the contrary, we are forced to label this as manipulative propaganda, probably invented and fostered by the temple priests to insure compliance with the rituals.
During our stay in Cruzin Santa, we actually participated in just such a ritual. Our hosts were followers of Drol-D’nal, and we observed and participated in the rituals appropriate to that religion. It seems that these migrations begin at random, in a single household, and the effect ripples throughout the entire community. In the dwelling occupied by our hosts, (a married couple), it began when the highest-ranking female in the household announced the initiation of the ritual. She did this by beginning, just after paying the required monthly tribute, to complain about the conditions in the current residence. While none of our informants could tell us how this act was transmitted to women in other dwellings, it is a fact that within a matter of hours, hundreds of women had begun the ritual in their homes, as well. The woman’s complaints become more vocal and begin to stress the highest-ranking male in the household, to whom the complaints are directed. Somewhere near the end of the month, the female announces to the male (who is now thoroughly miserable from the harangue) that they must complete the Gnivom at the next ritual cycle. The male is usually dismayed at this announcement, for his is the most difficult and physical sacrifice required during the ritual. The male is sent to negotiate for the magically imbued materials in which the female will wrap all of their belongings, which are then placed in magical containers made of thick slabs of dried wood shavings mixed with glue. These magical materials and containers are believed to prevent the breakage and/or loss of one’s possessions, and can only be obtained by making a pilgrimage to the place where the magician and his/her apprentices hold court, and after paying a handsome tribute to the magician. These places are usually small, and dimly lit, and are often found in out-of-the-way locations. The sanctified wagons in which the magically protected household goods will be transported to the new dwelling are also kept here. Only these wagons may be used for the Gnivom, for fear of angering the deity. The wagons are in great demand, and the ritual supplication to obtain the use of one can begin days or even weeks before the Gnivom migration. It seems that there is also an issue of status among the males concerning the size, and type of magic bestowed on the wagon: the larger the wagon the more status the male enjoys. Wagons that have magical platforms to levitate the containers of household materials into the interior of the wagon are in the most demand and bestow the greatest status on the male. Correspondingly, larger tributes are demanded by the magicians for those wagons. The blessed and magically protected wagons are distinctively marked to identify the magician whose magic they contain. Often these markings consist of larger-than-life panoramas painted in day-glow orange or other bright colors designed to scare away all manner of evil.
While our male host was occupied with the quest for the proper materials, containers and conveyance to protect the household goods during the ritual, the female assumed the task of locating an appropriate dwelling for the completion of the Gnivom. This is not an easy task. The female must go to each dwelling where the ritual is in progress and supplicate the priests of Drol-D’nal to ascertain whether she has found the place where her family is ordained to go. When the proper location for the completion of the ritual is finally found, the woman must give another, even larger, gift to the representative of Drol-D’nal. When all of the ritual participants have located the dwelling ordained for them, it is possible for the migration to begin. The women in our host’s household worked at a feverish pace to protect each of the family’s possessions by wrapping them in the magically imbued materials and packing them into the ritual containers. When that task was complete, the males placed the containers in the magically protected wagons for transport. This part of the ritual is complicated, and seemed to us that the women had an obligation to assure that each container was as heavily loaded as possible. There also seems to be a special effort made by the women to avoid balanced loads in the containers. This made the men’s physical sacrifices greater, and enhanced their status within the community. The architectural features commonly designed into the dwellings so as to increase the difficulty of the Gnivom include narrow, twisting flights of stairs, small doorways, and great distances from the entrance to the area where the wagons are loaded. Of course, all of these features increase the men’s status. Sometimes referred to as a ‘sweat offering,’ the physical suffering of the males is a vital part of the ritual. We noted several sacred words used by the males during this process, presumably to attract the deity’s attention to their sacrifice. Clearly, these words were not meant to be heard by the uninitiated, as the women scolded the men for carelessly chanting while in our presence. As the males loaded the sacred wagons, the women focused on attaining a trance state. Usually this was fully accomplished by the time the wagons had been fully loaded and moved to the new residence. The rituals for unloading and placement of household belongings in the new dwelling was essentially performed in reverse of the loading rites except that the women’s trance states deepened and the men’s sweat offerings and chanting increased.
For the most part, the men fasted during the ritual, breaking the fast only after the migration portion of the Gnivom ritual was completed. There were special foods and beverages reserved for the completion of this ritual: a round slab of liquid-soaked wheat covered with fermented bovine products and decorated with vegetables and ground meats in pig’s intestines, and then baked; which one ‘washed down’ with the liquid byproducts of soured grains. This meal is traditionally served while sitting on the floor of the new dwelling, and using the magical containers as a tabletop. This transfers the magic of the container to the ritual meal, blessing and protecting each of the participants. Each aspect of the ritual is held inviolable, and to fail to observe any one of them would cause the ritual to be a failure—a thought too terrible for the average Nacerima even to contemplate.
In summation, the Nacerima experience the need to perform the Gnivom at random times during their lives. While we heard myths of rare instances in which single (unmarried) males also experience the call to Gnivom, this compulsion seems to occur primarily in post-pubescent females. At the onset of the holy experience, the women acknowledge a growing dissatisfaction with the dwelling. This vague urge is interpreted as a spirit/demon entering their body for reasons known only to the deity. The women know from their enculturation that they must complete a Gnivom to exorcise the demon and placate the household deity. The men take their cues from the women’s behavior. They recognize the demons and know that they must help with the exorcism by obtaining the prescribed magical objects required and performing the sweat offering ritual/chanting. Each of these actions is accompanied by a requirement to give a substantial gift to the deity, priests/priestesses, and/or magicians. The Nacerima are secure in their knowledge that these rituals will bring harmony and happiness in their homes. No Nacerima would even consider failing to observe the rituals. The belief in the power of these rituals is so ingrained in the Nacerima culture that the civil laws include statutes to support the homage required, especially the monthly gifts, on which the temples of Drol-D’nal and Noal Knab subsist.
Horace Miner’s study of body rituals only scratched the surface of the child-like need for ritual and magic among the Nacerima.
Miner, Horace "Body Ritual Among the Nacerima", in Annual Editions: Anthropology 95/96, pp192.