CHICAGO, ILLINOIS. Read before the Chicago Academy of Medicine, September 29, 1921.
To speak of circumcision folklore may seem to imply an irreverent view of a practice which has acquired great theologic, ethnic and prophylactic significance. Although popularly identified with the Jewish ritual the procedure obtains among Moslem and even Christian sects, noticeably the Abyssinian. It is found among many primitive races like those at the culture level of New Guinea and Australia. The Moslem and Abyssinian sects seemingly derived the practice from the Jewish, but their procedure has much folklore about it of older date than the Hebrew. Even in the paleolithic age races existed which did not circumcise. That race of high art culture, the Magdalenian, as shown by the sculptures on the walls of caves where they dwelt, did not practice circumcision.
The Jewish race did not originate circumcision. They were reproached by the Egyptians, whose priests and kings were circumcised, as being uncircumcised. In Joshua 5:9, all Israel is described as being circumcised at Gilgal on the hill of the foreskins, “to remove the reproach of the Egyptians.” In Moses' time circumcision was not practiced and was learned from the Midianites. Jehovah seeks the life of Moses' son, but spares him when Zipporah (Moses' Midianite wife) takes a "sharp stone," cuts off her son's foreskin and touches Moses' genitals with it. The influence of the stone age shown in “sharp stone” appears in later circumcision rituals.
The Exodus account hardly agrees with the Medrash tradition that Moses was born circumcised. To be born circumcised was evidence of great sanctity according to the Medrash. There were two Hebrew schools who differed as to the treatment of cases where children were born circumcised. The Beth Shammai (school of Shammai) maintains that if a child be born circumcised it is still necessary to draw from him the drop of covenant blood. The Beth Hillel (school of Hillel) maintains that this is not necessary.
The act of Zipporah bears out the opinion of many anthropologists that circumcision was a substitute for an original phallic sacrifice. Zipporah's deed was clearly a vicarious sacrifice or atonement such as occurs in certain circumcision rituals where offerings of foreskins are made. Among these rituals the Fijian offers to the ancestral spirits the foreskin of lads circumcised at initiation, for the recovery of a sick relative. The bloody foreskins stuck into a cleft reed are offered to the chief ancestral spirit by the chief priest. The evolution of circumcision according to certain anthropologists is as follows: Among many races the system of cutting off the phallus of their enemies has prevailed. Among the Egyptians this mutilation was only done in the cases of those uncircumcised. The phallus cut off must be clean, i.e., fit to be offered. Just as the life of the firstborn was sometimes offered to secure the life of those born later, so the phallus was offered. Finally circumcision took the place of removal of the entire penis. These procedures were to secure fertility. Modification of phallus excision was gelding. In some cases as in Arabia an incision was made on the upper side of the penis extending the whole length of the organ. A later substitute was probably the “Miko” of the Australians which consists of a sub-incision of the penis so that the penile urethra is laid open from the meatus back to the junction with the scrotum. Finally removal of the prepuce was all that was required.
The rite retained somewhat of its sacrificial character even after it had been transferred to infancy. “In circumcision,” remarks Ernest Crawley, “there is to be traced the idea that by removing a part of the organism, dangerous and in danger as it is, these dangers are neutralized. This passes later into the notion that its impurity is removed and the sexual act is rendered less gross.” Circumcision among certain African peoples, according to A. B. Ellis, is a sacrifice of part of the organ which a god requires to secure the wellbeing of the rest of the body. In certain peoples as Ploss remarks, circumcision is regarded as a "cleansing” or purification. From this sacrificial idea circumcision arose among the Arabs long ere the time of Mohammed. It is not mentioned in the Koran. It is found among many African tribes where it had a sacrificial origin and cannot be traced to a Moslem origin. Among the Aztecs a similar sacrificial mutilation was practiced. The
rite is common on the Amazon among the Amerinds. In Abyssinia certain tribes make an exchange of children who come back as circumcised after a supposed death. This “cleansing” dominates critical periods like birth, early childhood, puberty, etc. These periods of stress are recognized more among primitive races than among civilized by formal ceremonies “religious” in intent. They are, therefore, sometimes connected with circumcision rites through which lads must pass before they attain the status of adults.”
Certain New Guinea races require every male of the tribe to be circumcised before he ranks as a man. The tribal initiation of which circumcision is the central feature is regarded as a process of being swallowed by a mythical monster whose voice is the humming of the bull-roarer. This belief is impressed on women, children and uninitiated persons. It is enacted in a dramatic form of initiation at which no woman or uniniated person may be present. A hut one hundred feet long is erected either in the village or in a lonely forest. This is modelled in the shape of the mythical monster. The end representing the head is high. The other end tapers away. A betel palm with its roots stands for the backbone. Its clustering fibres for the hair of the monster. The butt end of the building is adorned with goggle eyes and gaping mouth.
When, after a tearful parting from their mothers or women folk, who believe or pretend to believe in the monster that swallows up their dear ones, the awe-struck novices are brought face to face with this imposing structure, the monster emits a sullen growl (humming of bull roarers swung by men hidden in the monster's belly). They pass under a scaffolding where a man stands who takes a gulp of water as each novice passes beneath him. The man accepts for the monster a pig offered for the redemption of the youth; to make the monster disgorge his victim. A gurgling is heard and the water swallowed descends in a jet on the novice. This signifies he has been released from the monster's belly. He has now to undergo circumcision. The cut of the operator's knife is alleged to be a bite or scratch which the monster inflicted on the novice when spewing him out of his maw. When the operation is being done, a prodigious noise is made by bull roarers to represent the roar of the monster who is swallowing the novices. When a youth dies from circumcision, he is secretly buried. His mother is told that the monster has a pig stomach as well as a human and the youth slipped into the wrong stomach from which he could not be extricated.
When circumcised the lads must remain for some months in seclusion, shunning contact with women and even the sight of them. They live in the long hut that represents the monster's belly. Among certain tribes they beguile the tedium by weaving baskets and playing on sacred flutes. These are never used except on such occasions. They are male and female and supposed to be married. No woman can see these flutes; if she did she would die. When the period of seclusion is over the circumcised lads are brought back with great pomp to the village. They are received with sobs by the women as if the grave had given up its dead. At first the lads keep their eyes rigidly closed or even sealed with plaster. They seem not to understand commands given by the elders. Gradually they come to themselves, as if awaking from a stupor. The next day they bathe and wash off the chalk crust with which their bodies have been coated. The being who swallows and disgorges the novices at initiation is believed to be a powerful ancestral spirit. The bull roarer is his material representative. This is why that sacred implement is kept from the sight of women and uninitiated persons. In the Fijis a similar drama was enacted before the eyes of lads at initiation.
At certain festivals in the Island of Rook near New Guinea, disguised masked men go dancing through the village. They demand that all circumcised boys who have not been swallowed by the “evil spirit” be given up to them. The boys must then creep between the legs of the disguised men. Then the procession proceeds through the village. The “evil spirit,” it is announced, has swallowed up the boys and will not disgorge them unless an offering of provisions be made him. So provisions are offered and the boys released. In the Arunta tribe of Central Australia at the moment the lads are circumcised the bull roarer sounds in the darkness. It is believed to be the voice of a spirit who enters the body of a youth just circumcised and carries him into the bush, keeping him there until his wound is healed. While the youth is secluded in the wilds he constantly sounds the bull roarer.
Nearly all these ceremonies have an element of death and resurrection about them. Circumcision among certain tribes, like the Damaras, marks the great period of life. The previous years are not reckoned at all. Among other African races new names are taken after initiation and the previous life is alleged to have been forgotten. The taboo of women seeing initiates is very general. These precautions against women have another phase, as Crawley remarks, which is in its simpler form the introduction of the initiate to the opposite sex. In its complete form there is sexual intercourse. Now that the individual is prepared to meet the complementary sex, he must do so; for however strong sexual taboo may be, men and women must meet, in marriage at least! Thus the two sexes make “trial” of each other as if the preparation necessitated putting it to the test, and thereby each sex is practically “inoculated” against the other by being “inoculated” with each other, in view of the more permanent alliance of wedlock. Immediately after circumcision a Ceramese boy must have intercourse with a girl by way of curing the wound. This is continued until the blood ceases to flow. In certain tribes of Central Africa boys and girls must as soon as possible after initiation have intercourse, the belief being that if they do not they will die. Narinyerri boys after the preliminary rites of initiation had complete license with unmarried women even of their own clan and totem. Kaffir boys after being circumcised are allowed to cohabit with any unmarried woman they please. A similar custom is found on the Congo.
The initiation ceremonies of girls consist not only in hymen perforation but also in incisions of the clitoris. It is practiced in Arabia, Egypt, Abyssinia, West Africa and elsewhere. It is found pretty generally where male circumcision obtains. It is part of some church rituals in Abyssinia. Much the same customs and beliefs obtain in relation to female circumcision procedures including hymen perforation.
Circumcision arose from an attempt to prevent evil fortune by a sacrifice. It does not stand alone as a mutilation for this purpose. The mouth and lips, teeth, nose, eyes, ears and genital organs are subjected to processes whose object is to secure their safety by what is practically a permanent amulet or charm.