Circumcision - What Caused Many Cultures
to Ritually Remove the Foreskin?
There are several theories and there may be elements of truth to each. As mentioned above, according to Cox, the ritual removal of the foreskin in diverse human traditional cultures, ranging from those in the Middle East (Jewish and Islamic) to that of Aboriginal Australians, could be a sign of civilization in that human society acquired the ability to control, through education and religion, the age at which sexual intercourse could begin [Cox, 1995].
Another compelling explanation referred to earlier involves the ritualization of circumcision's prophylactic effects, especially as many different human groups and cultures that live in desert or other hot environments have adopted it as part of their customs. Infections, initiated by the aggravation of dirt and sand under the foreskin, are not uncommon under such conditions and have even crippled whole armies, where it is difficult to achieve sanitation during prolonged battle.
A US Army report by General John Patton stated that in World War II 150,000 soldiers were hospitalized for foreskin problems due to inadequate hygiene, leading to the statements: “Time and money could have been saved had prophylactic circumcision been performed before the men were shipped overseas” and “Because keeping the foreskin clean was very difficult in the field, many soldiers with only a minimal tendency toward phimosis were likely to develop balanoposthitis [Patton, 1987b]. Army urologists stated “Had these patients been circumcised before induction [into the Army] this total would have been close to zero”. In the Second World War Australia had to send urologists to circumcise all of its troops fighting in the North African campaign who were not already circumcised [Short, 2006]. Similarly sand was a problem for uncircumcised men during the Gulf War in Iraq (“Desert Storm”) in the early 1990s [Gardner, 1991; Schoen, 2007e].
As discussed in section 4 on the history of circumcision, the Judeo-Muslim practice of circumcision quite likely had its origin in Egyptian civilization. There is ample evidence of circumcised mummies at the time the Hebrews inhabited Egypt, as well as illustrations of the operation itself and of circumcised Pharoahs, dating back to 3,000 BC [Weiss GN 1997; Cox & Morris 2012].
The Judeo-Muslim practice of circumcision quite likely had its origin in Egyptian civilization, where there is evidence of a circumcised mummy at the time the Hebrews inhabited Egypt, as well as illustrations of the operation itself and of circumcised Pharoahs, dating back to 3000 BC [Weiss GN 1997; Cox & Morris 2012].
Although the sand theory is compelling, another suggestion is that the Egyptians could have circumcised themselves and their slaves to prevent schistosomal infection [Weiss GN 1997; Cox & Morris 2012, Weiss, 2004]. Urinary tract obstruction and hematuria are common in localities such as the Nile Valley that are inhabited by the blood fluke, Schistosoma haematobium. The preputial sac would undoubtedly possess the adverse ability of being able to hold water infected with the cercaria stage of the life cycle of this parasite and so facilitate its entry into the body. It has also been suggested that the Egyptians believed that when a snake shed its skin, and emerged bright and new again, it was undergoing rebirth. Since they thought by shedding its skin the snake became immortal that humans might do the same by causing the “shedding” of the foreskin.
The perpetuation of the procedure by the Israelites (and thus Jews) may have subsequently been driven by a desire to maintain cleanliness in an arid, sandy desert environment. When the Israelites were held in bondage in Egypt the men were all circumcised. After Moses led them out of Egypt a ritual of circumcision on the 8th day post-partum was instituted as a “covenant with God”. (Of course this tradition was then lost during their wanderings, and was re-instituted later, as described in section 4 on the history of circumcision.) The Prophet Mohammad, born in hot, dry, sandy Saudi Arabia, was also circumcised as are all Muslims today.
Such considerations could explain why it is practiced in multiple other cultures around the world that live in such conditions. In each instance, the original practical reason became lost as the ritual persisted as a religious rite in many of the various cultures of the world. In the Muslim religion circumcision is performed over a wide range of ages in childhood. But a more compelling reason was that circumcision accompanied the radiation of primitive humans out of Africa over 100,000 years ago, as outlined in the history section. Those cultures that do not circumcise these days are ones that stopped doing it, possibly as a result of privation or adoption of religions that forbid it.
Various attitudes can be found in the Christian religion, in which baptism is the pivotal sacrament [Mattelaer et al., 2007]. Until 1960 the Catholic church celebrated “Circumcision Day” or “The Feast of the Circumcision” on New Year’s Day (the 8th day after the day that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is celebrated, albeit not the actual day he was born, which is not known precisely) [Mattelaer et al., 2007].
There is an enormous number of works of art by uncircumcised European artists depicting “Christ’s circumcision” [Mattelaer et al., 2007]. There is also a musical composition from the 18th century that concerns this. The holy foreskin was a particularly venerated relic, with 21 churches and abbeys reputed to have possessed and worshipped it. Stories of the power of the foreskin, its “magical” use, its “travels” and theft abound [Mattelaer et al., 2007] [http://nytimes.com/2009/08/23/travel/23armchair.html]. In 1900 the Catholic Church became fed up with the holy foreskin and threatened to excommunicate any who spoke about it [Mattelaer et al., 2007].
Below and in the “About the Author” page are photographs of a group of Masai boys in their early teens that the author came across in Kenya in 1989 dressed in their dark circumcision robes, with white feathers as headwear, and white painted facial decoration that stood out against their very black skin. Each wore a pendant that was the razor blade used in their circumcision. The ceremony that they had gone through is a special part of their tribal culture and was very important to these boys, who were proud to show that they were now “men”. (Of course, use of a razor and lack of sterile procedure, etc is far from ideal and is not to be encouraged.) A study of Kenyan Kikuyu living in the USA suggests that without a concerted effort the tribal ritual associated with circumcision as a rite of passage will dwindle gradually among future generations [Mbito & Malia, 2009].
In other cultures circumcision is associated with preparation for marriage and as a sign of entry into manhood. Australian Aboriginals circumcise a boy when he reaches puberty in a ceremony that is part of “men's business”. In Southern East Timor, men are traditionally circumcised at 20 or so years of age in preparation for marriage, but the man is then expected to have sex with at least 3 or 4 women before getting married. In Tonga, boys are circumcised at age 79 in hospital without anesthetic, pain being seen as part of transition to manhood. This is fully funded by the government of Tonga. Other Pacific Islands, such as Samoa [Thomson et al., 2006], have cultures that traditionally practice circumcision. In some, such as the islands of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, the ritual for the boy entering manhood also includes the “bungee “ and is where this “sport” began.
In the Philippines circumcision, generally carried out at age 12-14 years, is part of a coming-of-age ritual, again without anesthetic.
As mentioned earlier, in Madagasgar, where all men are circumcised regardless of religion, the reason is that women say that sex with a circumcised man is longer, stronger, better for them and cleaner, so the men are more likely to get sex by being circumcised.
A systematic review in 2019 of all research findings across different countries and cultures found that irrespective of circumcision practice women’s preferences favor the circumcised penis for appearance, sexual activity, hygiene and lower risk of infection. [Morris et al., 2019c].
In China, as elsewhere, many men have to get circumcised as adults because of problems with their foreskin. In South East Asians such as Vietnamese, as well as Japanese and Chinese, the foreskin tends to be short and the custom is to wear it pulled back after puberty. As a result the head is drier and less prone to problems in hot, humid conditions. This may explain why circumcision is not common.
Other cultures living in a hot climate, including those at the time of the Incas and Aztecs of Central and South America, practiced circumcision.
Because scar tissue is more visible on Asian skin than Caucasian, Chinese and Japanese doctors make a cut around the base of the penis rather than the foreskin itself. The skin is pulled back to expose the glans, then stitched into place.
Interestingly, in Japan, circumcision has become a fashion amongst young men. The procedure is promoted by way of articles and advertisements in the vast array of “girlie”, sex magazines read by young males. The message is that it improves hygiene and attractiveness to women.
There are many fascinating historical aspects involving circumcision or lack thereof. For example, some argue that the latter may have precipitated the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette, 12th daughter of the Emperor and Empress of Austria, much hated by France, married the future Louis XVI in 1770 at the age of 14. By 18, still immature and lacking in intellectual interests, she became queen. Louis XVI suffered from phimosis (tight foreskin) that prevented successful intercourse [Shearn & Shearn, 1983; Androutsos, 2002; Gillian 2012]. As a result Antoinette was deprived of the responsibilities of motherhood, which might have matured her. She indulged in lavish amusements, balls, plays and receptions that pandered to her childish fantasies, even building a model dairy farm "dolls house" at Trianon. Her enemies accused her of bankrupting France. In a secret visit to France her brother, Emperor Joseph II, reprimanded her and also persuaded Louis to get circumcised (at age 22). This was 8 years after their marriage. Although she subsequently bore 3 children, the damage had been done. The rest is history, the Revolution took place, and both were executed in 1793.