FROM GENETIC COSMOLOGY TO GENITAL COSMETICS:
ORIGIN THEORIES OF THE RIGHTING RITES
OF MALE CIRCUMCISION
Duane Voskuil, Ph.D.
The Third International Symposium on Circumcision,
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
May 22-25, 1994.
Man’s preconscious envy of woman’s power to reproduce and interpret cosmic order underlies male genital cosmetics. Humanity began by seeing the world ordered like a woman’s body. Her control of her body and her body’s control of her, with its blood and milk flows, birthing and death, was the basis for the first metaphors to explain cosmic forces, made easier since the moon’s cycles mirrored her life stages and her monthly bleeding. The sympathetic magical effect of body-modifying cosmetics enhanced this cosmic tie. For men to understand this female-focused cosmology, required the right mind-set. Male genital cosmetic surgery imprinted the cosmic female cycles into man’s mind by altering his body and, therefore, his brain and mind, to reflect female patterns. Ancient brain/mind-sets and envy of youth’s virility have maintained the righting rite even after patriarchy tries to tell males they are OK. Yet, males do not feel secure since the persistence of ingrained patterns conflict with male-gendered rituals. Gendered cosmologies always cause divisiveness and neurotic behavior.
I. Becoming Aware Of Buttons and Bows.
In North Dakota one can still find an abandoned farm with a barn and its make-shift stanchions, a granary with oft-repaired mouse holes and a cast-out radio, a garage studded with nails hung with gaskets and license plates, a two-holer too far from the house to use on a subzero winter’s night, and a house with its cut-glass window over-looking over- grown lilacs and a weed-filled driveway. Inside one lonely house, among scattered clothes, boxes of personal papers and calendars dating to my youth, among accumulated years of thin phone books with names marked out or penciled in, is a brown paper bag half full of buttons in one corner of a vanity drawer. I put the buttons in a bubbled-glass mason jar, turn it around like a kaleidoscope and meditate on the lives whose fingers fingered the endless variety of these cosmic shapes that helped alter bodies and minds with their cosmetic purpose.
For years I have turned off highways onto numerous byways looking for a stack of letters tied up with a faded ribbon or handwriting on a cellar wall that would tell me why people with flintstone knives, stingray spines or sharp fingernails began to attack our body’s pleasure center. I wish I could say I’ve found the philosopher’s stone in some crumbling foundation wall or a talking burning bush. I haven’t. But I have found enough buttons, enough pieces of cloth and tattered letters to have a good hunch.
So, with the broken Philco radio sitting on the mantel like an oracle skull, I’ve laid the pieces on a worn floor, filled in the largest holes with the most likely cloth and stitching, and listened for the spirits to speak. They whispered, but this is what I heard them say:
Two purposes presented. (1) The origin of the cosmos, like our human origin and all gendered life-forms, came from the creative power of a female. As a whole world-view developed around female physiology, men acquired a deepening sense of anxiety and inferiority. Men’s bodies did not flow, create nor nurture new lives. Men were hard-pressed to identify with a culture based on such bodily functions. Genital surgery was the male “fix,” a fix so powerful it continues even though men have wrested social power and philosophical explanations from women.
(2) As I sat there, I also heard how insidious every gender-based philosophy must be. Genital mutilations would never have occurred had our cosmologies been genderless. The origin of violence on male genitals was founded on a view of reality that devalued men. The sacred, life-giving blood did not clot within male genitals to create new life, nor flow from them in harmony with the universe. As horrendous as men’s backlash towards women has been, men still hear a voice telling them, “Fear women!” If the voice were more precise it might say, “Fear female-based philosophical cosmogonies.” This voice may be right.
We are exploring a time where buttons are hard to find. I can only hope this thesis, which seems reasonable and interesting to me, will become a working hypothesis for future research.
Pain and Awareness. I’m no longer aware when I first became aware of what a foreskin was or when I heard foreskins are routinely cut off. I do remember as a preschooler having recurring nightmares of men going from house to house knocking on doors and asking parents to give them their boys so they could be officially castrated. I can still feel the panic I had 50 years ago as the crew came closer to my house and I realized my parents would tell them I existed. I still feel the agony that eventually shocked me awake, screaming, as I sought to find a safe place in some dark closet. I was not aware then that many humans are castrated like male pigs on the farm. I was not aware then that many of us had already been mutilated. Each time I hear of another kind of assault on male or female genitals, I want to wake up.
Aware and Beware. I’ve been driven by a hope genital mutilations would stop if we could became more aware of the reasons they started. As I was regretting that these reasons seem lost in a time before possible documentation, it occurred to me to reflect on the meaning of “awareness” itself, since language often maintains meanings below our awareness.
In the Oxford English Dictionary I was pleased to find the word “aware” once meant “to be wary,” or “to be on guard” before it came to mean “enlightenment” or “consciousness.” The word itself carries with it how awareness develops, that is, from concrete physical experiences to more abstract and general concepts. Perhaps being aware of how awareness evolved can help us be more aware why circumcision1 started, or at least help recognize the more likely theories.
Originally, looking out for our physical safety must have been one and the same with looking out for the safety of our conceptual life, out fundamental belief structure. We all live our lives in a fog of cause and effect. Though we may not be able to isolate the exact causes for an event, we refuse to believe things happen for no reason. Where true cause and effect cannot be established, superstition or sympathetic magic takes over.
The split between mind and matter, physical and conceptual, is already a highly evolved, sophisticated concept. Feelings and meanings do not begin in awareness. Life is first physical feeling and action. Successful actions are repeated. Repeated action is the beginning of ritual which embodies our first symbols. Symbols, in turn, come to control action, often with little awareness of the purpose for the control.
Awareness always partial. Most of my life I never asked why circumcision began. Like the Fargo businessman who, when asked whether he was circumcised, answered, “I don’t know,” I didn’t know enough to ask the question. The ability to ask a question is already a state of awareness.
We will have little success discovering why circumcision started by asking people why they amputate parts of their children’s genitals. Most people do not know or are unaware why they do it. If someone does give a reason, it will likely be a rationalization for continuing the practice, not why it began (ERE 664). Explanations are necessarily given within a philosophical context, a substratum of beliefs that defines the culture, and these beliefs are never fully articulated.
Proposals for circumcision origin. Evidence is increasing that the metaphors used to explain origins at the time circumcisions began were significantly different from those we use today. The following are some of the reasons given for the origin of male genital mutilation: An act of consecration, a sacrifice, a tribal mark, a blood-charm, for hygiene, to remove phimosis, protection against sexual dangers, a test of courage, to increase reproduction, a hallowing of the sexual life, an intensification of sexual pleasure, a diminishment of sexual pleasure, an expression of the belief in resurrections, to be more like a woman, and to be less like a woman (ERE, B, W 265-266).2
The last two, which find the reason for circumcision in men’s physical difference from women, I think come closest. If circumcision has a pre-patriarchal origin, being like a woman would seem to make sense as a motivation. If circumcision is a patriarchal invention, being less like a woman could be a reason. But patriarchal circumcision, from all indications, is an adaptation of a ritual already well- established before the rise of male-dominated societies.
Pre-patriarchal origin. We know circumcisions were being done at the time writing was invented (TS 4). Patriarchal patterns began to take over as a cultural norm 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, becoming fully instituted in Europe and America only after the witch burnings and, some would argue, not until the 19th Century.3 Circumcision may continue as an expression of hierarchical control by dominant males or their gods,4 but it is not likely to have started in such an environment. We don’t mutilate what we truly love and admire. The original mutilation must have been seen as an improvement of the male genitals, as many see it yet today.
Blood-letting and creation. Perhaps, circumcision did begin as a male bonding rite, but not as a bonding among males. The bond was likely a bonding of males to a female-gendered awareness, to a cultural philosophy dominated by female metaphors. Male genital blood-letting is man’s way of being “on guard” or “aware” of female-type forces that make and control our bodies and the universe. It is his way of fitting in and righting nature’s wrong. Nature’s mistake is not the prepuce nor any particular part of his genitals. The mistake is the failure of male genitals to bleed which denies them the power of creation (GJ).
Circumcision indispensable. Certainly, circumcision was thought to be an indispensable ritual, important for the survival of the group, not the thoughtless mutilation many claim it has become. The NOCIRC campaign stirs up so many “irrational” and strong emotions because, unarticulated as they are, these reasons, once believed to be a matter of life and death, still motivate genital blood-letting. Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Congo has the haunting refrain, “The Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you.” Who can doubt the mumbo jumbo hoo-doos us as we watch our entranced shamen in their white robes and sterile inner sanctums wheedling their flintstone knives in the indispensable genital righting rite?
II. Evolution and Meaning.
Physiology, Sex and Gender. Humans have evolved through several stages, physically and conceptually. Earlier stages are nearly always carried in some way into later stages. We came, for example, from organisms that developed not only sex, but gendered sex, which is not necessary for life (MS). Without gender, however, circumcision would have lain in the infinity of unactualized possibilities.
The popular view, that males controlled human evolution and developed human culture out of their needs, particularly as hunters, does not stand up to scrutiny. The evidence seems to indicate our hominid ancestors were mainly plant gatherers. Meat scavenging from carnivore kills supplied about 15% of their opportunistic diet. Those in the lineage from which we evolved probably began their theorizing and ritualistic behavior while they were less than a hundred pounds. Evidence of ancient bone finds suggests large cats dragged hominids up into trees to eat them (J). Rather than being hunters, early people were hunted themselves by large carnivores.
Nature, Culture and Patrism. When we differentiated from other primates, we were small bipeds who met the need to eat and survive by gathering plants and scavenging. The move from opportunistic dependence on nature, to some control of nature in significant and predictable ways, is the beginning of culture. It is second only to our biological inheritance in influencing the way we think and behave. A third important development is the change within cultures from prominent female to dominant male metaphors and control.
Marija Gimbutas makes a strong case for a Neolithic culture in Europe whose dominant cultural metaphors were female (G1, G2). Female anatomy was the main source of the first metaphors used to explain reality. I am inclined to believe these metaphors, at some level of awareness, have a very long past, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years.
Metaphor and Myth. What mainly distinguishes humans from other creatures is our ability to theorize. Yet animal behavior exhibits some ability to draw conclusions or connections between things, so there is no point at which hominids began to theorize. Origin myths and psychological archetypes reveal something universal about human experience and theorizing that may also say something universal about non-human reality.
Philosophy, as any intellectual discipline, seeks to find metaphors that explain something about life. What distinguishes philosophical from other kinds of explanation is its scope. Metaphors that are, or are assumed to be, universal or to apply everywhere at all times are philosophical. But what is taken to be universal depends on one’s ability to generalize, that is, on one’s awareness. To a child in the womb, the womb is all there is. “Mother” is always there even though not conceptualized as such.
Religion and Culture. A metaphor is a comparison of something familiar to something less familiar. If philosophy seeks the most general metaphors, then religion seeks to ritually weave these metaphors into the fabric of our daily activity. These cultural insights, carried more or less unconsciously by the ritual, continue to shape our mental and physical existence for better or worse. Circumcision, often denied to be a religious ritual by Moslems and Christians, is ritual that cuts deeper than any named religion.5 The term “cultural tradition” is often used to refer to this deeper level.
Just as our physiology developed as a means to survive in the environment we found ourselves millions of years ago, so too human culture began and evolved out of beliefs that certain rituals are essential for survival. The feeling that life has purpose or meaning is far more a function of ritualized social behavior than the conceptual awareness intellectuals are inclined to deify. So even when one is conceptually faced with self-destructive behavior, the ritual may not change as any NOCIRC activist will attest.
Gender Superficial but Influential. One characteristic found in all early theories of reality and nearly universal yet today, is the role of gender. Even though gender, from a sophisticated philosophical point of view, is a superficial aspect of existence, people have taken it to be a universal part of reality as far back as archeological evidence gives clues to the human mind. Most things in human experience, including humans themselves, were male or female. Generalizing on this experience, gender was applied to things not obviously gendered, like mountains, bodies of water and ships upon that water.
III. Origin Metaphors Based in Menstruation.
Female Perspective. What might have been those earliest ritualized metaphors that gave a sense of order, purpose and understanding to creatures hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, years ago? What environmental forces were so unavoidably familiar and startling they ritualized behavior long before that behavior was in awareness? The wealth of recent scholarship emphasizing the female role in human development has brought a new perspective to such questions.
We must be wary of sentimentalizing the female metaphors used before the age of patriarchy. Rituals like circumcision and human sacrifice developed before patriarchal societies. After all, Skadi, the Queen of the Shades had to be propitiated every year by a human stand-in for Loki whose testicles were ripped out of his body to land in her loins bathing them in blood. If she smiled, spring would return.6 She, like other death goddesses, collected the severed penises of her emasculated heroes. (W 941). Echoes of this practice can be heard in David’s collection of two hundred enemy foreskins (probably attached to the penises) as a sign of his worthiness to marry a princess (I Sam. 16-18).7
Genetic Cosmology. A culture that worships female functions projects these functions onto natural events. When theory begins to explain not only our human origin and structure but nature’s too, cosmology begins. Cosmology finds order and purpose in previously uninterpreted experiences of the world, or at least in a larger world than our “on guard” stance had previously considered. The first stories of cosmic genesis were birth stories, that is, genetic or genital cosmologies. Why did our first philosophical cosmogonies reflect major episodes in women’s physiology?
Menstrual blood unavoidable. Judy Grahn points out that blood may have been the most important and also the most dangerous substance people faced (GJ). And face it we must, and especially, face it she must. Women bleed. Women bleed naturally. Their blood flows from their genitals. A woman is a flow-er. This unavoidable biological fact and its inevitable consequences are the basis for the best and the worst in human culture, for the origin of human culture itself, if Grahn’s provocative thesis is true.
Blood and Predators. Myths often combine the origin of menstruation and the world by saying a canine or feline predator was responsible for both. The Maya had their Jaguar; North American Indians their Coyote; the ancient Egyptians their Jackal. They rip flesh, draw blood. Predators are in stories relating birth and its fluids to menstrual blood. They also make solid ground as Coyote did by bringing dirt up from beneath the primeval waters (EO 88).
Blood as life. The origin of our fixation on blood is not so much related to the kill of the hunt as it is with blood we involuntarily shed, either naturally with no loss or threat to life, or traumatically when wounded or killed. Eventually, natural bleeding was discovered to be necessary for life. Blood was even said to be the stuff of life, since retained menstrual blood was believed to coagulate into the fetus itself, just as the heavenly bodies were curds and clots of mother nature’s milk and blood.
More likely, however, we first became aware of the power of blood as a major threat to our life. To lose much blood is to die, except when the flowing blood is the cyclical bleeding of the moonlike menses. But blood also attracts predators. The menstruating woman’s life was more endangered because she left a scent trail of blood. Anyone around her was also at risk. Hatred of the wolf might come from competition for some of the same resources, but Little Red Riding Hood’s fear of the wolf likely stems from its role as a predator attracted to her red blood. Blood was wondrous, but dangerous.8
Appropriate Behavior as Ritual. Those who changed their behavior, instinctually or culturally, to minimize the danger reproduced more than those who didn’t. Ritual is simply appropriate behavior or behavior believed to be appropriate. Inappropriate behavior is not just dissocial, irreligious, or naughty. Originally it was life-threatening. When individuals presented a danger to their group, such behavior, even when it was biologically necessary, had to be severely controlled. A person endangering the group can either be ostracized or confined to protect the group. Learning self-control through ritual stands at the divide between instinct and awareness, just as the meaning of “awareness” itself divides between physical and conceptual concern.
Menstrual Isolation. For everyone’s protection, the menstruating female had to be either isolated outside the group in some place less accessible or obvious to predators or isolated within the group. Her isolation was in a protective sanctuary, or menstrual hut, which is still a major part of many initiation rites and may have developed into our temples (B 144, T 100, GJ 243).9
Menstruation and the Moon. Not only did our ancestors discover a connection between predation and menstruation, but also between menstruation and the cyclical rhythms of the sky. Ancient peoples were obsessed with astronomical measurements. Among the daily rhythms and the yearly cycles, among the random events of sunshine and storm, was the moon’s regular waxing and waning coincident with female menstrual cycles.
Moon People, Moon Cognates. “Moon,” “month,” “mother,” “mouth,” “menstruation,” “measurement” “math,” “matter,” “mammaries,” and even “man,” which is still pronounced more like “moon” in some dialects, are linguistic cognates testifying to a common source. Humans first defined themselves as “moon people,” as creatures who saw in the moon a basic metaphor defining who they were. The linkage of these words presents the metaphorical link between human physiology and cosmogony. If menstrual blood and birth are linked, then when menstrual blood and moon are linked, cosmic origin and birth are linked. Birth, an exclusively female function, gives life to us and the cosmos.
Coincidence as Control. Coincidence is never mere coincidence to the emerging superstitious mind. The menstruating female was not just coincidentally in step with the rhythms of the world. She and the world were in reciprocal control. Since woman’s blood was powerful, she was powerful, powerful enough to alter nature’s course. Power is dangerous as well as wondrous. Everything about her was charged. Her body became a metaphor for the world (GJ).
Body as Microcosm. Her actions were mirrored in the world, as the world was mirrored in her. Her body fluids, tears, spit, milk, blood and urine, were the fluids of the world. We are affected by things around us, but those most powerful among us can cause things in the world to change.
The affect the menstruant could have on the world was probably felt to be at first, like all superstitions or sympathetic magic, just the way the world works. We just “know” that stepping on cracks breaks backs; we don’t need a theory as to how or why. No cosmic gods or goddesses need exist to please or to anger, though they have been feared now for millennia. Causality in reality was seen as a two-way street. Storms affect us, but combing her hair could cause storms, a superstition believed by clergy into the 17th Century (W 368).
Gaining Control of Self and Cosmos. Grahn and Bryk marshal evidence from anthropology and mythology to show how cultures have treated the menstruant, especially during her first bleedings. Since her skin was the earth’s surface, a surface all too unstable, as our California friends know too well, she could not be allowed to scratch herself. To scratch open her skin would cause the earth to open. Neither could she look at the light nor touch the ground so she was elevated on a chair, bed or platform shoes. She could only drink water from a straw, and could not even move for days or weeks. She could not touch her blood to clean herself. She might be whipped with nettles. All this suffering she had to endure for the welfare of the clan. She was put through a ritual she could never forget. She was made aware.
These behaviors reflect the extreme of not wanting to step on the crack that breaks mother’s back. Mother is the mother of all life, the collective cosmic mother who is both caring and threatening. She gives birth to her children from the blood-water of her womb, nurtures reality with the various saps from her breast and takes us back (despite our wishes) into her dark, but regenerating tomb-womb.
Success and Celebration. At the end of the menstruant’s seclusion, when the danger was less, she was washed, coifed, draped and pampered in ways that continue to protect her and the group from negative influences. Her clothes and eye make-up protected the clan members from overpowering direct contact with the charged person.10 Jewelry distracted negative spirits and plugged body openings preventing these spirits from entering her body. A celebration ensued because once again the world has not collapsed, the flood of unAWAREness has once more been held at bay. The group once again had been brought into a state of AWAREness, had been put on guard.
But the price to be paid for awareness is blood. The blood price, according to one mythology,11 is first paid by a willing female, Inanna, as she hangs for three days on the peg (the dark moon) before being killed and resurrected (to start fresh after her bleeding) (GJ 212). Payment for the menstrual awarenessness is passed in later myth to an unwilling male victim, Dumuzi, which begins the transfer from female- centered mythologies to male-centered ones that ends with Christ’s willing sacrifice for his father, and Mithras’ heroic acts glorifying his father without self-sacrifice(U).
The “world” saved from the flood refers to the conceptual scheme generated to understand our place in the world, our ultimate orientation or “east-bearing.” Our conceptual insights are always in danger of being lost in the flood of unconsciousness. But Innana’s Boat of Heaven (also known as “her well-praised vulva” and the crescent moon) rides out the high water. She keeps her orientation since she possesses the menstrual laws, the basic insights needed to understand and orient life, and delivers to her people her cargo of laws that hold heaven and earth together (WK, GJ 214). The world, apart from a philosophy, is mere chaos. It is the dream-time before the beginning.
IV. Man’s Place in a Woman’s World.
Cosmetics and Cosmology. These behaviors, focused around the female’s blood flow and its dangers, were the beginnings of cosmetics. Altering our body affects the world around us. The prostitute, originally a function of the priestess whose body was man’s connection to the divine, still signals with her make-up and dress, as we all do in our own way. Grahn suggests the need for tools, clothes and shelter, the cosmetic items of culture, developed from the proscriptions placed on women in their menstrual isolation .
As a cosmologist, I wondered what possible connection cosmetology could have with cosmology. The connection is between the well-ordered body and the well-ordered structure of the universe (GJ). They are not disconnected and parallel orderings. One’s body rituals were thought to order the cosmos, to hold it in place so life is possible. Suicide is common when one’s body cannot alter events to make life meaningful. Life without friends or lovers, an ostracized or uninfluential life, is not possible.
Ritual as Conceptualization. What is held in place by rituals is the conceptual framework that interprets the world for us. Body modification and control is the first control we have. If we change our mood, or our vulnerability, we believe we will change the actions of mother nature, just as we change the actions of our biological mother by our appropriate behavior when we are pleased or discomforted. The metaphors which gave us the genesis of the cosmos or universe, that is, genetic cosmology or cosmogony, were extensions of human genital functions. “Uni,” one name for the unifying triple goddess, actually comes from Sanskrit “yoni,” the vulva as source of reality, symbolized by the fleur-de-lis and the dove (W 543). Not all genitals were created equal. The genitals that had what it took, that had “the right stuff,” were female genitals.
Blood, Kin and Power. The menstruating woman with her power for construction or destruction, with her aura of control and her direct connection to cosmic forces by way of the moon, became the focus of the group. Her blood was the unity of the group, what made them kin. Even in an age of genetics we speak of being of the same blood. Her centrality developed into the powers we now call priestess and queen. As patriarchy developed, the queen became the king, though not at first with anything like absolute power. The phantom ideal of later ages was to unite again the power of priestess and queen, but then under a kin source who was a male, a divinely commissioned king. This king was the stand-in for a God whose changeless kingdom was eventually conceived to be safer outside the changing cosmos.
Superficial Males. In an age that had not connected male sexuality with reproduction, female metaphors were the natural ones to explain reality, and females were naturally the ones to control the rituals that carved a female’s view of reality into everyone’s mind (and many bodies).12 But males did not menstruate, give birth, nor nurse. It was not from males that we came. Neither did we go to a male tomb-womb in death to be reborn in whatever form the cosmic female might determine in her cauldron’s bloody waters.13
Male Lunatics. For men to be part of a society defined by moon cycles and moon bleeding, they had to be brought into ritual relationship with the dominant cultural metaphors. Men had to acquire “the right stuff,” or at least imitate it. That “stuff” was genital blood (W, Birthgiving Male). Occasionally it even mean acquiring a vulva, in the form of a subincision. For men to move from the periphery of society into its core,14 meant men must acquire more power. Power ultimately comes from having sacred knowledge. The nuclear physicist, attorney and surgeon are examples of high-priestly professions today. The ritual behavior they dictate for society is believed essential to keep the world from collapsing, to keep the sky from falling.
Cosmetic surgery for cosmological knowledge. But only those who bleed, especially genitally, can have the knowledge, can express the sacred rituals of power. Just as females had to alter or control their bodies to control the world, so men had to alter their bodies to become part of the sacred cycle.
Ritual male genital bleeding was, as most circumcisers say today, cosmetic surgery. It was not cosmetic in the sense of “unnecessary.” It was cosmetic because circumcision was necessary to gain and maintain cosmological knowledge and power. This cosmological knowledge, incarnated cosmetically with the knife, explained the mysteries of the cosmos. Men became privy to the first philosophical cosmogony describing the meaning and origin of reality through the sacred genital ritual. This knowledge of the sacred mysteries, though mostly subliminal, included the power to create, the power to generate and give birth to the blood stored as a fetus in the womb for nine moons.
Circumcision and Menstruation. Examples of the close tie between menstrual blood and male genital bleeding are many. The Hindu word “kula” meaning “flower” or “nectar” was used euphemistically for a maiden’s first menstrual blood that tied her as a woman to the clan spirit (also see Lev. 15). And “in Fiji, the same word described a newly circumcised adolescent boy, whose flow of genital blood during circumcision was supposed to connect him to the tribe and give him fertility magic like that of the kula girl” (W 516).15 Kaffa boys were taken into a hut much like the menstrual hut (B 84). “Usually a period of seclusion in the loneliness of the forest or in a special hut precedes circumcision…” (B 268). “On the way home the boy must allow no drop of blood to fall on the ground…” (B 75).16 In ancient Egypt boys going to be circumcised wore girls’ clothes and were followed by a woman sprinkling salt, a common substitute for menstrual blood. The Q’eqchi Maya shaman is initiated by retiring to a hut in the bush for a month with his instructor.17
I feel millennia melt away as I talk to those who know circumcision is cosmetic, but still believe it must be done. Some people also know that circumcision is not valid if the wound does not bleed. Others say the pain is necessary.
Righting rites of genital blood. Male circumcision, as we know it, almost certainly was not the original male rite that righted his wrong organs. Complete amputation of the foreskin began during the 2nd Century to prevent Jews from hiding their heritage (B, ERE). Nicking or pricking the organ to make it bleed was probably sufficient. A later theory, incorporating a purpose for men, said the pricking of the female (perhaps the tearing of her vaginal veil) by the male, caused the onset of female bleeding and fertility.
However, the prevalence of eunuchs in historical times, probably meant that many males went so far as to completely cut off their inappropriate genitals to show complete dedication to their divinity (W, Cybele). Eunuchs likely existed in pre-patriarchal times as a way to find favor as males in the priestess profession. If only Lorena Bobbitt had lived in an earlier time, she might have found gainful employment! As patriarchy developed, men not only took on, but eventually took over, the priestess’ duties, but even then they often did so without their genitals, or at least without being sanctioned to use them (TR 136). The priest-king’s attire originally signaled the male to be acceptable in a women’s profession as a transvestite, a transition state from female to male power (W 503)
Male power from female grace. Other rites developed that focused attention on men’s genitals. Because women were less mobile with child-bearing and caring responsibilities, they were more likely to settle down and claim land. This eventually gave them economic power as agriculture developed in Neolithic times. Men could then only gain power and prestige as landlords as a consort of the female (W, Kingship). The need for hunting for food was declining and so too the glory men acquired by hunting, and hunting each other in war was just catching on. Abraham’s power, for example, came from Sarah who, as a Mesopotamian priestess not allowed to have children, took him as her consort rather than being his barren wife, according to Savina Teubal’s analysis (T).
Mating, contrary to a common presumption of marriage since patriarchal times, did not give a man unlimited access to his wife, and she had no obligation to mate with him for life. As agriculture developed, its cycles of growth and decay, death and rebirth (similar to the waxing, waning, disappearing and re-emerging moon cycles) began to be used as a metaphor to explain the nature of the cosmos and the cycle of human life, death and rebirth. Just as the seed came from mother earth, died when planted in her under-ground, was reborn as it germinated and grew and was sacrificed when eaten or replanted, so too the male was born of a woman, mated with a woman, died as a heroic sacrifice for a (cosmic) woman and was reborn as a male child of a woman.
Heroic life and sacred king. Part of a hero’s life was to stir up the regenerative powers of the cosmos in a woman’s womb, and then be offered to the cosmic female as a token for the abundance given, or as a bribe to the cosmos to be more giving if times were hard. As a savior, he was a “sower of seed,” a plower (that is, one who opens up the earth-vulva).18 He needed to die to fertilize the earth with his body and blood (not his semen since its function was apparently not yet known). The act of mating with the high priestess as a ritual to insure the fertility of land and womb, was called hieros gamos (W, T). Males were often sacrificed after mating with the queen-priestess who embodied the divine female’s powers.19
Mating gave the heroes the ultimate blessing, being bled upon by the divine. The menstrual blood was referred to as nectar or “moon- honey,”20 so a honeymoon must last one lunar or menstrual period to ensure the baptismal blood would be available (W 408). Even after the relationship between sexual intercourse and reproduction was understood, the final days of the menstrual period were considered the most fertile (R).
The original meaning of being “blessed” was “to be bled upon” (W 110). This blood blessing and death transformed a hero from a mortal to an immortal.21 Those who drank his blood and ate his flesh also gained immortality. His deified flesh and blood were often scattered over fields to ensure their fertility, or his body was hung like a scarecrow in fields as an offering to secure good times. “To the ancient Maya the blood and spirit given in sacrifice were constantly recycled between the world of humans and the world of the gods” (F 206).22 The male before and after death was altered cosmetically, that is, ritually decked-out for the ceremony in order to control the cosmos, control, that is, our awareness of what the universe is like.23
Eventually, substitutes known as sacred kings were found to satisfy the king’s death ritual (W). These sacred kings found their way into mythologies of the old world societies. Virgin mothers no longer gave birth parthenogenically but required mates. The mate became a mother giving birth to the reborn hero. The mother then assumed the third aspect of her trinity, the death crone, who gathered up, or consumed and gestated the sacred hero, when he was sacrificed. Finally, the sacred king was reborn from the Janus crone-virgin as the cycle was renewed with the male coming from and returning to the female. Later patristic sensitivities required the infant son come from a father creator, being merely incubated in a female, and return to him forever when he died. Some myths even had the gestation take place in the male, in Zeus’ thigh, for example.
The Maya Quetzalcoatal, born of a virgin, gave blood from his penis to re-create the human race after the Flood. As one of the “castrated Fathers,” he was sacrificed, descended into the underworld, rose from the dead and was expected to return to earth. The Europeans beat him to it.
Odin, the mythic Norse All-Father, gave himself as a sacrifice to fructify Erda by his blood (not his semen since its function was apparently not yet known) flowing from a wound in his side. His nine days (symbolic of the nine moons of pregnancy) of suffering hanging from the world tree Yggdrasil24 gave him the feminine secrets of the wise blood in Erda’s womb-cauldron, Odrerir. He could then become a saga (female priestess- prophetess), one who has the power of knowledge and writing with the runes. In imitation of the divine, human sacrifices were hanging from trees into the 10th century (W 733).
Genital sacrifice as substitute. The king’s sacrifice, either as a requirement of the hieros gamos or because a younger rival killed him (after castrating him to prevent even his spirit from having retributive power), seems to have been modified to allow the king to live but only at the expense of his genitals, a ritual carried well into historical times. Genital amputation would cause the necessary bleeding and remove any chance he would trivialize his mating with the queen-priestess by mating with lesser women. The king’s acquired holiness dwelt mostly in his genitals since that is his point of contact with the goddess-queen sacred blood. The Neolithic Ice Man, recently discovered in the Alps and dated to 3300 BCE, has no genitals. Could this possibly be one of the “lords who were half woman” as these emasculated men were called (W 146)
Blessings’ Trickle-down. Likely the first ritual genital mutila- tions were only done to the male hero as a representative of all males. It may not have been necessary for all males to submit to the knife of the cosmetologist. But just as smoking moved from an occasional act of communion with the divine to a secular activity of the elite and then to a common activity of the population as a whole, just as white flour used by the rich for special occasions came to be the only flour available for the poorest people, so too genital mutilations probably moved out of the province of the most privileged to become a “benefit” for everyone. Social workers and nurses have been known to tell an unwed mother she can bless her son with a circumcision before giving him up for adoption. Perhaps they are carrying on an ancient tradition when women originally did the circumcisions and dispensed the blessings of cosmetic-cosmological awareness.
V. Patriarchal Modifications.
Male Separatism. As patriarchy gained a strong foothold in the middle of the first millennium BCE, eunuchs were still in the service of holy orders, but now in male separatist orders like early Buddhism and Pythagoreanism. Even some Christians claimed that cutting off genitals was a godsend since desire for the devil (whose name was “woman”) was diminished (Matt. 19:10-12).
Hierarchical Abusers. Abused people abuse others. Mutilations were still done as a way to tie-into (the root meaning of “religion”) the divine’s favor or his earthly representatives. However, the divine was now male and the ritual took on new meanings. Genital mutilations removed or exposed a male’s most valued body part. This operation demonstrated trust and obedient submission to one’s elders who in many cases took out unbelievable aggression on helpless youths during their initiation hazing. Initiates were told heroic endurance of pain was necessary to become a man (B). Obeying the highest power is still believed by most pious people to be the same as loving him.
Male Re-birthing. Finally, male genital cosmetics were rationalized in a typical patriarchal reversal: It became a sign one has left the woman’s world of one’s birth, rather than an attempt to identify with it. The man’s covenant with his male gods assured him that his re-birth (by way of a male) would be into a male’s world of light that saves him from the female’s world of darkness. Zulu boys wear women’s aprons until the ritual circumcision is over and they have become men (B 268).
Domination and Womb Envy. Females were left out of male covenants except as they were useful for male ends. This mind-set is still with us. Women end up as concubines and servants, and subordinate men as guardians in strongly patriarchal cults, and neither are women acceptable in positions of influence in the more respected clerical hierarchies both east and west.25 Of course, even as a signature of the male covenant or as males pleasing male gods, ritual circumcision cannot escape its origin in envy of the womb’s holy blood. Perhaps someday womb envy, like penis envy, will be accepted as a clinical diagnosis in psychology.26
Ritual Hunting, War and Sports. Male blood rites go far beyond genital bleeding. Even in the deer hunt today, the kill and gutting in the field is more important than any physical sustenance the meat brings, though my deer-hunting friends always offer some ground venison, like a communion offering, to those not fortunate enough to kill the holy flesh themselves. War, of course, is the ultimate high. Only where all is risked, can awe be most awesome, since it could have been most awful. Many games and sports are but diluted versions of full-bodied, heroic blood rites. Other sports are ways of demonstrating skill and control of one’s self and the cosmic stand-in, the ball. Self-control controls the cosmos.
Gender and Materialism. In a female-gendered cosmology only women are made in the image of the divine. The materialistic metaphors men have often used to describe the cosmos is another way men have sought to remove the second-class stigma of being male. However, not only do these metaphors avoid gender, they also treat the cosmos as an “it,” an object, rather than a person. This depersonalization is now having disastrous environmental and spiritual consequences.
The flow-er. We are gendered creatures, whose impregnations take place inside the body of the female gender only. The preparations for carrying these fertilized cells internally until they are sufficiently developed to exist on their own includes a blood flow synchronized with the moon’s period. The flow-er and the blood flow was wondrous since it created life, but dangerous since blood attracted predators. As consciousness increased, the relationship between menstrual blood, kinship safety, reproduction and cosmic events became more obvious. The cosmos came from a female, just as humans and other life-forms, and the universe (that is, our awareness of it) likewise could sicken and die as other lives do. To decrease the danger to one’s physical and mental map of the cosmos, the menstruant and her kin had to increase control of themselves as their means to control the world. This was done through sympathetic magic. By controlling her body cosmetically, the cosmos was designed, controlled and understood metaphorically.
The Prick-er. Genital blood flow became genital blood-letting in various forms for males. The female is a natural flow-er. The male had to become a prick-er. Circumcision was just one of the pricking and cutting procedures used to draw blood. Blood-lettings corrected nature’s mistake: genitals that did not bleed. By initiating genital blood-flow could men could more easily identify with the female principles of the cosmos. Ritual genital bleeding allowed males to participate in the thought forms giving the world shape and meaning that brought us out of the flood of pre-consciousness. We are saved by metaphors stored in our emerging awareness, a levy against the flood threatening our extinction. Pain was necessary to store them deeply enough to survive inundations. We were saved from the chaotic flood by blood.27
Men became prickers in trying to become flow-ers. They never truly made it. The vehemence of man’s blood-letting belies a deep anxiety that he is not truly OK. Perhaps more blood is the fix. The male circumcision rituals became parallel rituals that tried to develop their own rationale. Their blood rites were eventually interpreted to support a sexist separatist movement, then a sexist dominance movement called “patriarchy” whose body-penetrating pricking from war and deflowering, to hunting and circumcision, still preoccupies our every thought and action.
Genderless Cosmic Subject. The resurgence of cosmic female metaphors may correct the mistake of treating the cosmos as an object, but we have been in that cul de sac before. Gender equality and environmental sanity will only be stabilized when we realize we exist within a genderless, but unsurpassably all-inclusive, living Individual. Humanity’s challenge now to avoid extinction is twofold: (1) to conceive (or re-conceive) the universe as a living reality, but (2) to do so without a gender bias. Our early ancestor’s cosmology was humanity’s greatest achievement, but its gendered basis lies at the root of humanity’s greatest evils.
- The word “circumcision” is used here to mean any ritual surgery on the male genitals, from mere pricking or nicking of the foreskin to total amputation of the penis and testicles.
- See Selected Bibliography for abbreviated references.
- Reading about the sadists like J. Marion Sims, who genitally mutilated women as he was founding gynecology as a medical specialty, is frightening. “The peculiar preeminence of American gynecology in nineteenth-century medicine was an expression of the hypostasis of sexual identity at the same time by men bent on controlling women, and the campaign against midwives conducted by gynecologists was a variant of the separation of the sexes in society at large” (BB 83). “Gynecologists’ case histories are suffused with male anxieties over, and attempts to deal with, women, women out of their place” (BB 89). A common opinion was “that all women hovered on the verge of hysteria, insanity, and crime” (BB 83).
- The following metaphorical uses of “circumcision” can only be based on beliefs that were literal: “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer” (Deut. 10:16). “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts…or else my wrath will go forth like fire…” (Jer. 4:4). “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love [obey] the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul in order that your may live” (Deut. 30: 6).
- People have told me they circumcised their sons because it was the good Christian thing to do. I’ve asked clergy whether they are ever consulted about circumcision. Their answer is, “No, the high priests are in the medical profession.” Most physicians correctly say circumcision is not a medical decision, yet do them anyway.
- Leaving this drama to the groundhog and his shadow seems a bit more humane.
- Even the word “sacred” is a cognate with “sacrifice.” It also meant “unclean” or filled with mysterious, dangerous magic and was used to refer to bodily discharges from menstruating or birthing women or a man’s seminal ejaculation. (W 877, Lev. 15). The uncleanliness was transferable to anyone who touched the “sacred” person.
- AIDS forces us to deal again with the ambivalence of power. Like the menstruant’s flow, one’s blood carries both the wondrous mystery of life and the most insidious threat of death. Sex, the sacred act of creating life, can be one’s death. The most sacred may demand total sacrifice.
- Both the tavern and tabernacle (tent) are derived from the menstrual hut. They were places where minds were altered. The temple was also a place of orientation for complex measurements of space and time. Quoting Grahn, “The word `temple’ has roots in `time’ – as do `tempo,’ `temporary,’ and `contemplation’ – from Latin tempus, `time’ and templum, `space marked out for the observation of auguries.’ It is also related to tempestas, `season’ or `storm.’ What besides time has been kept in temples? Orientation, statuary, ritual paraphernalia, fire, water, books, grain, fruits, cattle, money, and crafts. As temples became centers of trade, the earliest known cities grew up around them.”
- The rituals of “safe sex” necessary to protect oneself from AIDS are similar to the rituals that were required to play it safe with the menstruant.
- An early Mesopotamian (Sumerian) story that developed between 1900 BCE and 3500 BCE, or even earlier, according to Diane Wolkstein (WK).
- An Australian myth has a woman abolish the fire-brand and substitute the stone knife. Not only Zipporah, Moses’ wife, but even “At the time of the Maccabees many mothers were executed because, in spite of the prohibition, they had circumcised their sons. Also in Talmudic time, circumcision by the mother seems to have been not unusual, perhaps a survival of the old matriarchate” (B 259-260).
- An unassuming blue-collar worker, feeling out of place with his wife at a group sharing and healing session, beautifully expressed in a heavy New Jersey accent the universal male womb envy: “I want to share with you that I’ve always envied women, uhm, and the reason I envy women is because it’s always one thing that I was always curious about and wanted to find out, which is: The experience of carrying and nurturing life which is something that I will never experience in my life, but yet there is a certain amount of motherhood in me, in other words, because I’ve always wondered about that about how it is to nurture life and how, it must be grace and must be a blessing for someone to be able to do that, to to birth and to give, to give nurturing to a complete different life other than your own; and not only that, but have the ability to nurture that life in the awareness by, by feeding it both physically, mentally and spiritually while it’s inside of you. And, I am the father of five children, I will never experience that particular pain, which is my loss in this lifetime. I don’t know what is going to happen in my next life.
- “Core” comes from Kore, maiden form of the goddess, Demeter or Kali, symbolized by the white color and the pentacle formed by the seeds in the core of a transversely cut apple. Just one more example of the persuasiveness of female metaphors at the heart (core) of language.
- Also see Kvasir, in Walker’s Encyclopedia, who in Scandinavian myth was the wisest of men. The gods of Asgard created and sacrificed him to add his blood to the great Triple Cauldron (tomb-womb) under the earth. Odin then stole the uterine source of life from the Earth-giantess and gave it to the male gods so they could have the power of the female’s wise blood.
- Blood must not touch the ground “because evil sorcerers have evil powers of magic in the soles of their feet. Were they to set their foot on a trace of blood, the result would be sickness or death of the boy”(B 75).
- “At the end of the period the initiate is sent to meet Kisin. Kisin takes the form of a large snake [common symbol of the vulva-womb]…. When the initiate and the ochcan meet face to face, the latter rears up on his tail and…puts his tongue in the initiate’s mouth. In this manner, he [she?] communicates the final mysteries of sorcery” (J. Eric Thompson, 1930, quoted by F 208).
- Sexual intercourse was often referred to as plowing a furrow. The zodiacal sign for the Virgin originally meant “furrow,” a name given to many goddesses. Seed entering a furrow (by a soter: savior-sower) was seen as semen entering the vagina-womb. The trident, the male counter- part of the triangle, was the most effective penile form for the male sower to have to “plow” or mate with the goddess in all three of her forms: maiden, mother and crone (W 328, 1017).
- “Blood sacrifice for the ancient Maya was necessary to the survival of both gods and people. It was the mindful expression of power that was directly symmetrical to the expressions of divine power in the natural world around them.” (F 207)
- Aphrodite’s menstrual nectar made by her sacred bees was called “honey.”
- The ceremony of being knighted by passing the sword from one shoulder to the other, is a symbolic beheading. The Celtics saved the severed heads of their man-gods because they were oracle sources or mediums to the spirit world (W 509).
- The red pigment cinnabar was at times substituted for blood. Heated, it yields mercury and forms a liquid mirror. “And mirrors, both liquid and solid, were portals to the Otherworld into which people could gaze and discern true reality” (F 244).
- In pre-Columbian Mexico at the end of the sacred 52-year cycle, a man who stood for Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayed One” was castrated and flayed and a priest dressed up in his skin to signify the god’s rebirth. The flaying may have represented the husking of corn, signi- ficant in Mexican agricultural rebirth myths (F, W). Corn ears were compared to penises. Circumcision was like husking the corn (F 206).
- Yggdrasil means “the ogre’s horse,” the gallows tree on which Odin hung bleeding and all men hang or ride to their death. The roots of this tree, also called “the axis of the universe,” were being chewed away by a serpent, so eventually according to Norse pessimism, the world will collapse at Doomsday, another expression of the tenuousness of awareness.
- A recent papal pronouncement condemns gender-neutral language for its religion.
- The psychological reference, Diagnostic Statistical Manual, Third Revision, lists penis envy but not womb envy.
- Common expressions in Christian liturgy today are, “We are saved by the blood (of the lamb),” “We are washed in the blood of the lamb,” and “Christ’s blood was shed for (to save) us.”
(BB) Barker-Benfield, G. J.. The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America, Harper and Row, New York, 1976.
(B) Bryk, Felix. Sex & Circumcision: A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in Men and Women, Random House, 1967.
Davis-Floyd, Robbie. Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Univ. of CA, 1992.
(EO) Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. American Indian Myths and Legends, Pantheon, 1984.
(ERE) Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings ed., “Circum- cision,” Louis H. Gray.
Fagan, Brian M.. The Journey from Eden: The Peopling of Our World, Thames and Hudson, 1990.
(F) Freidel, David; Linda Schele, Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path, William Morrow, 1993.
(G1) Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess, Harper Collins. Gimbutas’ work is valuable for getting an understanding of our culture from a prepatriarchal perspective.
(G2) _____________, The Language of the Goddess, HarperCollins, 1989.
(GJ) Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, Beacon, Boston, 1993.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.
(J) Johanson, Donald C. Ancestors In Search of Human Origins, Villard Books, 1994.Also PBS broadcast, l994.
Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford, 1986.
Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, Thames and Hudson, London, 1989.
(MS) Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality, Summit Books, 1991.
_____________, Origins of Sex, Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, Yale, 1986.
Morgan, Elaine. The Descent of Woman, Stein and Day, 1972.
(R) Riddle, John M., J. Worth Estes and Josiah C. Russell. Ever Since Eve…Birth Control in the Ancient World, Archaeology, March/April 1994.
Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman, Harvest, 1976.
(TR) Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History, Stein and Day, 1980
(T) Teubal, Savina J. Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis, Swallow, Athens, 1984.
(TS) The Truth Seeker, July/August 1989. The addresses of the First International Symposium on Circumcision.
(U) Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, Oxford, 1989.
(W) Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper Collins, 1983.
_______________. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, Harper San Francisco, 1988.
(WK) Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, Harper & Row, 1983.