Experts have been unable to understand the origin of the practice of routine male circumcision. Most of the literature shows no awareness of phimosis - its frequency - or the sexual and erectile problems which can be cured by circumcision. If routine circumcision had been introduced for this most obvious reason of eliminating difficult foreskins; then the importance of an alternative modern method, suitable to our culture's attitudes in this day and age, would be clear.

Editor: Mircea Eliade
Macmillan Publishing Company. (1987)

Book 3
Pages 511-514

CIRCUMCISION is the surgical removal of the foreskin from the penis; sometimes it also refers to less common practices of uncovering the glans of the penis by removing some of the foreskin and leaving the remainder as a flap, as practiced by the Maasai and Kikuyu of East Africa, or cutting the foreskin away but retaining it as two flaps, as practiced by the Tikopia of Polynesia. Early social theorists speculated about circumcision's origins, suggesting that it may have (1) marked captives, thereby signifying subjection, (2) attracted the opposite sex, (3) been a tribal or ethnic mark, (4) been hygienic, (5) increased sexual pleasure, (6) removed men from maternal bonds, (7) tested bravery, (8) sacrificed part of the self to ensure future rebirth, (9) been a form of symbolic castration to support the domination of youths by their elders, or (10) even simulated menstruation. None of these theories is accepted today, though various combinations of them may be cited by those groups who circumcise.

Geographic Distribution. Circumcision is commonly associated with Semitic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Coptic Christianity), but, in fact, it predates all of these. It was practiced among ancient Egyptians, although not universally. It is widespread among peoples in Africa, western Asia, and the Pacific, including Australia. Early travelers' records and encyclopedias report circumcision among some New World peoples, but these accounts seem dubious, and, at most, the practice there appears to have been rare. Circumcision was not common in Europe or North America (except among Jews) until the 1870s and became widespread only at the turn of the century. Today about 85 percent of newborn American males undergo the operation, but it is far less common elsewhere in the English-speaking world and in Europe. It is our only form of prophylactic surgery, and currently members of the medical profession are in disagreement as to whether it is scientifically justifiable. Some cite its prevalence in America as an indication of a misconceived preoccupation with medicine and hygiene.

Semitic Circumcision. Muslims, Jews, and Coptic Christians usually circumcise during infancy. Ideally Jews circumcise on the eighth day of life. Among Orthodox Jews circumcision is performed by a professional circumciser (mohel) rather than a physician, and blood must be drawn from the wound either by mouth or, today, through a suction pump. In America, Jews have figured significantly in developing surgical devices that facilitate the operation. Circumcision is not strictly necessary to make one a Jew: since 1892, for example, Reform Jews have not required it of converts. Before the Hellenistic period circumcision among Jews took a less radical form than it does today. Because some Jews would "blister" the portion of their foreskin that remained in order to appear uncircumcised to the Greeks and Romans, the rabbinate advocated a fuller circumcision. Some hellenized Jews sought to appear uncircumcised because the Greeks and Romans viewed the practice with revulsion and periodically enacted laws to make the custom difficult for Jews and Egyptians under their rule.

Muslim circumcision usually occurs on what is termed the seventh day (in fact it is the eighth day, since the day of birth is not counted). In practice, the time varies widely. Some Muslims perform circumcision within the first five or six years; others delay it until as late as adolescence. While circumcision is not discussed in the Qur'än, Muslims agree that it must occur before marriage and is required of male converts. In many cases, it is accompanied by lavish feasts and celebrations. A few Arabs combine circumcision with radical flaying and scarification of the lower abdomen.

Coptic Christians (including Ethiopians) circumcise in imitation of Old Testament Jews, but the time at which circumcision is performed varies from the first week of life to the first few years.

Circumcision and Ethnicity. Besides signifying membership in a religion, circumcision may indicate, ethnicity or merely a human condition properly marked by the creativity of culture. Thus the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria usually circumcise during infancy; for them the operation signifies no religious or moral commitments nor does it distinguish them from their neighbors, who also circumcise. Even in respect to a single society generalizations about circumcision may be formulated with difficulty, as examples from Africa will illustrate. The western Dinka of the Sudan circumcise while the eastern Dinka do not. Their neighbors, the Nuer, do not ordinarily circumcise, but on rare occasions they may, in order to purify someone who has committed incest. Among the Azande of the Sudan and Zaire circumcision was introduced by neighboring peoples, with the result that within even the same village or extended kin group some will be circumcised while others will not. Among the Amba of Uganda circumcision was unknown until an unexplained interest in the custom, learned from neighbors to the west, led to sporadic waves of circumcision among youths and even adults.

Among the Sotho of southern Africa circumcision was once universal, but under government and mission influence many have abandoned the practice while others continue to observe it. Among some migratory pygmies in Zaire circumcision has been interpreted as a mark of cultural subjugation to their sedentary African overlords. Even where circumcision is a traditional practice and remains prevalent it now often takes place in hospitals, despite protests from elders, who advocate the old ways.

Circumcision and Rites of Sexual lnitiation. Where circumcision is associated with a world religion, it rarely marks sexual maturity. Such an association is common, however, among preliterates, although even among these many peoples circumcise infants or children rather than adolescents. Early circumcision may be a mark of ethnicity, or it may be considered hygienic or aesthetically attractive, but it does not provide a means by which trauma may be harnessed to the inculcation of moral and metaphysical values, as occurs in many rituals of initiation. Nor can infantile circumcision serve as a test of bravery. These aspects of circumcision, however, are of special interest to the anthropologist of religion.

Among the societies that practice circumcision as a rite of passage to adulthood, those of central Australia and East Africa provide the most complex and dramatic examples.

In central Australia circumcision is the primary operation in defining male adulthood, although it is often accompanied by tooth evulsion, bodily scarification, and, a year or two later, subincision. Much pressure is exerted on the initiate to show no fear or pain. Among those Australian Aborigines who practice circumcision (and not all do), the operation marks the beginning of a youth's indoctrination into the men's secret ceremonial life, the preservation of which is believed to be vital for maintaining social and natural harmony. At this time novices witness complex ceremonies in which the mythical origins of the world are enacted and, thereby, the order of the world is reasserted. The initial rites convey only basic features of this information; only after a man has witnessed many such ceremonies over the years, first as a spectator-novice, then as an actor-participant, and finally as an organizer, does he become truly knowledgeable. Circumcision, therefore, is not only the occasion when a youth passes into the circle of informed adults, but it also provides repeated opportunities for him to continue to acquire deeper knowledge of traditions.

Australian circumcision furthers male solidarity by forever separating youths from their mothers. The initiates receive ritual objects that are forbidden to the sight of women. Admitted to frequent and complex secret male ritual activities, they begin to spend longer periods away from camp at ceremonies that exclude women. It is only after these rituals that a youth is likely to have heterosexual relations and marry. Male solidarity sometimes involves a homosexual experience, since a circumciser may be obliged to have sexual relations with a newly recovered novice to whom he will later give a wife.

Aborigines associate circumcision with marriage not simply to prepare a man to take a wife but to reinforce the bonds the man enjoys with the men of his wife's family. Thus a man's potential father-in-law and brothers-in-law, his own father, and his uncles (his father's affinal ties and members of the group that helped to circumcise his father) often figure in his circumcision. Male solidarity and hierarchy are closely associated with the bestowal of and submission to pain, a prevalent theme in Aboriginal belief and ritual. This in turn relates to the fact that periodically in a society circumcision and subincision involve the shedding of male "genital blood," a blessing with deep mystical value for the reestablishment of social and moral order through altruistic, sacrificial suffering.

Circumcision is widespread in East Africa. Among sedentary speakers of Bantu language it is usually performed annually on groups of youths approaching adolescence. These groups are segregated in the bush (the sphere of disorder) apart from villages and women. Novices are stripped, shaved, bathed, and sometimes marked with ashes or white earth, all to denude them of their previous status and to place them in a liminal state, neither minor nor adult. The actual operation is often performed by an expert who is outside or peripheral to the group. Bravery under pain is usually required. The shedding of blood is viewed as polluting, a "hot" procedure that temporarily creates disorder so as to achieve a greater eventual order. Rituals and medicines are therefore applied to "cool" the wound and allow it to heal.

During their weeks of recovery, novices are hazed by older circumcised youths or by elders. They fast and observe numerous prohibitions, as may also their kin, in order to ensure recovery. In their isolated quarters, the novices - vulnerable and impressionable because of the wounds, fasting, and exposure that they have suffered are subjected to intensive instructions about sexual behavior, moral attitudes, and proper conduct. Toward the end of their confinement, the novices may don strange garb and tour nearby villages representing their status of being nameless, nonsocial creatures. Upon recovery, they return to their homes and enjoy the company of women at dances and feasts that celebrate their new adulthood. Circumcision marks their ritual death as minors and their rebirth as responsible adults.

In other East African societies, especially Para-Nilotest such as the Maasai, rites of circumcision are not held every year. Instead, they are held for several successive years until a sufficient group is recruited; then the rites are not practiced for some time. Through circumcision men enter named tribal age groups whose members provide mutual aid and hospitality and, when young, form fighting units.

In East Africa and Australia circumcision is understood to remove the vestiges of polluting femininity (the foreskin) from a youth, converting him into an adult male. lt provides a powerful measure of commitment to group values in the face of considerable suffering, and it represents a permanent moral and physical transformation. Women are afforded no comparable process, and (despite any physical operation) they remain minors subordinate to men, according to the norms that govern social organization. Where such initiation occurs we find the belief that society improves upon nature by transforming the male body into a more proper vehicle for a moral person to inhabit. The social person and the natural body are brought into closer conjunction. The endurance of pain and the observance of ritual restrictions express both a willingness and a capacity to subject personal appetites and feelings to collective ends. At the same time the powers that shape the cultural process assume a physical reality in the experience of bodily suffering.

[For comparable rites among women, see Clitoridectomy. See also Castration.]


Beidelman, T. 0. "Women and Men in Two East African Societies." In Explorations in African Systems of Thought, edited by Ivan Karp and Charles S. Bird, pp. 143-164. Bloomington, Ind., 1980. Contrasts sexual attributes and roles in a Bantu and a para-Nilotic society, including their relation to circumcision, age group, and social life.
Bryk, Felix. Circumcision in Man and Woman (1930). Reprint, New York, 1974. Although outdated and not critical of data and theories, Bryk's study is the only anthropological survey of the topic.
Meggitt, M. J. Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia. Sydney, 1962. Contains the most reliable account of circumcision among a group of Australian Aborigines set within a broader social context.
Morgenstern, Julian. Rites of Birth, Marriage, Death, and Kindred Occasions among the Semites. Cincinnati, 1966. Contains a useful survey of Jewish and Muslim circumcision by a distinguished rabbinic scholar. Provides a good bibliography.
Roheim, Geza. The Eternal Ones of the Dream (1945). Reprint, New York, 1971. Contains a survey of Australian circumcision and related practices, with a psychoanalytical bias.
Spencer, Paul. The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy in a Nomadic Tribe. Berkeley, 1965. Contains a useful description of circumcision and related ritual among a para-Nilotic people of East Africa.
Tumer, Victor. "Three Symbols of Passage in Ndembu Circumcision Ritual: An Interpretation." In Essays on the Ritual of Social Relations, edited by Max Gluckman, pp. 124-173. Manchester, England, 1962. Probably the best analysis of the complex symbolism associated with circumcision, in this case that of a Bantu people of central Africa.
Wallerstein, Edward. Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy. New York, 1980. A useful general survey by a physician. Deals with the practice cross-culturally, historically, and medically and contains a useful bibliography.