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The Barbarity of Circumcision as a Remedy for Congenital Abnormality

The Barbarity of Circumcision as a Remedy for Congenital Abnormality
Author: Snow Herbert
Title: The Barbarity of Circumcision as a Remedy for Congenital Abnormality
Release Date: 2018-05-03
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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By HERBERT SNOW, M.D. Lond. &c.





To state that the object of this little work is to 'put downCircumcision' under the circumstances indicated, would, besidessavouring of unpardonable arrogance, irresistibly suggest analogy to theexample of a too famous alderman, who was determined to 'put downSuicide.'

If, however, the facts and arguments therein set forth contribute insome small measure towards the abolition of an antiquated practiceinvolving the infliction of very considerable suffering upon helplessinfants; and sanctioned, on extremely questionable grounds, by men ofeminent authority; the following pages will not have been written invain.

More evil is wrought by want of thought,
Than comes from want of heart.

Gloucester Place, Portman Square:
 October 1890.

[Pg 1]






The earliest historical or quasi-historical notice of circumcision is tobe found in Genesis xvii.; where Jahve enjoins upon Abraham the personalperformance of this mutilation, as a sign of the covenant henceforwardto subsist between them. Abraham, his son Ishmael, and all his maleslaves forthwith underwent the prescribed operation; whichthence-forward remained obligatory upon their posterity, though notwithout transient periods of desuetude. It was suffered to lapse duringthe passage of the Israelites through the wilderness, and wassubsequently revived by Joshua (v. 5); again in the reign of AntiochusEpiphanes, when some of the Jews seem to have submitted to a plasticoperation in order to obliterate its effects.[1]

[Pg 2]

The compulsory performance of circumcision was re-enacted for the lasttime by Mattathias, in the age of the Maccabees; and the law to thiseffect has remained in force until the present day.[2]

The terms in which the Deity addresses his commands to Abrahampresuppose an already existing familiarity with the ritual ceremony onthe part of the latter. Accordingly we find that it previously prevailedamong the Colchians, Æthiopians, and ancient Egyptians of both the Upperand Lower Provinces (Gardner Wilkinson). Among the latter it appears tohave become restricted, by the dawn of the historical period, to thepriestly caste, and to those who desired initiation into the sacredmysteries. In the temple of Chunsu at Karnak is a delineation of therite as performed on two young children, probably sons of Rameses II.,the founder of the building. It was apparently connected with theworship of Ra, the Sun God; and a seeming allusion to it in thisconnection is to be found in chapter xvii. of the 'Book of the Dead.'Notices of circumcision also appear in ancient Phœnician mythology.

There can be no question of its very great antiquity, or of its wideprevalence among ancient[Pg 3] nations. Traditional descent from a primævalStone Age is betrayed by casual notices in Holy Writ. Thus, in Exodusiv. 25, a sharp stone is the instrument of mutilation; and in Joshua v.2, the marginal rendering is 'knives of flints.'[3]

The Hivites, the Canaanites (Phœnician), and many if not most of thenations with whom the Israelites were brought into contact aftersettlement in the Promised Land, appear to have practised circumcisionat some period in their history. In the Old Testament we accordinglyfind the designation of 'the uncircumcised' specially reserved for thePhilistines, and applied to these as a term of opprobrium.

The list of peoples by whom the circumcision of males has been, or isstill, an established custom is sufficiently long. Among such races atthe present day, 'an almost unbroken line may be traced from China tothe Cape of Good Hope,' and unless perhaps in Europe (wherecomparatively slight traces of aboriginal manners and customs survive),we find the ceremony characteristic not only of savage tribes, but ofnations ranking fairly high in the scale of civilisation; for instance,the Mexicans, and the ancient Aztec races of Central America. The Teanasand Manaos on the Amazon; the[Pg 4] Salivos, Guamos, Otamocos, on theOrinoco; the negroes of the Congo, with many other tribes on both thewest and east coasts of Africa, notably the Kaffirs, Bechuanas, andHottentots; the Abyssinians (Christian), Nubians and modern Egyptians;the natives of Madagascar; most of the Australian aborigines; thePapuans, New Caledonians, inhabitants of the New Hebrides, of Java, ofthe Philippines, and of Fiji, are only a few that may be indicated. Anapproximation to the rite in the form of a slitting up of the prepucewas noticed among the Friendly Islanders by Captain Cook. Although notenjoined in the Koran, it is a universal practice among the Mohammedans,as a tradition from the ante-Mohammedan period.

A cognate operation upon females obtains among the modern Egyptians,the Nubians, the Abyssinians, as well as in many other parts of Africaamong the negro races; also among the Malays on the shores of thePersian Gulf (Carsten Niebuhr), and on the banks of the Orinoco. As anancient custom in Arabia and Egypt, it is noticed by Strabo.

Local variations of detail are found; as in the case of the FriendlyIslanders just cited; and of the Madagascarians, who cut the flesh atthree several times; the excised prepuce being eventually swallowed bysome relative or other.

The date at which circumcision is performed varies considerably. Amongthe Jews, the eighth day is, of course, the selected period; probablyfrom[Pg 5] consideration for the sacred number seven, for the seven days ofuncleanness prescribed for the parturient mother (Lev. xii. 2), and foran idea that with the second cycle of seven days the infant thenproperly commenced its earthly life. Among the Arabs, it is deferredtill the thirteenth year; the age at which their reputed ancestor,Ishmael, was submitted to it. And every race seems to have selected foritself what was considered the most suitable time. The Turks, forexample, have chosen the seventh or eighth year; the Persians circumciseboys at thirteen, girls, between the ninth and the fifteenth year; andso on.

It is thus evident, not only that the rite is extremely ancient, butthat it is impossible to refer the practice of circumcision to anysingle source; or to doubt that it originally arose among manywidely-sundered peoples, as the result of a certain stage in man'smental evolution. The once widely-spread custom of the Couvade, andother strange aboriginal practices, afford an illustrative analogy.[4]

Herodotus seems to have been the author, or at least the introducer, ofthe cleanliness theory; according to which the ceremony was inventedfrom motives of hygiene. Philo Judæus ascribes the[Pg 6] custom to fourcauses: 1. Cleanliness; 2. The avoidance of carbuncle (Qu. cancer?); 3.The symbolisation of purity of heart; 4. The attainment of numerousoffspring.

Of these, it need hardly be said that the last has no foundation infact; and the two preceding require no remark. The idea, however, thatcircumcision was initiated for purposes of cleanliness has lasted to thepresent day, and still appears to have considerable currency. Whatevermay have been the social condition of the ancient Egyptians andArabians, on behalf of both which races, as having been the sourcewhence Abraham derived his evident familiarity with the custom,plausible pretensions have been put forth; it is simply preposterous toimagine for a moment that the numerous savage tribes (witness theHottentots and the Australian aborigines) who practise it, could everhave been actuated by any such considerations. Its world-wide diffusion,again, totally forbids the supposition, either of its introduction intothese tribes by contact with other nations more highly civilised; or ofits adoption, by the former, while in a higher stage of sociology, fromwhich they have subsequently become degraded. And this explanation isput finally out of court by the phenomenon of an analogous rite appliedin sufficiently numerous quarters to the persons of females. In order,therefore, plausibly to account for the general prevalence of thisstrange mutilation, we are compelled to look[Pg 7] elsewhere; and anexamination of the religious ideas which are known to actuate primitiveman, will afford a clue.

Copious illustrations of the working of such ideas among peoplesemerging from barbarism can be traced in almost every page of theearlier books of our Old Testament; and, even in classical mythology,although overlaid by the later developments of a high civilisation,their influence is still not entirely effaced. The principle ofsubstitution was familiar to all the nations of antiquity, to theIsraelites not the least. Witness the universal resort to sacrifices,the theory of which is well indicated by that of Isaac in Genesis xxii.Further illustrative examples are afforded by the law of the scapegoat,in Leviticus xvi.; by the offering of children to Molech (Lev. xx. 2);and by the legend of Jephthah's daughter (Judg. xi.). With this, variousceremonies, involving either mutilation or the shedding of blood, werein vogue—for example, the priests of Baal (1 Kings xviii. 28); evencutting off the hair seems to have been in the nature of arepresentative sacrifice.[5]

Hence many German authorities cited in Keil's Biblical Archæology(vol. i. p. 415) consider circumcision as a relic of ancient sacrifice:the consecration of a part of the body for the whole. The[Pg 8] differentgrades in the process of humanisation may be assumed to have beensuccessively attained as follows. In the earliest periods, humansacrifice was probably universal; in the Bible, we have the episode ofJephthah's daughter, above referred to; and in the narrative ofAbraham's purpose to offer Isaac there is not the slightest indicationof surprise on the part of the patriarch when he received Jahve'scommands; whence may be argued evident acquaintance with such deeds.Besides which, we hear of human sacrifice among the tribes contiguous tothe Israelites, until a much later date. Even the Greeks and Romansoccasionally resorted to this during the historical period; in theHomeric age, it appears to have been a not infrequent practice.

As, however, men progressed in culture and in humanity, such barbaritybecame impossible. Instead of putting their firstborn children (often bycruel methods, as in the sacrifices to Molech) to death, theypropitiated the deity by an offer of the most precious member. Indeed,in the Genesis account of Abraham's circumcision, Mr. Moncure Conwayconsiders (Demonology and Devil Lore, ii. 83) that the legend,subsequently obscured by later traditions, originally points to theperformance of a much more severe operation. And when still moreadvanced, even this became impossible; the excision of a very smallportion of the organ, not of indispensable necessity to the fulfilmentof[Pg 9] its functions, being substituted. After many generations had thenpassed over, the custom had become so firmly implanted in the mind andhabits of the people, that its eradication was rendered a matter ofextreme difficulty; even by new religious dispensations and moreelevated modes of thought. Hence we find the rite among the Israelitesmade an exception to the fierce denunciation of mutilations in general,uttered by Jahve or by his messengers; and hence also, we see it (thoughnot prescribed in the Koran) an ordinary modern custom throughout thewhole of Islam, as well as among the Christian Abyssinians.

The practice of self-emasculation in honour of a divinity was a commonfeature in the worship of Chronos, of Cybele, and doubtless of manyother among the earlier recipients of religious adoration; it isreferred to (and not in terms of reprobation) at Matthew xix. 12. It hasdescended to modern times—witness the fanatical sects in Russia; andeven persons of high intellectual calibre (as, for instance, Origen)have submitted to it. What men regarded as honourable and meritorious inthemselves, they would be not unlikely to impose also on their children.The existence of such ascetic practices among partially civilisednations must not be lost sight of in the present connection; as helpingus to comprehend the mental religious attitude of primæval man.

There can be little question that here we find our[Pg 10] correct explanationof the origin and wide prevalence of circumcision. We are, however, nolonger permitted to regard this as a hygienic custom, but simply andsolely as a relic of barbarism; dating from an immemorial antiquity,long anterior to the first historical records, and when man was little,if at all, removed from savagery. The venerable age of the prescriptiverite, as well as the

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