Child Health  Circumcision

Mutilated Humanity

by Ashley Montagu

Presented at The Second International Symposium on Circumcision, San Francisco, California, April 30-May 3, 1991.

       Perhaps the most profound name ever bestowed upon a species, was that given to human beings by Karl Linnaeus in 1753 in his great book Systema Naturae - namely, Homo Sapiens. Linnaeus briefly epitomized this with the words; "Man, know thyself" (Homo nosce Te ipsum). This sounds like an injunction, and it is; but it was also intended to underscore the fact that human beings are the only creatures in the world capable of self-consciousness and contemplation and characterized by an unparalleled creativity.

       Yet an impartial survey of Homo sapiens' record since 1753, would suggest that Oscar Wilde, as usual, was on the mark when he said that Homo sapiens was the most premature definition ever given a species. A possible improvement might be, in demotic English, "the wise guy, too clever by far for his own good." Perhaps the more appropriate appellation at this stage of human maldevelopment would be Homo sap, "the addlepated one." Not that the wisdom is not there as a potentiality. It is. Every child is born with the wisdom of its body and of its mind, striving to develop and grow in an environment that satisfies its basic behavioral needs, to grow and develop in physical and mental health. By mental health I mean the ability to love, to work, to play, and to think critically. Alas, this ability has been confused and adulterated by adults, who have rarely consulted the child and have instead ritually imposed their own adult confusions upon the child. Perhaps that explains why most adults are largely deteriorated babies. That is why to be born into the human family is to be in danger of suffering the usual mental and sometimes physical mutilations to which children are made to submit.

       I think it would be greatly to our advantage if, instead of calling ourselves Homo sapiens, we called ourselves Homo mutilans, the mutilating species, the species that mutilates both mind and body, often in the name of reason, of religion, tradition, custom, morality, and law. Were we to adopt such a name for our species, it might focus our attention upon what is wrong with us and where we might begin setting ourselves right.

       In surveying the history of humanity, we find that there is hardly a visible part of the human body that has not been submitted to some form of mutilation. For instance, some prehistoric peoples, to judge from their mural art, left negative impressions of their hands from which parts of the fingers had been removed.1 Such figures are known from several caves associated with the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic Perigordian phase of culture of the Pyrenees, dating back to some 25,000 years before the present. Such mutilations have been not uncommon among indigenous peoples of our own day. The story of bodily mutilations would occupy a large volume in the story of humankind, and few would be more strange and interesting than those relating to male and female circumcision.

       By circumcision we understand the cutting away in the male of the whole or a part of the foreskin of the penis. In the female the operation is properly described as excision and consists of the abscission of either a part or the whole of the external genitalia; to this is frequently added the operation of infibulation, the sewing together of the parts of the vulva, leaving only a small opening for the release of urine and menstrual blood.

       Infibulation - "the locking of the gate," as one Egyptian woman puts it - represents the male invention of an artificial chastity girdle. Together, excision and infibulation are known as Pharanoiac circumcision, from the fact that it is first known to have been practiced in the time of the pharaohs. As a generic term, both operations may be referred to as circumcision.

       The most difficult question with which the anthropologist is confronted is the origin of any custom. The truth is that it is generally not possible to answer most questions relating to origins. All sorts of explanations have been offered for the origin of circumcision, and those speculations seem almost as numerous as the autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa. Studies of the cultures in which such mutilations are customary suggests that the underlying motivations for them, whatever their origins may have been, are very different from what the usual explanations have to offer. Since those motivations have been obscured by millennia of mythological, religious, ritualistic, and secular rationalizations, it is very unlikely that anyone, with the exception of an unprejudiced inquirer, can arrive at a reasonable explanation of their origins. It is here that we come abruptly upon the problem of the social construction of reality - or as Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann put it, "the collective hunch that reality is ... not all reality, but certainly all social reality."2 Bruno Bettelheim, in his book Symbolic Wounds,3 made a valiant and stimulating attempt at an explanation (from a psychoanalytic point of view) of the motivation underlying various forms of circumcision; but as he lacked sufficient anthropological sophistication, he wandered somewhat astray.

       The first thing to be noted about circumcision is that it represents a rite of passage, usually (but not always) performed as a ritual or a ceremony. It may be performed shortly after birth and at any time up to and including adult years. Male circumcision is customarily performed by men, while female circumcision is routinely performed by women. However, a survey of the evidence indicates that there can be little doubt that both practices were instituted by men. In every case, with the exception of the rare instances in which circumcision of the male has been performed by a woman, it is carried out by members of the group who have themselves undergone the mutilation. Those who, for one reason or another, have not been circumcised are not considered proper members of the group and in many cases are shunned as if they are outcasts. In aboriginal Australia, no one would accept food from the hand of a youth who had not been circumcised, nor would anyone eat in the presence of a man from an uncircumcising tribe, for he would be considered spiritually unclean. This was the customary response to the uncircumcised among many peoples.4 Furthermore, in most (if not in all) of those societies in which excision is practiced, no man would marry an uncircumcised woman, and no woman would marry an uncircumcised man.

       Circumcision was unknown among the Assyrians and Babylonians, while among the Israelites, males were circumcised as a preliminary to marriage and the keeping of the Passover. Because Moses of the bulrushes had not been circumcised, the Hebrew god tried to kill him; but Zipporah, the Midianite priest's daughter, saved him from that fate by taking "a sharp stone" and cutting off her son's foreskin. She cast it upon Moses' penis saying, "Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me" and, by this vicarious circumcision, became Moses' wife, thus succeeding in assuaging their god's wrath (Exodus 4:24).

       When the prince of She'chem in the land of Canaan appealed to the sons of Jacob to unite with his people through marriage, the sons replied, "To this we will consent unto you if ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised" (Genesis 34:14-17). The "sharp stone" suggests that the operation dates back to a period when the rite was performed with a flint knife - that is, to the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic. That Zipporah cut off her son's foreskin may mean that in early times circumcision was on occasion performed by the mother.

       In ancient Egypt, circumcision appears to have been practiced from the earliest dynasties - that is, more than 6,000 years before the present - and is thought to have been of independent invention there (though the proximity of areas such as those known today as the Sudan and Chad, where mutilation appears to have been long established, may raise a doubt as to its independent invention). In any event, what makes Egyptian circumcision especially interesting is that the scholarly evidence indicates that, no matter where and upon whom it was practiced, it represented a sign of affiliation to the cult of sun god, Amon-Re, chief deity and creator of all things. Part of the Egyptian cosmogonic myth suggests that Amon-Re mutilated his genitals in some way. From Classical Greek sources, we know that the surgery appears to have been a privilege of the priestly castes.

       In her book, Prisoners of Ritual,5 Hanny Lightfoot-Klein thinks it conceivable that female circumcision dates back "to the early beginnings of mankind." I think that unlikely, for the reason that early societies probably tended to be egalitarian and that male-dominator societies were a quite late development in human history.6 In egalitarian societies, such as most hunter-gathererr societies, female circumcision does not occur, and male circumcision is rare. This should provide a further clue to the deep origins of circumcision and to the probability that it was males who invented these mutilation.

       The Australian aborigines are an interesting case in point. This remarkable people has lived continuously on the continent of Australia for at least 60,000 years. Circumcision as well as subincision were widely practiced throughout the greater part of Australia,7 but we have no idea when it was first instituted. Some 700 tribes were known to have flourished in aboriginal Australia at the time of the European settlement in the 18th Century; 8 9 however, to be so widely distributed over this very large continent among so many different tribes, circumcision - and possibly subincision - must be of considerable antiquity.

       Years ago, when I first learned of subincision - the remarkable practice of cutting upon the ventral portion of the penile urethra, sometimes from the glans to the scrotum - I puzzled over its origin and meaning until I found that, among the Aranda of Central Australia, the subincised penis was called by the same name as the female vulva. Upon further study of the literature on the subject of similar practices in many other cultures, it became clear that subincision was designed to cause the male organ to resemble the vulva, and that the effusion of blood was regarded as serving the same function as menstruation, which in the female enabled her naturally to dispose of the evil humors that accumulate in the body. To continue the same effect, males periodically engaged in incision of the penis and called it menstruation.10

       Australian societies were egalitarian, and while the circumcision and subincision of males was practiced, no genital operations were performed on females. It therefore seems correct to postulate that there may be some correlation between male dominance of a society and the practice of female genital circumcision.

       Now let us see how circumcision is typically regarded among some African peoples like the Dogon, Bambara, and Lobi of Mali (northwest Africa). Among these peoples the fundamental law of creation is twinship. At birth, each infant is "twin," - doubled, equipped with twin souls of different sex. In the girl the masculine soul resides in the clitoris, which is considered her male organ. In the male, removal of the prepuce, in which the female soul resides, confirms the boy in the sex for which he was destined. Excision, which ablates the clitoris, rids the girl of the male element. However, as Pierre Erny, writes in his book, Childhood and Cosmos:

Even after these operations have been imposed by social life, duality remains the fundamental law of beings. The soul of the opposite sex, diminished in the body, remains present in the double. The person will find his twinned unity again only at the time of marriage. Through the union of husband and wife, the doubles join like bodies in the act which actualizes the ideal union of twins. After circumcision it is the man's duty to go after his lost femininity and find it again in his wife. And the woman who was freed from her masculinity at the time of excision finds it again in the person of her husband.11

       Here is an illuminating passage from Dominique Zahan's book, Societes d'Initiation Bambara, Le N'Domo, Le Kore, on the Bambara, N'Domo, and Kore, also of Northwest Africa:

Circumcision seeks to generate a twofold purification of the human person...From the physical point of view it ends one state and opens another. It puts an end to man as individual, and marks the debut of Homo socialis. Through the removal of his prepuce, man loses the harmony inherent in his androgynous person, and shorn of the ballast of his femininity (represented by the cut off organ) runs after a woman, gets married, and creates the community. In the human entity circumcision represents an interruption of continuity; it dissociates man from himself: from what formerly was one, it makes two, namely, a person who becomes a social human being.

And so its "work" has an irreversible character. Zahn continues:

In the spiritual realm the function of circumcision is still more nuanced. By circumcising man the blacksmith (who customarily performs the operation) takes away the "femininity" from his spirit, that is, the cloudiness in his understanding, the wanzo. The wanzo is the agent of ignorance and foulness of spirit. Wanzo makes intelligence opaque and hinders knowledge of oneself and god, covering it as with a veil. It is opposed to the full actualization of man from the social-religious point of view, and hinders self-control and understanding of the role of suffering.

All human training can be considered as a fight against the wanzo, the element that will cause one to become a confused, idiotic human being, which will cloud the intelligence and render one utterly useless to the community.

Circumcision promotes enlightenment of the spirit by refining understanding. The darkening of the spirit is intimately related to the femininity of the male child, which appears as a defect in his masculinity, and is testified to by the presence of a prepuce. If he is to become a stable being, capable of complying with social life, the child must be freed from it.

       For the most part, the wanzo flows away into the earth with the blood of circumcision. It is only then that the adolescent is allowed to get married. Anyone would refuse to marry a partner who has not been completely freed of wanzo. With the removal of the wanzo by circumcision, the male, although a full being on the metaphysical level, is yet impermeable to the knowledge of the other, especially to the knowledge of God. This refining makes man able to make use of his intelligence and at the same time puts him in the best possible state of receptivity to what he is taught.

For the circumcised one, deprived of his wanzo, remains alone with his masculinity, that is, with the very basis for the activity of the spirit. In imitation of what takes place on the physical and social level, where man, deprived of his material femininity, commits himself to finding again a woman companion, circumcision of the understanding leads to the pursuit of another femininity, femininity in the mystical realm, which will allow him to have union with femininity through the woman.12

       There is much else to be reported on these enlightening and important views of these peoples which, however they may vary elsewhere in the world, are representative of a system of beliefs that stands at the very core of their lives. It is an intricate system of beliefs of so sacred a nature, and so profoundly a part of their being, that it is difficult to imagine their ever living free of them.

       It is, therefore, unrealistic to refer to such beliefs as barbaric or cruel, for that is not what they are conceived to be by the peoples whose lives they govern and to which they willingly conform.

       Fundamentally what must be understood is that, whatever the origins of circumcision beliefs and practices, they are the doing of men, and everywhere they appear to spring from the same motivation: the desire of men to establish their superior status and supremacy over others who, by some recognizable mark of difference (such as age or sex) they regard as being in another class or caste, inferior to themselves. This makes it a "natural" thing for the powerful to subject the helpless to their will, all this in the service and maintenance of their supremacy in the caste system, which is (in most cases) the reaction to a feeling of deep inadequacy that remains unadmitted to consciousness either at the emotional or intellectual level and becomes an adamant part of the socially constructed reality.

       The tyranny of the older over the younger, aided by a powerful mystique of patriotism, enables them to send untold numbers of the young off to war - for old soldiers never die, just young ones do. In a world of artificially created ultra-nationalism, when the bugle blows, all reason is abandoned. It is as simple as that.

       The tyranny of well-meaning parents over their children, which often amounts to an often unintended emotional and intellectual abuse, also applies to teachers who, unwittingly enough, transmit the values of the dominant sex.

       It is the abuse of the power of the physically strong over the weak by those who find if difficult to love others, whose love is of the unloving masculine kind, whose tyrannies - already enshrined in the darker pages of history - continue in many despotic, not least domestic, ways. The sorry story of Middle Eastern religions concerning women, most notably in the Bible and in the Koran, the witchhunts sanctioned by the church; the subjugation of women; the doctrine of Original Sin; the dismal view of children; the religious and secular wars of mankind, in which the psychology of war has predominated in the making of peace - all this and much else testifies to the inescapable fact that, compared to women and children, men have played a mutilating role, very much in the psychological as well as in the physical sense.

       In recent years, we have suddenly discovered that the abuse of children is rather more frequent than was generally believed. But with the exception of a few heroic people like Fran Hosken - who, without institutional support of any kind, has for many years valiantly attempted to draw the attention of the world to the atrocities committed upon young girls in the form of circumcision - there have been very few activists to protest against circumcision, male or female. Today, now that child abuse has come to be recognized as a widespread psychopathy in America, it may be easier for people to perceive circumcision as a form of child abuse.

       This operative assault - whether shortly after birth or later - is obviously a highly traumatic experience for the child. One cannot help but wonder what effects such traumatic experiences may have upon later life. Today we have abundant evidence that the process of birth is a traumatic experience for the baby. Some of the readily detectable effects can be seen in the structure and growth of the bones, as well as in the general appearance of the child.

       What is called for is a well-thought-out approach to the eradication of antiquated beliefs and practices which cause so much needless suffering, mutilation, tragedy, and death - an approach that takes into consideration all those factors I have mentioned, and more. We can begin with carefully designed programs, possibly under the auspices of the United Nations (or a similar body), with the purpose of rendering obsolete the practice of circumcision, an archaic ritual mutilation that has no justification whatever and no place in a civilized society.


  1. Leroi-Gourhan, Andre. Treasures of Prehistoric Art. New York: Abrams. 1967. p. 308.
  2. Berger, Peter L. and Luckmann, Thomas. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday. 1966.
  3. Bettelheim, Bruno. Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male. New York: The Free Press. 1954.
  4. Westermarck, Edward. The History of Human Marriage. Vol. 1. 5th Edition. New York: Allerton. 1922. p. 563.
  5. Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. Prisoners of Ritual. New York: Harrington Park Press. 1989.
  6. Eisler, Diane. The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: Harper & Collins, 1989.
  7. Ingold, Tim., et al. Hunters & Gatherers. 2 vols. Oxford & New York: Berg. 1988.
  8. Berndt, Ronald & Catherine. The World of the First Australians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1964.
  9. Tindale, Norman B. Aboriginal Tribes of Australia. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1974.
  10. Montagu, Ashley. Coming into Being Among the Australian Aborigines. London: Routledge. 1936. 2nd edition. Routledge, 1974
  11. Erny, Pierre. Childhood and Cosmos. New York: Independent Publishers Group. 1973.
  12. Zahan, Dominique. Societes d'Initiation Bambara, le N'Domo, le Kore. Paris-La Haye: Mouton. 1960.