Let's talk about circumcision. Why not? I discuss nearly everything else, so why not yet it all hang out, so to speak...
This article will be in reference to a couple of other articles dealing with what ancient people knew about procreation and the natural world and how their cultural and religious philosophies were influenced by this knowledge and lack knowledge.. So for any of you who want a background to this article, read here and here first.
The other point I would like to make is that I am reading and analysing the bible not from a position of faith. I am looking at it in the same way I would read any other book. I am allowing myself to not only doubt the claims that are made in it, but to ask where did these claims originate and why did people thousands of years ago interpret their world the way they did. In other words, I am examining the information they had which formed their worldview.
Now, to start with, I will accept for the sake of argument, that the hebrews were historically a group of people who left Egypt. So an exodus in this sense did occur. (Exodus 2:23 And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.) What was this covenant that the hebrews made with their god?
The covenant, or Abraham's Brit, occurred in 1714 BCE on the 13th of Nissan of the year 2048 from creation (1713 BCE). God supposedly appeared to Abram, changed his name to Abraham and commanded him to circumcise himself and all members of his household and all future descendents so that "My covenant shall be in your flesh, as an eternal covenant". Abraham was supposedly 99 years old at the time, and his son Ishmael, 13. Isaac, who was born a year later, was supposedly the first Jew to be circumcised at eight days.
To find out specifically what this covenant was, we need to look at Genesis 17: 2,9 and 10.
- Genesis 17: 2 “And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.”
- Genesis 17:6 "And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. "
- Genesis 17:9 “And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.”
- Genesis 17:10 “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.”
- Genesis 17:11 "And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you."
So the covenant with god was that god would multiply the hebrews exceedingly, that they would be fruitful if they performed the ritual of circumcision. This ritual was to be performed on every man who was a jew and in return god's promise was that he would make the hebrew people abundant and powerful.
Now where did this idea of circumcision originate? Many jews, christians and muslims will claim that it originated with the jewish traditions as that is where most people are familar with it as a religious and a cultural practice, but the oldest recorded evidence of circumcision is in Egypt. Tomb artwork from the Sixth Dynasty (2345 - 2181 BC) shows men with circumcised penises, and one relief from this period shows the rite being performed on a standing adult male. Evidence of circumcision abounds in ancient egyptian temple reliefs and egyptologists have found both circumcised and uncircumcised penises on the unwrapped mummies of pharaohs.
The egyptians seem to have been circumcising males for at least a few hundred years before the hebrews had circumcision as their covenant with god. So, why did the egyptians have male circumcision as part of their culture? What purpose did it have and what did it symbolise?
For a start, some historians have suggested that the priests of Egypt were circumcised as a sacrifice. As a way of forsaking "sinful pleasures". This sounds more like modern christian morality trying to retrofit itself into an ancient culture, because the concept of sex as sin, is not known to have been a part of the Egyptian religion. What is known is that the circumcised penis was a symbol of fertility, as can be seen in temple reliefs throughout Egypt. So, the origin of circumcision in Egypt, is more likely to be that the circumcised penis was seen as a fertility symbol.
"According to Egyptologist, E. A. Budge ('The Gods of the Egyptians'. Dover Publications), there was a very early God of Circumcision whose job was to maintain the fertility of the Nile banks. Another early Egyptian myth contended that God circumcised himself and the blood from his penis fell and created the universe. This myth is thought by some to be the progenitor of the blood cults, in which animals were sacrificed and the blood covenants in the modern Semitic religions. Another theory, quite unorthodox, holds that the Great Pyramid (Cheops) was not a tomb at all (it contained no artifacts, no mummies, etc.) but was a temple of initiation. The young initiates to the priesthood were, supposedly, led single file through the narrow passages receiving one initiatory degree after another and, reaching what is now called the "Queen's Chamber", they were circumcised and then proceeded up the Grand Gallery towards the "King's Chamber" and their final degree. The circumcised priests were the guardians of immortality; symbols of fertility and life everlasting." (From Ancient Egyptian Circumcision & Modern Day Practices in Males)
Whichever theory is correct, circumcision was seen as a symbol of fertility and power. I don't consider it to be a coincidence that the hebrews would ALSO see circumcision as a symbol of fertility and a symbol of power, as the most powerful nation in the world at that time, Egypt, practised this ritual. Now, to understand why the egyptians and the hebrews would see circumcision as a symbol of ferility and power we have to back up a bit further historically.
So HOW was circumcision associated with fertility? Now, if you lived in Egypt you were dependent upon the flooding of the Nile and the prosperity of crops and food resources that resulted from this annual event. The flooding of the Nile rendered the narrow strip of land on either side of the river extremely fertile. Intensive agriculture was practised on these strips of land by the majority of the peasant population. So, after the flood waters of the Nile receded, sowing and ploughing would have taken place using primitive wooden ploughs. Therefore, the fertility of the soil, which was built up through flood and alluvial deposits was crucial to the existence of Egypt.
Two of the major gods of fertility were Hapi/Hapy and Min. Interestingly, some of the major fertility gods were male. Hapi is often depicted as a male with female breasts and was the god who personified the flooding of the Nile. He was honoured as it was through his actions that the land was made fertile and ready for the sowing of seed. Soil, earth, and fields have in many ancient cultures traditionally represented the female. Hapi, as the flood god, represented the male force which makes the female soil fertile for the sowing of seed.
One of the other major fertility gods in Egypt was Min. Min was once again a male god who symbolized fertility and sexuality. He was also the patron of travelers through the eastern Sahara. He was depicted as a man with a large erect penis. He is most often depicted holding his penis erect in his left hand (a masturbatory reference to fertility), and wearing the attire of a pharaoh, a feathered crown and carrying a flail. (The way he holds his flail might be symbolic of sexual intercourse as the flail forms the V while his upraised forearm seems to thrust inside the V.)
Min wasn't just a fertility god, he was also a god of male fertility who could give the pharaoh (and other men) the power to father children. As a god of male sexual potency, he was honoured during the coronation rites of the New Kingdom, when the pharaoh was expected to sow his seed. This was generally thought to have been plant seeds, although there has been the suggestion that the pharaoh was expected to demonstrate that he could ejaculate and thus ensure the annual flooding of the Nile.
Therefore, the phallic god Min, (sometimes referred to as Menu), represented the sexual potency of the pharaoh, the Great House, an aspect of the Good God considered necessary to the fertility of the Nile valley. During the annual festival of Min, men engaged in public acts of masturbation in his honour. (From Masturbation Throughout History)
One of the symbols of Min was a bed of lettuce that the egyptians believed to be an aphrodisiac, as egyptian lettuce was tall, straight, and released a milk-like substance when rubbed. A characteristic similar to the penis. Min was always depicted with an erect and uncovered phallus, and thus, in later history, christians routinely defaced his monuments in temples, and Victorian egyptologists would take only waist-up photographs of Min, or otherwise find ways to cover his protruding manhood.
However, to the ancient egyptians, Min was not a matter of scandal, but part of their religious and cultural belief system. And he was obviously a very important part, that of male fertility. He was worshipped to not only ensure the fertility of the pharoah and other men, but also to ensure the flooding of the Nile. No flooding of the Nile meant no fertile fields. No fertile fields meant no crops. No crops meant no herd animals which meant starvation and eventual death. Farming was the life's blood of Egypt and the fertility of the land was paramount to its survival.
So what has circumcision as a fertility ritual have to do with this? Why would the egyptians and consequently the hebrews, see circumcision as a means to prosperity, abundance and power? What information did they have that would have led them to such a conclusion? But more importantly, I think, what information did they NOT have?
The ancient Egyptians saw fertility and the creation of new life as primarily a male responsibility. Afterall, they had evidence of the role that the male played in reproduction. They had evidence of ejaculation, which is often refered to as seed in ancient texts. The male penis was a symbol of fertility, for as the seed was sown in the soil and field to produce fruits, so was the seed of man sown in woman to produce "human fruit." The male seed held the "spark of life."
If you believe that it is the male who contains the seed necessary to create life, it stands to reason that your culture and religion mirrors this belief. So seed, (semen) and seed for crops, may have all been considered as originating from the male of the species. Seed, which was produced EXCLUSIVELY, by men. The earth, soil, fields and womankind, may have only been considered the depository for seed and where the seed would take fruit.
How do I know that the ancient Egyptians considered that the responsibility for fertility as the producers of seed was primarily a male responsibility? I know this because the ovum (female egg) was only discovered by Prussian-Estonian embryologist Dr. Karl Ernst von Baer in 1827. And that in 1843 Martin Berry discovered the fact that human conception occurs when the sperm enters the ovum. While people used to believe that the male implants life into the female, they now knew that both the male and female EACH contributed half the material needed to create life. This changed forever the way the world would see human reproduction. But it did NOT change the cultures and religions which grew out of male fertility cults.
Now, back to Egypt for a moment. It is highly probable that the egyptians, who revered the instrument of human production, and bore its image in their processions, conceived the idea of offering to their main gods, Isis and Osiris, a small portion of that organ with which these deities had connected the perpetuation of the human species. (From Voltaire - Philosophical Dictionary)
Afterall, if you have the belief that seed is produced exclusively by males and that women do not contribute genetic material in order to create new life, then you most probably create a ritual which symbolises the importance of this belief. If women and men were made from seed which man produced, then the male penis would take on special religious significance. I suggest that the ritual which was created to symbolize this male power was circumcision.
So, did the hebrews take with them the religious culture of circumcision when they left Egypt? I think so. And I think they practised it for the same reasons that the ancient egyptians did. The god of the old testament promised the jews the same things that the ancient egyptians believed they were getting from their religious ritual of circumcision. They were promised abundance and power. Lots of “fruit”, (descendents), through the sowing of "seed" means economic and political power.
Which brings me to the final part of this article. You really want to know why I think the ancient hebrews created laws about bestiality and homosexuality? Or why they believed that certain sexual practices were sinful? I suggest that they made the rules about bestiality and homosexuality because the covenant with god was to make them prosperous and abundant.
Genesis 17: 2 “And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” That is, seed would be wasted if it was sown where it could not bear fruit. Therefore, there was to be NO wasting of “seed” on men or animals as seed sown there didn't bear “fruit.” All that “seed” was to be used for procreation, if a people wanted to become prosperous and abundant. Religions know that big groups are powerful groups. Lots of “fruit” (descendents) means economic and political power.
And your circumcision scar, (as small or as large as it might be), probably has its origin in Egypt, in a time when the penis was part of fertility worship. So, guys, what does it feel like to be part of an ancient fertility cult? ;)
The Bangles - "Walk Like An Egyptian"
(I had considered posting the track "The First Cut Is The Deepest" but I thought better of it. No point in rubbing salt into the wound. Oooops.. )