Celebrating Heathen Sons
By: A. J. Ahlberg-Venezia; MA
This article originally appeared in Idduna #49
(Reprinted with the authoress’ permission)
“I will do you good”
(relief on Egyptian tomb, circa 2300 BCE)
Non-religious hospital circumcision is a practice which has received strong publicity in the last decade. One of the decisions facing parents of sons is whether or not to circumcise. This is a sensitive topic. This essay was first published in Idduna for a different readership; therefore I have deleted names of men who shared their circumcision stories with me—stories which were intended for that issue and audience.
This essay is neither a criticism of parents who have chosen circumcision nor an attempt to make men feel maimed. Rather, this material is presented so that future parents can make an informed choice about a procedure that was not practiced among our ancestors. Intactivism is a political stance, but could it become a religious statement for Heathens?
By the sixteenth week of pregnancy, the unborn child can detect light and dark. By the eighth month of pregnancy, if a mother exposes her bare belly to full sunlight, Sunna appears to the baby as a golden haze through the mother’s uterine wall. Babies respond in utero to light. Our advanced technologies are discovering that the “secret life of the unborn child” is much more complex and active than previously believed. In 1971, The American Academy of Pediatrics took the official position that no medical grounds for circumcision existed; this decision was retracted in 1985 but then reaffirmed in 1999. The Pediatric Urologists Association in 1975 agreed that circumcision should not be routinely performed. Yet every 25 seconds, a male infant is circumcised in America.
The priapic artwork of other cultures (Japan, for example) is so detailed that the male is unmistakably intact, even in a Frey-like state of attention. I looked closely at artwork of the Norse gods, hoping to find a clearly intact hammer. It’s been suggested that most paintings of the Germanic gods were done during a period of modesty, so privates were generally obscured. That the gods and goddesses were clothed is a reflection of the climate and the style of more primitive pagan artwork. The Middle Ages and Renaissance featured works depicting Jesus’s circumcision. This may have served to sanctify the practice among the population. Renaissance artwork in general also featured circumcised males, and this may have reflected the norms of the upper class—towards which most upwardly mobile persons strove. Today, the majority of medical textbooks used in the United States feature circumcised hammers. This, too, serves to reinforce circumcision as the norm.
Egyptian artwork at least 2000 years old depicts scenes of male circumcision. An Egyptian tomb is Sakkara, dating between 2423 and 2262 BCE, contains a relief on a door-jamb of a tomb of two boys being circumcised with crude stone instruments. According to the translation, the operator is saying, “I will do you good.”
“Speculation also abounds as to with which people the practice originated. It is known that circumcision has been practiced among peoples of Semitic origins—specifically the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Moslems, as well as many tribes in Africa, Australia, the South Sea Islands, and sporadically among the Indian tribes of North and South America.” While Semitic today is commonly equated with Judaism, it is used in this context to describe a people sharing common ancestry.
In America, by the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish immigration rose substantially. This resulted in a growing awareness of circumcision. According to Romberg, many Jews entered the medical profession, and several Jewish hospitals were established. This is not to suggest that a conspiracy existed among Jewish physicians to circumcise Gentiles (charges of anti-Semitism are routinely leveled against intactivists). Yet the procedure is a religious edict in two of the three Abrahamic religions—and the term “Gentile” may have originally referred to an uncircumcised male (Reimer-Møller, pers. corr.). The medical literature of the time may have provided validation of their religious practice, which in turn many have helped foster its standardization in hospitals. In large part, however, the shift from midwife-attended homebirth to hospital birth exposed babies to the practice. In 1900, less than 5% of births were in hospitals; by 1930, that figure had climbed to nearly 75%. As a result, the circumcision rate had climbed sharply to 50%. Kellogg (the cornflake tycoon) endorsed circumcision for the salutary effect it would have on the infant. In his opinion, circumcision would prevent boys’ later indulgence in the “solitary vice”. And in fact, in 1928 the Journal of the American Medical Association had officially endorsed circumcision as a cure for the “solitary vice”.
Freud, a Jewish neurologist, was an early critic of circumcision. He believed it to be both a relic of an earlier castration rite and a source of later anxiety. It has been argued elsewhere that circumcision became a substitute for child sacrifice (particularly the first born son) or an act designed to propitiate the goddess upon marriage (see Maccoby). Today, within Reformist Judaism, some parents are rejecting the practice. Instead, the boy is circumcised symbolically by having the attendant circumciser make a small cut on the cloth beneath the baby at the point of ritual when the infant would have been cut. Circumcision is codified in one of the earlier documents of the sacred Torah, so this is a particularly brave stance for Jewish parents to assume.
Abundant literature is available which describes the hospital procedure in detail, which I omit here (but invite you to do your own research). The tools used are forceps, probe, scalpel, Gomco or Mogen clamp or Plastibell device and ring. The infant is strapped spread-eagle to a cradleboard to minimize struggling. Because the foreskin is still attached to the glans at birth, it must be torn back to perform the procedure. The procedure has been likened to slicing a banana peel off with a scalpel, with a straight down cut and then a circumferential cut. Anesthesia is not used (although within Judaism, the infant is given a wine-soaked cloth to suck on first). Aterwards, infants passurine painfully over the raw wound until it heals.
The reasons given in support of the procedure is that a circumcised hammer is more cosmetically pleasing and lacks a strong male scent or normal discharge. This attitude can be traced to the class division of Victorian society, particularly with the arrival of foreigners—the “unwashed masses”. Dirt was equated with immorality; the natural discharge of the intact male was perceived as dirty and by extension, immoral.
Critics of circumcision argue that one function of the foreskin is to produce pheromones, some of which signal to other males their relation to one another. It is believed to be an evolutionary adaptation, perhaps to strengthen fraternal and filial bonds. This function is destroyed by genital cutting. In the past, more family members shared a smaller living space; this pheromonal proximity may have helped foster family ties. The role of foreskins on pheromones is debated; some research is skeptical of the link. However, claims to the contrary are promoted by proponents of circumcision. It’s worth remembering the as recently as 1949 neurologist Egas Moniz shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for pioneering the frontal lobotomy, supporting my contention that questioning orthodox procedures can be a good thing. Please keep an open mind, do your own research, and consider the sources when evaluating claims.
Men who are circumcised are more likely to favor it for their sons, but their wives are more likely to oppose it. Overwhelmingly, fathers said that they did not want their son to look different. Just 23% if intact men have their sons circumcised as opposed to 90% of circumcised men. This topic should be discussed well before the birth, as it can be a source of conflict.
One argument in favor of circumcision asserts that intact boys will suffer distress from looking different in the locker room. Yet Goldman notes that sometimes it is the circumcised boys who become deeply distressed upon learning what has been done to them. In those cases, the intact boys had been educated by their parents about the procedure and were able to explain this to their circumcised friends. They felt very positive about their intact state. Clearly, communication between parent(s) and son is vital.
The foreskin naturally separates from the glans in the first one to three years of life. Active manipulation to force the separation is unnecessary and potentially injurious. An inflamed foreskin is usually caused by an ammonia-soaked diaper, particularly disposable diapers which are designed to absorb more fluid than cloth diapers and do not allow the skin to breathe. While cleanliness is a frequent concern of parents, it really takes but a minute for your son to practice good hygiene. Girls, after all, learn that each month their bodies need extra time and attention. The following gentle remedies for an inflamed foreskin are taken from The Male Herbal.
1. Corstach Soak. Dilute 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in ¼ cup waqrm water (optional: one drop Lavender essential oil). Soak a clean cotton cloth in the solution, then apply to foreskin for a minute or two. Repeat three times a day.
2. Cider Vinegar. Dilute ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar in ¼ cup warm water (optional: one drop Lavender essential oil). Apply as above.
3. Adult men in either state may also consider a soak. Fill a glass with a warm herbal infusion (I know what you’re thinking—you’ll need a wide-mouth jar); submerge and soak (buddies, too) for five to ten minutes, retracting your foreskin if you have one. You could use Lavender (antibacterial), Yarrow (antiseptic/astringent), Sage (astringent), and Chaparral (antifungal) infusions or a drop or two of Lavender oil. All are recommended by Green. This is also helpful if you or your partner ahs an infection so that you can avoid reinfecting each other.
It is believed that infants’ nervous systems are too immature to feel pain—despite their screaming, occational vomiting, and signs of shock during circumcision as well as later changes in nursing behavior and affect (mothers especially notice the changes in their infants after the procedure). Pain has been measured empirically on newborns during circumcision. Neurobehavioral measurements, levels of stress hormones and vital signs measured before and after the procedure demonstrate convincingly that infants do feel pain during the procedure. In one account, one mother shared her story: She agreed to circumcision and remained in the room, understanding academically what was to be done to her son. She was, however, unprepared for her son’s piercing screams; only at that moment did she emotionally grasp exactly what was happening to her infant.
In the United States, a persistent belief is that cervical cancer is lower among Jewish women. This is an old study, and the results have not been replicated. The United States has equal cervical cancer rates as Europe, where the majority of men are intact. There is abundant medical literature dispelling this and other medical justifications for circumcision. Space forbids discussing the studies here, but the sources are *asterisked in the Book Hoard for interested readers.
“With the assumption that 80% of the 1,608,326 male infants born in 1973, approximately 1,287,000 newborn foreskins were excised in that year…. With a physician’s fee of $25 and an instrument fee of $15 per case, the cost of circumcising 1,287,700 babies would be approximately 51 million dollars”. And where do all those foreskins go? A single foreskin no larger than a postage stamp produces Dermograft, a bioengineered skin replacement product (see Gollaher). In an adult male, that little piece of skin removed by circumcision would have grown to about 15 square centimeters (about the size of a 3x5 card), or roughly a third of his hammer. Instead, it is sold for a lucrative profit. Some cosmetic companies use foreskins (and fetuses) in their product testing and cosmetics. I’ve met people passionate about animal testing who are curiously unmoved about circumcision and foreskin testing.
In America, two thirds of doctors surveyed presented as neutral to the parents, even when they were privately opposed to the practice. Some doctors who have spoken against the practice have been pressured by colleagues or administrators to remain silent. Economics appears to be the current deciding factor: circumcision rates are falling in large part because the procedure is no longer covered by some insurance plans. Likewise, my lay midwifery teacher noted that in Utah where she practices, women who are on public assistance are more likely to get episiotomies, as the final bill is itemized. In contrast, most midwives will charge a flat rate (Jeannine Parvati Baker, conversation).
Current literature is exploring possible links between circumcision and medical problems and sexual dysfunction in adulthood. Some intactivists believe that circumcision has a damaging and permanent effect on trust and sexual intimacy. I empathize but cannot accept such a reductionist perspective. Intactivist men have also written at length about their feelings of anger and betrayal, particulary towards their mothers. Some of their statements and claims verge on mother-blaming, a pastime which needs no further encouragement. Still, I strongly endorse their honest critique of the practice.
If you choose to circumcise, please keep in mind that your son may question yhour decision and ask you to justify it when he gets older. As a Heathen embracing workable practices, were I to be blessed with a son, I would leave him intact for his health, his bodily sovereignty, and as a symbolic and visible bond to his ancestors. It would also be a conscious rejection of an Abrahamic custom recently absorbed into modern medical practice. The news of my nephews’ circumcisions brought my heart to the ground. But I also, in this space, would like to affirm my support and respect for whatever decision you as a parent choose for your son.
Boyd, B. (1998). Circumcision Exposed: Rethinking a Medical and Cultural Tradition. Freedom: Crossing Press.
Bryk, F. (1934). Circumcision in Man and Woman: Its History, Psychology and Ethnology. New York: American Ethnological Press
Chamberlain, D. (1998). “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine”. In Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots, R. Davis-Floyd & J. Dumit, eds. New Your: Routledge
Denniston, G.; Hodges, F.; Milos, M. (1999). Male and Female Circumcision: Medical, Legal and Ethical Considerations in Pediatric Practice. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Freud, S. (1966). Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton
Goldman, R. (1998). Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective. Boston: Vanguard Publications
Gollaher, D. (2000). Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery.* New York: Basic Books
Green, J. (1991). The Male Herbal. Freedom: Crossing Press
Koso-Thomas, O. (1987). The Circumcision of Woman: A Strategy for Eradication. New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd.
Maccoby, H. (1982). The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc.
Nour, N. “Clinical Management of Circumcised Women”. Slide presentation and lecture at the 14th annual SMCR Conference, June 2001.
Parvati Baker, J. Ending Circumcision: Where Sex and Violence First Meet. (on-site essay at www.birthpsychology.com)
Ritter, J. (1992). Say No to Circumcision! Forty Compelling Reasons Why You Should Respect His Birthright and Keep Your Son Whole.* Aptos: Hourglass Book Publishing.
Romberg, R. (1985). Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma.* South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey Publishers
Thorwald, J. (1962). Science and Secrets of Early Medicine. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Verny, T. (1981). The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wallerstein, E. (1980). Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy.* New York: Springer Publishing Company.
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