Ritual circumcisions can be separated into two types, depending on the circumstances in which they are performed:
Spiritual circumcisions expressing a community identity, usually religious, are wrapped in complex meanings that invoke numerous myths, notably Biblical and African.
The secular model of ritual circumcision exemplified in the USA includes—apart from intensely debated medico-scientific justifications—a real social dimension and also reflects a desire for membership in a community.
Whatever the circumstances, physicians may be asked to perform circumcision and should be aware of the significance of this procedure.
Mutilations prescribed for oneself or others are of ancient origin and universal in scope: practically no body part has been spared their impact. Sexual mutilations are the most frequent: noteworthy are subincision, practiced by Australian aborigines,[34, 43] Fijians, and Amazon Indians; hemicastration, found in Ethiopia, Egypt, and the islands of Micronesia; castration of harem keepers and choir boys (to preserve high voices); genital mutilations of girls (excision, infibulation, clitoridectomy); and finally circumcision, probably the most common of these practices.
Etymologically, the term “circumcision” denotes excision of all or part of the prepuce and comes from the Latin “circum” (around) and “caedere” (to cut). Semantically, the word bears no direct relation to the prepuce. Sometimes [in French] the terms “posthectomie” or “péritomie” are used.
The historical conditions in which circumcision arose are obscure. The practice probably began around the 4th century B.C. as attested to by statues and paintings depicting circumcision among Sumerians, Ethiopians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, as well as by circumcised Egyptian mummies. However, the frequency of circumcision in these periods and its possible social significance are unclear.
A schematic distinction can be drawn between two major types of circumcision, based on the circumstances in which the operation is performed: therapeutic circumcision, which is beyond the scope of this paper, and ritual circumcision. The latter can be subdivided into religious circumcision, as in a ceremony marking a rite of passage and affirming membership in a group, usually religious, and secular circumcision, in which a religious motive is not invoked presumptively. The routine circumcision practiced in the USA for controversial prophylactic reasons is an example of the secular type.
Despite this conceptual distinction, we will see that both religious and secular circumcision are laden with complex meanings heavily impregnated with morality and social identity. Click on images for a larger version.
This begins a new series on The Closet Professor about Male Circumcision.