|The mysterious Abyssinians|
James Bruce puzzles over male and female circumcision in Africa
During the course of his explorations to discover the source of the Nile in 1768-73, the Scottish traveller James Bruce observed the circumcision practices of the Ethiopians. He also sought to explain them historically with reference to both contemporary natural history and the Old Testament narrative.
The customs of the EthiopiansI have already said, that the Agaazi, the predecessors of those people that settled in Tigre from the mountains of Habab, were shepherds adjoining the Red Sea; that they speak the language Geez, and are the only people in Abyssinia in possession of letters; that these are all circumcised, both men and women. The former term, as applied to men, is commonly known to every one the least acquainted with the Jewish history. The latter is, as far as I know, a rite merely Gentile, although in Africa, at least that part adjoining to Egypt and the Red Sea, it is much more known and more universally practised than the other. This I shall call excision, that I may express this uncommon operation by as decent a word as possible. The Falasha likewise submit to both.
These nations, however they agree in their rite, differ in their accounts of the time they received this ceremony, as well as in the manner of performing it. The Abyssinians of Tigre say, that they received it from Ishmael’s family and his descendants, with whom they were early connected in their trading voyages.  They say also, the queen of Saba, and all the women of that coast, had suffered excision at he usual time of life, before puberty, and before her journey to Jerusalem.  The Falasha again declare, that their circumcision was that commonly practised at Jerusalem in the time of Solomon, and in use among them when they left Palestine, and came into Abyssinia.
The circumcision of the Abyssinians is performed with a sharp knife, or razor. There is no laceration with the nails, no formula or repetition of words, nor any religious ceremony at the time of the operation, nor is it done at any particular age, and generally it is a woman that is the surgeon. The Falasha say, they perform it sometimes with the edge of a sharp stone; sometimes with a knife or razor, and at other times with the nails of their fingers; and for this purpose they have the nails of their little fingers of an immoderate length: at the time of the operation the priest chants a hymn, or verse, importing, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hast ordained circumcision!” This is performed on the eighth day, and is a religious rite, according to the first institution by God to Abraham.
The Abyssinians pretend theirs is not so; and, being pressed for the reason, they tell you it is because Christ and the apostles were circumcised, tho’ they do not hold it necessary to salvation. But it is the objection they constantly make against eating out of the same plate, or drinking out of the same cup with strangers, that they are uncircumcised, while, with the Egyptians or the Cophts, though equally strangers, they make no such difficulty. In the time of the Jesuits, when the Roman Catholic religion was abolished, and liberty given to them to return to their old worship, their priests proclaimed a general circumcision;  and the populace, in the first days of their fury, or triumph, murdered many Catholics, by stabbing them with a lance in that part, as they met them, repeating in derision the Jewish hymn, or ejaculation, “Blessed is the Lord that hath ordained circumcision!” so that, I believe, their indifference in this article is rather owing to not being contradicted; just as they are careless abut every other part of religion, unless such as have been revived in their minds by disputes with the Jesuits, and kept up since in part among their clergy. But none of them pretend that circumcision arises from necessity of any kind, or from any obstruction or impediment to procreation, or that it becomes necessary for cleanliness, or from the heat of climate.
None of these reasons, constantly alledged in Europe,  are ever to be heard here, nor do I believe they have the smallest foundation any where; and this, I think, should weigh strongly in favour of the account scripture gives of it. Examining the origin of this ceremony, independent of this revelation, I will never believe that any man, or nations of men, rashly submitted to a disgraceful, sometimes dangerous, and always painful operation, unless there had been proposed, as a consequence, some reward for submitting to, or some punishment for refusing it, which balanced in their minds the pain and danger, as well as disgrace, of that operation.
All the inhabitants of the globe agree in considering it shameful to expose that part of their body, even to men; and in the east, where, from climate, you are allowed, and from respect to your superiors, the generality of men are forced to go naked, all agree in covering their waist, which is called their nakedness, though it is really only part of their body that is covered. We see even that there was a curse attended the mere seeing that part of the body of a parent, and not instantly throwing a covering over it. (Gen. chap. ix. ver. 22)
I do not propose discussing at large the arguments for or against the time of the beginning to circumcise. The scripture has given such an account of it, that, when weighed with the promise so exactly kept to the end, seems to me to be a very rational one. But, considering all revelation out of the question, I think there is no room to institute any free or fair inquiry. I give no pre-eminence to Moses nor his writings. I suppose him a profane author; but, till those that argue against his account, and maintain circumcision was earlier than Abraham, shall shew me another profane writer as old as Moses, as near the time they say it began as Moses was to the time of Abraham, I will not argue with them in support of Moses against Herodotus,  nor discuss who Herodotus’s Phenecians, and who his Egyptians were that circumcised.
Herdotus knew not Abraham nor Moses, and, compared to their days, he is but as yesterday. Those Phenecians and Egyptians might, for anything he knew at the time, have received circumcision from Abraham or Ishmael, or some of their posterity, as the Abysinians or Ethiopians, whom he refers to, actually say they did, which Herodotus did not know, it is plain, though he mentions they were circumcised. This tradition of the Abyssinians merits some consideration from what they say of it themselves, that they were, in the earliest time, circumcised before they left their native country and settled in Tigre. From this they derive no honour, nor do they pretend to any. It would have been otherwise, if the aera fixed upon had been the reign of Menilek, son of Solomon, when they first embraced Judaism under a monarch. This would have made a much more brilliant epoch in their history, whilst it was probable that they adopted circumcision under the countenance of Azarias, the son of Zadok, the high priest, and the representatives of the twelve tribes who came with him at that time from Jerusalem.
It seems to me very extraordinary, that, if circumcision was originally a Jewish invention, all those nations to the south should be absolutely ignorant of it, while others to the northward were so early acquainted with it; for none of those nation up the Nile (excepting the Shepherds) either knew or practise it to this day; though, ever since the 1400th year before Christ, they have been in the closest connection with the Jews. This would rather make me believe, that the rite of circumcision went northward from the plain of Mamre, for it certainly made no progress southward from Egypt. We see it obtained in Arabia, by Zipporah, Moses’s wife, circumcising her son upon their return to Egypt. (Exod. chap. iv. ver. 25) Her great anxiety to have that operation immediately performed, shews that hers was a Judaical circumcision; there was no sin that attended the omission of the operation in Egypt, but God had said to Abraham, “The soul that is not circumcised shall be cut off from Israel.” (Gen. chap. xvii. ver. 14) 
The Tcherat Agows, who live between Lasta and Begemder, in an exceedingly fertile country, are not circumcised; and, therefore, if this nation left Palestine upon Joshua passing Jordan, circumcision was not known there, for the Agows to this day are not circumcised. The same may be said of the Agows of Damot, who are settled at the head of the Nile. It will be seen by the two specimens of their different languages that they are different nations, as I have alledged. Next to these are the Gafat, in a plain open country, who do not use circumcision; none of them were ever converted to Judaism, and but a few of them to Christianity. The next are the people of Amhara who did not use circumcision , at least few of them, till after the massacre of the princes by Judith in the year 900, when the remaining princes of the line of Solomon fled to Shoa, and the court was established there. The last of these nations that I shall mention are the Galla, who are not circumcised; of this nation we have said enough.
On the north, a black, woolly-headed nation, called the Shangalla, already mentioned, bounds Abyssinia, and serves like a string to the bow made by these nations of Galla. Who they are we know perfectly, being the Cushite Troglodytes of Sofala, Saba, Axum and Meroe; shut up, as I have already mentioned, in those caves, the first habitations of their more polished ancestors. Neither do these circumcise, though they immediately bordered upon Egypt, while the Cushite, adjoining to the peninsula of Africa certainly did. As then so many nations contiguous to Egypt never received circumcision from it, it seems an invincible argument, that this was no endemical rite or custom among the Egyptians, and I have before observed, that it was of no use to this nation, as the reasons mentioned by Philo,  and the rest, of cleanliness and climate, are absolute dreams, and now, exploded; and that they are so is plain, because, otherwise, the nations more to the southward would have adopted it, as they have universally done another custom, which I shall presently speak of.
Circumcision, then, having no natural cause or advantage, being in itself repugnant to man’s nature and extremely painful, if not dangerous, it could never originate in man’s mind wantonly and out of free will. It might have done so indeed from imitation, but with Abraham it had a cause, as God was to make his private family in a few years numerous, like the sands of the sea. This mark, which separated them from all the world, was an easy way to show whether the promise was fulfilled or not. They were going to take possession of a land where circumcision was not known, and this showed them their enemy distinct from their own people. And it would be the grossest absurdity to send Samson to bring, as tokens of the slain, so many fore-skins or prepuces of the Philistines, if, as Herodotus says, the Philistines had cut off their prepuces a thousand years before.
I must here take notice that this custom, filthy and barbarous as it is, has been adopted by the Abyssinians of Tigre, who have always been circumcised, from a knowledge that the nations about them were not circumcised at all. It is true that they do not content themselves with the fore-skin, and I doubt very much if this was not the case with the Jews likewise. On the contrary, in place of the foreskin they cut the whole away, scrotum and all, and bring this to their superiors, as a token they have killed an enemy.
Although it then appears tat the nations which had Egypt between Abraham and them, that is, were to the southward, did not follow the Egyptians in the rite of circumcision, yet in another, of excision, they all concurred. Strabo says, the Egyptians circumcised both men and women, like the Jews. (Lib. xvii, p. 950)  I will not pretend to say that any such operation ever did obtain among Jewish women, as scripture is silent upon it.; and indeed it is nowhere ever pretended to have been a religious rite, but to be introduced from necessity, to avoid a deformity which nature has subjected particular people to, in particular climates and countries.
We perceive among the brutes, that nature creating the animal with the same limbs or members all the world over, does yet indulge itself in a variety, in the proportion of such limbs or members. Some are remarkable for the size of their heads, some for the breadth and bigness of the tail, some for the length of their legs, and some or the size of their horns. There is a district in Abyssinia, within the perpetual rains, where cows, of no greater size than ours, have horns, each of which would contain as much water as the ordinary water pail used in England does; and I remember on the frontiers of Sennar, near the River Dender, to have seen a herd of many hundred cows, every one of which had the apparent construction of their parts almost similar with that of the bull; so that for a considerable time, I was persuaded that these were oxen, their udders being very small, until I had seen them milked.
This particular appearance, or unnecessary appendage, at first made me believe that I had found the real cause of circumcision from analogy, but, upon information, this did not hold. It is however otherwise in the excision of women. From climate, or some other cause, a certain disproportion is found generally to prevail among them. And, as the population of a country has in every age been considered as an object worthy of attention, men have endeavoured to remedy this deformity by the amputation of the redundancy. All the Egyptians, therefore, the Arabians, and nations to the south of Africa, the Abyssinians, Gallas, Agows, Gafats, and Gongas, make their children undergo this operation, at no fixed time indeed, but always before they are marriageable.
When the Roman Catholic priests first settled in Egypt, they did not neglect supporting their mission by temporal advantages, and small presents given to needy people their proselytes; but mistaking this excision of the Coptish women for a ceremony performed upon Judaical principles, they forbade, upon pain of excommunication, that excision should be performed upon the children of parents who had become Catholics. The converts obeyed, the children grew up, and arrived at puberty; but the consequences of having obeyed the interdict were, that the man found, by chusing a wife among the Catholic Cophts, he subjected himself to a very disagreeable inconveniency, to which he had conceived an unconquerable aversion, and therefore he married a heretical wife, free from this objection, and with her he lapsed into heresy.
The missionaries therefore finding it impossible that ever their congregation could increase, and that this accident did frustrate all their labours, laid their case before the College of Cardinals de propaganda fide, at Rome. These took it up as a matter of moment, which it really was, and sent over visitors, skilled in surgery fairly to report upon the case as it stood; and they, on their return, declared, that the heat of the climate, or some other natural cause, did, in that particular nation, invariably alter the formation so as to make a difference from what was ordinary in the sex of other countries, and that this difference did occasion a disgust, which must impede the consequences for which matrimony was instituted. The college, upon this report, ordered that a declaration, being first made by the patient and her parents that it was not done from Judaical intention, but because it disappointed the ends of marriage, “Si modo matrimonii fructus impediret id omnino tollendum effet:” that the imperfection was, by all manner of means, to be removed; so that the Catholics as well as the Cophts, in Egypt, undergo excision ever since. This is done with a knife, or razor, by women generally when the child is about eight years old.
(The reader will observe, by the obscurity of this passage, that it is with reluctance I have been determined to mention it at all; but as it is an historical fact, which as had material consequences, I have thought it not allowable to omit it altogether. Any naturalist, wishing for more particular information, may consult the French copy.)
James Bruce of Kinnaird, Travels to discover the source of the Nile, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773 (6 vols, Dublin: printed by William Porter, 1790-91), Vol. 3, pp. 670-80
CommentaryThis is a fascinating discussion, full of doubts and uncertainty, in which Bruce grapples honestly with and tries to reconcile two glaring contradictions. First there is the contradiction between his Western horror at the “disgrace” of an unnatural practice like circumcision and the fact that these Ethiopians did it to both girls and boys. Secondly there is the contradiction between their own explanations for the rite and the account of the origin of circumcision among the Jews given in Genesis.
Bruce’s arguments are unclear in places, but he seems to accept the biblical account of the origin of circumcision among the Jews, and to infer that any other places that practised male circumcision must have copied it from them. In this viewpoint, it is interesting to note, he was at variance with much Enlightenment opinion, which tended to discount biblical narratives as fictional or metaphorical, and to seek naturalistic explanations for (apparently) religious customs; in his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire insisted that the Jews learned circumcision from the Egyptians.
But circumcision of females was a different matter. Dismissing Strabo’s claim, Bruce takes the absence of any reference to female circumcision in the scriptures as proof that it was not practised by the Jews and, therefore, that it did not have a religious origin at all. How then did a custom so bizarre ever arise? Here Bruce returns to the environmental argument common in the late eighteenth century and usually applied to circumcision in both men and women: that the heat of the desert or tropics caused the foreskin and clitoris or labia to grow to such a length that health was endangered and procreation impeded. Bruce rejected this explanation for male circumcision, noting that the Abyssinians made no such claims, but accepted it in the case of female circumcision, since no other explanation – and certainly not a religious one – seemed to be available.
NOTES1. In his pamphlet, The early spread of circumcision (London 1846), George Rose also sought to defend the biblical account against both the remarks of Herodotus and the naturalistic explanations that were emerging from the new science of anthropology. He realised that militant Islam had spread circumcision throughout south Asia, but explained its existence elsewhere or in places where it antedated the Moslem conquests as a result of the influence of Arab traders before the time of Mohammed. As the descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, they had been circumcised at the age of 13, also explaining why so many African and other tribes performed the operation at puberty.
2. It is not clear whether Bruce means Sheba, the legendary visit of whose queen to King Solomon was immortalised in the extravagant opera by G.W.F. Handel, first performed in 1749. Insofar as Sheba was real place, it is supposed to have been in south-west Arabia (today’s Yemen), not Ethiopia. Whether there was ever a queen in that ultra-male chauvinist part of the world, however, seems as unlikely as the story that she visited the equally doubtful Solomon – though Handel’s mincing overture makes the legend as convincing as it ever could be. The biblical texts are I Kings, 10:1-13, and II Chronicles, 9:1-12.
3. The Abyssinian rebellion against the Catholics was described by Edward Gibbon, whose account concludes: “Basilides expelled the Latin patriarch, and restored to the wishes of the nation the faith and discipline of Egypt. The Monophysite churches resounded with a song of triumph, “that the sheep of Aethiopia were now delivered from the hyaenas of the West”, and the gates of that solitary realm were for ever shut against the arts, the science, and the fanaticism of Europe.” (The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, chap. 47)
4. For example, by Georges-Louis Buffon and Edward Gibbon, who wrote “Of all the systems of Christianity, that of Abyssinia is the only one which still adheres to the Mosaic rites. … Circumcision had been practised by the most ancient Aethiopians, from motives of health and cleanliness, which seem to be explained in the Recherches Philosophiques sur les Americains, tom. ii, p. 117. (Decline and fall, chap. 15, fn. 25)
Gibbon also wrote that on the incorporation of the Abyssinian church into the Roman Catholic, by the Catholic Patriarch of Aethiopia, Alphonso Mendez, in 1632, the Ethiopian Christians were required to give up Jewish customs and their connections with Alexandria. He continued: “He [Mendez] condemned the ancient practice of circumcision, which health rather than superstition had first invented in the climate of Aethiopia.” And he added in a footnote:
“I am aware how tender is the question of circumcision. Yet I will affirm, 1. That the Aethiopians have a physical reason for the circumcision of males, and even of females (Recherches Philosophiques sur les Americains, tom. ii). 2. That it was practised in Aethiopia long before the introduction of Judaism or Christianity (Herodot. 1.ii.c.104; Marsham, Canon Chron. p. 72-3). “Infantes circumcident ob consuetudinem non ob Judaismum”, says Gregory the Abyssinian priest (apud. Fabric. Lux Christiana, p. 720). Yet, in the heat of the dispute, the Portuguese were sometimes branded with the name of uncircumcised (La Corze, p. 80; Ludolph. Hist. and Comment. 1.iii.c.1” (Decline and fall, chap. 47, and fn. 160).
There had been an earlier attempt to unite the Coptic with the Latin church, in the fifteenth century, when the Council of Florence issued the Bull of union with the Copts, which banned circumcision outright:
It [the Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes and teaches that the legal prescriptions of the old Testament or the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, holy sacrifices and sacraments, because they were instituted to signify something in the future, although they were adequate for the divine cult of that age, once our lord Jesus Christ who was signified by them had come, came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning. Whoever, after the passion, places his hope in the legal prescriptions and submits himself to them as necessary for salvation and as if faith in Christ without them could not save, sins mortally. It does not deny that from Christ's passion until the promulgation of the gospel they could have been retained, provided they were in no way believed to be necessary for salvation. But it asserts that after the promulgation of the gospel they cannot be observed without loss of eternal salvation. Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the Sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ and unable to share in eternal salvation, unless they recoil at some time from these errors. Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation.
Bull of Union with the Copts, Council of Florence, Session 11, 1442
5. For 1500 years or so, the brief comments made by Herodotus (born c.490 BC) in his Histories were just about the sum total of western knowledge about circumcision, and they remain the strongest evidence that the Egyptians practised it. The two passages are as follows:
The Egyptians themselves, in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. … They practise circumcision, while men of other nations – except those who have learnt from Egypt – leave their private parts as nature made them. … They are religious to excess beyond any other nations in the world. [For example] … they circumcise themselves for cleanliness’ sake, preferring to be clean rather than comely.
Herodotus, The histories, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, revd. John Marincola (Penguin Classics, 2003), Book I, 35-38, pp. 109-10
The Colchians, the Egyptians and the Ethiopians are the only races which from ancient times have practised circumcision. The Phoenecians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves admit that they learned the practice from Egypt, and the Syrians who live near the rivers Thermodon and Parthenius, as well as their neighbours the Macronians, say that they learnt it only a short time ago from the Colchians. No other nations use circumcision, and all these are without doubt following the Egyptian lead. As between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians, I cannot say which learned from the other, for the custom is evidently a very ancient one; but I have no doubt that the other nations adopted it as a result of their intercourse with Egypt, and in this belief I am strongly supported by the fact that Phoenecians who have contact with Greece drop the Egyptian usage, and allow their children to go uncircumcised.
Book II, 104, pp. 134-5
What is interesting about the comments on the Egyptians is Herodotus’ stress on their perversity, and in the second passage it is curious that he does not mention the Jews. Herodotus is by no means reliable as a reporter, however, and there is great doubt as to whether the Egyptians practised circumcision generally, as a requirement for priests, or at all; and, if they did, at what periods of their 2000-plus year history. (There is a vast literature on this question; for a start, see Frederick Hodges, The ideal prepuce.) As for the Colchians and Macronians , nobody quite knows who they were. According to Herodotus, the Colchians lived at the eastern end of the Back Sea, and were supposed to be the descendants of an army sent abroad by the pharaoh Sesostris. If so, it is hard to see how they could have influenced the customs of the Syrians, living far away on the Mediterranean coast. Colchis was also the place from which Jason fetched the Golden Fleece, in the myth of the Argonauts, but there is no indication in that narrative that the locals were circumcised. Edward Gibbon wrote that by the eighteenth century “not a vestige can be found of the art, the knowledge, or the navigation of the ancient Colchians”, and that the rite of circumcision was practised “only by the Mahometans of the Euxine” (Decline and fall, chap. 42)
Colchis seems to have been more of a Shangri-La than a real society, a location where the ancient and later worlds could site their fantasies of fearsome otherness. In the eighteenth century it became the home of the terrifying but instructive Mingrelians, a people so removed from western morality that, although professing Christianity, they “bury their children alive without scruple”, as John Locke reminded those who thought that Christian values were innate in the mind (Essay concerning human understanding, 1690). Gibbon could not resist adding a report that a Mingrelian ambassador once arrived in Constantinople with a retinue of 200 persons, but ate them day by day until only a secretary and two valets were left (Decline and fall, chap. 42, fn. 74)
6. I can’t quite follow Bruce’s geographical logic here.
7. Philo was an influential Jewish, but Greek-speaking, intellectual who lived in Alexandria from c.15 BC to 50 CE. He was noted for his symbolic interpretations of the books of Moses, but also for his defence of Jewish customs such as circumcision against both Graeco-Roman critics and Hellenising Jews, who thought that such barbarities ought to be abandoned, now that the world was civilized. In defence of circumcision Philo named six advantages, none of which had anything to do with divine command or ethnic identity:
(1) That it prevents a particular kind of “serious and malignant” carbuncle on the penis; (2) that it ensures “the complete cleanliness of the body”; (3) so that “this circumcised part have a certain similarity to the heart, for both organs serve to procreate”; (4 – the most important) to ensure numerous offspring; (5) “the excision of pleasures which bewitch the mind. For since among the love-lures of pleasure the palm is held by the mating of man and woman, the legislators thought good to dock the organ which ministers to such intercourse, thus making circumcision the figure of the excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure, not only of one pleasure, but of all the other pleasures signified by one, and that the most imperious”; (6) “that a man should know himself and banish from the soul the grievous malady of conceit”.
(Philo of Alexandria, Of the special laws, Book I (ii), in Works of Philo, trans. F.H. Colson (Loeb Classical Library, 1937), Vol. VII, p. 104-5)
How little the arguments of circumcision advocates have changed in two millennia! The big difference is the last two points: no crusader for circumcision these days would dare to suggest that the operation harmed the penis in any way or reduced a male’s capacity for sexual sensation, nor that it would chasten and purge him of conceit. It is not surprising, then, that Philo is not a pro-circumcision authority whom they are fond of citing.
8. The Greek geographer Strabo (late 1st Century BCE) stated: “One of the customs most zealously observed among the Egyptians is this, that they rear every child that is born, and circumcise the males, and excise the females, as is also customary among the Jews, who are also Egyptian in origin”; and similarly of the Ethiopians: “they are mutilated in their sexual organs, and the women are excised in the Jewish manner”.
For a fascinating discussion of this obscure question, see Shaye J.D. Cohen, “Why aren’t Jewish women circumcised?”, in Maria Wyke (ed.), Gender and the body in the ancient Mediterranean (London: Blackwell, 1998)