Ancient History & Civilisation

Foreskin meddling

When it came to genital modification, males in the ancient world suffered more extensively than females. Whenever the Egyptians went to war and captured POWs, they weeded out the uncircumcised men and snipped off their genitals. The circumcised prisoners did not fare much better, I regret to say; they kept their jewels but lost their hands!

Archaeologists have found mummies with indications of circumcision, and estimate that the practice had been going on in Egypt since the twenty-third century B.C. In their culture, circumcision took place at puberty. Although the Egyptians had sharp knives of copper, and medications to stop the bleeding (made from honey, cuttlebone, and sycamore), the operation clearly stung. A well-preserved wall relief from an Egyptian tomb shows two teens getting circumcised; it includes dialogue between those operating, which says: “Hold him, do not let him faint!”

In contrast to the ancient Egyptians, who made a V-shaped cut and left the foreskin to dangle on either side, the Jews removed the entire prepuce. The Old Testament contains some terrifying tales of circumcision. King David, instead of giving his new father-in-law the bride-price in gold, or a nice box of cigars, was forced to fork over one hundred foreskins taken from their traditional enemies, those foreskin-flaunting Philistines.

What scholars (and everyday Bible readers) call the Old Testament’s most baffling verse is Exodus 4: 25-26. In it, Zipporah, the wife of Moses, uses a flint and circumcises their son Gershom herself, then declares, “You’re a bridegroom of blood to me.”


Some long-ago cultures circumcised male newborns; others, such as the Egyptians, inflicted it on their teenagers.

Although the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and other groups practiced circumcision, some neighboring tribes did not. As told in Genesis, it so happened the prince of the Shechemites sneakily had illicit sex with Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. What made it so heinous in Jewish eyes was the fact that the prince sported a foreskin. The two families consulted; because the prince loved Dinah, his father suggested that the two tribes intermarry—to which the sons of Jacob agreed, if all the Shechemite males first got circumcised. The prince and his people duly went for it. On the third day, however, when all Shechemite males were still clutching their crotches in agony, the Israelites massacred them.

One of the key reasons for the Jewish uprising called the revolt of the Maccabees was due to the banning of traditional Jewish practices by Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV. He outlawed circumcision with the death penalty.

During Greco-Roman times, male Jews sometimes drew unwelcome attention in the public baths and gymnasia because men used the facilities primarily in the nude. To be able to participate or possibly just blend in with uncircumcised males, some Jews actually had prepuce reconstruction surgery in Judaea.

The Greeks abhorred cutting but did meddle with male penises in other ways. At gym workouts and in competitive sports, such as running, men took part in the nude but insisted on covering the glans or tip of the penis. To do so, they pulled the stretchy foreskin over the tip, concealing and then tying it with what they called a “dog leash” knot. At times, they used a thin leather lace to secure the knot.

Although it would seem a question of personal choice, male circumcision—its benefits and drawbacks, its place in Jewish and Islamic traditions, and current accusations about children’s rights and infant mutilation—is again making news around the world today.

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