Ancient Egyptian men undergoing circumcision.

The Cutting Truth about Circumcision: It Was All About Rites and Religion


When was circumcision first practiced? How did it evolve? Why was it practiced? The earliest literary evidence of the practice of circumcision goes back to ancient Egypt.

There are many hypotheses regarding the roots of the practice. Early Western scholars attributed the origins of circumcision to ancient Egypt. But many scholars today believe that the origin of the practice, as it is done in the West and the Middle East, goes back farther and originates with the inhabitants of southern Arabia and parts of Africa. Over the millennia, circumcision has been most often used as a religious rite, a rite of passage into manhood, but also as a form of punishment in wartime.

A Little or a Lot

Circumcision has been practiced in parts of Africa, Oceania, Judaism, and Islam. The form of circumcision that westerners are most familiar with is complete removal of the foreskin or prepuce, as it is practiced in Judaism.

However, in ancient Egypt and other cultures in Africa, only part of the foreskin was removed. In the Pacific islands, the frenum was snipped but the foreskin was left unmodified. This is interesting considering a Biblical reference where Yahweh commands the Israelites to circumcise their children again, “a second time” (Joshua 5:2). This could imply that some of them had already been circumcised the Egyptian way and had to be circumcised the Jewish or Israelite way.



Circumcision in Egypt and Israel

In ancient Egypt, circumcision had a rather different function and process than it did in ancient Israel. In ancient Israel, circumcision was taken as a sign of membership in the covenant community established between God and Abraham. It was an ethnic marker showing that they were a part of the Israelite nation.

"Isaac’s Circumcision." (Public Domain)

"Isaac’s Circumcision." ( Public Domain )

Although it could be performed on adults if needed, it was usually performed on infants, eight days after birth, like among modern Jews. An adult was usually only circumcised if a non-Israelite decided that he wanted to be inducted into the Israelite community. Later, when the Israelite religion become more organized, becoming ancient Judaism, converts to Judaism were required to undergo circumcision. One way that early Christianity first distinguished itself from Judaism was that non-Jewish Christians were not required to be circumcised.

In Egypt, it was typically done on adolescent men who were about to be initiated into the priesthood or as adult males of the noble class. It is not clear that this is the case from archaeological and historical records, but Egyptian circumcision may also have been used to demarcate a special elite class. Egyptian circumcision is depicted on temple walls where young men are seen being restrained as a priest performs the circumcision with a knife.

Ancient Egyptian carved scene of circumcision, from the inner northern wall of the Temple of Khonspekhrod at the Precinct of Mut, Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt. Eighteenth dynasty, Amenhotep III, c. 1360 BC. (Lasse Jensen/CC BY 2.5)

Ancient Egyptian carved scene of circumcision, from the inner northern wall of the Temple of Khonspekhrod at the Precinct of Mut, Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt. Eighteenth dynasty, Amenhotep III, c. 1360 BC. (Lasse Jensen/ CC BY 2.5 )

The Practice in Other African Cultures

Egypt is not the only African culture that practiced or practices circumcision. It is common among east African peoples and the Bantu, usually as a rite of passage into manhood. Young males of the Xhosa and Zulu ethnic groups traditionally had an elaborate circumcision ritual where their bodies would be painted with whitewash before their circumcision.

During the process, they would be isolated from the community for several weeks, especially from women. After the circumcision, they would abandon their cut foreskin in the forest, a symbol of them leaving behind their boyhood lives to become men, and then wash the whitewash off in a river. Circumcision is still regularly practiced among these cultures, but usually in hospitals instead of the traditional way.

Zulu man performing traditional warrior dance. (Emmuhl/CC BY SA 3.0)

Zulu man performing traditional warrior dance. (Emmuhl/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Circumcision in Oceania

Circumcision historically was not limited to only Africa and the Middle East. A form of circumcision was also practiced in Oceania and Aboriginal Australia using sea shells as the cutting instrument. Circumcision in Oceania and Australia was a rite of passage into manhood as well as a test of bravery.


Circumcision is not only used as a rite of passage to manhood or for religious reasons. It has also been used to punish enemy soldiers. There have been cases where soldiers captured in battle would be circumcised, especially in the Middle East, east Africa, and south Asia.

Historical Impact

Circumcision was once a rare custom, and most cultures outside of Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania did not originally practice it. It nonetheless has had a significant influence on the history of civilization, especially since one of the pillars of western civilization, ancient Israel, made it an ethnic marker for being an Israelite.

Today, the practice still continues with an estimated one-third of males worldwide being circumcised. It is most common among Muslims and Jews, for religious reasons, but it is also widespread in the United States, where it is implemented for prevention of health conditions, though many of the world’s major medical organizations do not agree that there is any significant benefit which justifies the risks.

Circumcision is becoming increasingly controversial due to concerns about lack of informed consent and infringement of human rights.

“Customs of Central Asians. Circumcision.” “Photograph shows a group of men seated on the ground near a small boy who is being circumcised.” (Public Domain)

“Customs of Central Asians. Circumcision.” “Photograph shows a group of men seated on the ground near a small boy who is being circumcised.” ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Ancient Egyptian men undergoing circumcision. Source: archivohistoria/ CC BY 4.0

By Caleb Strom


Doyle, Derek. "Ritual male circumcision: a brief history." JOURNAL-ROYAL COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS OF EDINBURGH  35.3 (2005): 279.

Aggleton, Peter. "“Just a snip?: a social history of male circumcision."  Reproductive Health Matters  15.29 (2007): 15-21.

Sasson, Jack M. "Circumcision in the ancient Near East."  Journal of Biblical Literature  85.4 (1966): 473-476.

Book of Joshua 5:2


With the exception of Jews and Muslims, we don't do it in Europe, including the UK, unless there is a medical reason such as an overly tight foreskin causing pain.

I agree with your views. The practice is, in my opinion, child abuse. It is the physical equivalent of performing initiation rituals – such as baptism –  on a child to enter them into religion membership and commit them to a particular belief. These actions – pysical and mental – have usually profound effects on the person in later life.

I welcome comments and questions about Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu, Qin Shi Huang, the Qin Dynasty and anything at all to do with the foundation of the Chinese empire.

Mutilation of both genders should be illegal,

FGM or so called "female circumcision " is really a clitorectemy which is the excision of the clitoris. Any anatomical study will tell you that the clitoris is the organ that occurs when a fetus is female; IF a fetus is MALE, that clitoris and the subsequent pouches around it become a penis and testical sacs over time.

Male circumcision IS NOT the excision of the ENTIRE PENIS unlike female circumcision. Thus the 2 should not be made equal in comparison. Like trying to ban abortion, RICH or those with connections will be able to get around a ban on male circumcision in the same way, going to countries where it is legal.

The uncircumcized penis to many women, is ugly and it produces smegna, which is unsightly as well as it stinks and infection , making oral sex distasteful.
In Africa this type of penis has been scientifically proven to harbor STUds including HIV.

As for Men on the bad odor of an uncircumcized penis they argue that washing down or "good hygiene " can prevent that although as a Woman, I seriously. DOUBT that a female partner is going to be able to convince her sexually charged up male to take a 20 minute, let alone 3 minute WASH when "getting laid" is the ONLY thing on his mind.

Well, such concerns by Women only evoke nasty comments about Women and their genitals and I am aware that there are many heterosexuals who value lust over hygiene. Well, as far as I am concerned, they can keep their nastiness to themselves! As a Woman who advocates as do many American doctors typical male infant circumcision, a surgical procedure I hope that it stays legal and I would ONLY choose as a spouse for MYSELF a Man who has undergone such a procedure.

The article is wrong in saying that circumcision was introduced in the United States for health reasons. It was started by John Harvey Kellogg, a religious fanatic, as a way to repress men's sexuality. During the 1800s, English speaking countries were plagued by Victorian morality, which proselytized the idea that humans had no right to enjoy sex.

It's disturbing that Americans continue to accept a stone age ritual that violates human rights in the 21st century.


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