Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Crisis of the Day: Penis theft

Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft. —Joe Bavier reporting in "Lynchings in Congo as penis theft panic hits capital"

This problem is not confined to the Republic of Congo but is widespread throughout West Africa. It is certainly to be found in Saudi Arabia. And according to folklorist Moira Smith the fear of magical member shrinkage or outright theft extends to Southeast Asia and China in one form or another.

But before we laugh at the natives, let me point out that Smith's paper "The flying phallus and the laughing inquisitor: penis theft in the Malleus Maleficarum"1 makes clear that the terror of penis theft plays a nontrivial role in European tradition. Even today, explicit cases occasionally appear in American emergency rooms, where the victim is promptly referred to the psychiatric department.

Because of the strange times in which we live—which I refer to as "neo-medieval" (culturally) or "neo-feudal" (economically)—I would ask you to consider Smith's remark that—

Like most of his contemporaries, Kramer [author of the Malleus Malificarum] believed in some things that most of us do not—that witches existed, that magic worked, that the Devil was actively involved in human affairs, and that all of this took place with the permission of God. However, the difference between Kramer and ourselves is not simply that he believed in witches and we do not. An even more fundamental difference is that he believed in God and in the Devil. The predominantly secular and materialist mindset of our age presents a major obstacle to understanding those who lived in an age of faith. If we are to understand Kramer or other demonologists on their terms, we must reckon with their Catholic faith and take it seriously.

While Smith has an admirable openness to what she takes to be other cultures and other times, I believe she has not spent enough time away from the library. She should consult with the followers of Pat Robertson, the Pentecostalists, the Fundamentalists, the right-wing Evangelicals—not to mention the Catholic hierarchy—and then tell me that one of the differences between a medieval Inquisitor and ourselves is that "he believed in witches and we do not."

In fact her list of medieval beliefs—

—can not only be found in churches and religious schools, where their teaching receives de facto support from tax dollars, but finds expression in every aspect of American civic life, including but not limited to our laws, our customs, our media and our foreign policy.

In response, secularists such as myself, viewing the horror of the consequences, can too easily dehumanize the holders of these beliefs. This is in part because many high-profile proponents—a host of preachers and politicians—are cynical and dishonest exploiters of American folk-religion. But the same charge cannot be leveled against the rank and file. And however strong my emotion, I recognize that dehumanizing the victim is not an effective strategy for restoring a bit of sanity.

Smith, looking to another time, voices the same opinion—

In short, we are more ready to laugh at the Inquisition than to attempt to understand inquisitors on their own terms or acknowledge that they too might have laughed on occasion.

Like it or not—like them or not—real "progressivism" requires us not only to reduce the power of would-be sorcerers, witches and Inquisitors but also to convince American men that their penises are, after all, still intact—even without God or guns.2

Related posts
Fear and loathing in Florida (11/6/04)
Exorcism: "A growth industry for the pastoral care business" (2/18/05)
The Church of Secularism (2/22/05)
Religious right heady with power (2/23/05)
Nun tortured to death in convent (6/19/05)
Sunday's meditation on Tuesday: Religion, torture and law (8/9/05)
The threat of evangelicism (8/25/05)
Exorcism 101 - Session II (9/20/05)
Guideline of the Day (9/20/05)
No evidence of Satanic killings in Sweden—yet (9/14/06)
News of note — Feb 14 08



1The Malleus Malificarum ("The Hammer of the Witches") was the quintessential medieval text on witchcraft. [back]

2I'm of course liberally paraphrasing Obama's great gaffe. His real mistake wasn't in his analysis but in uttering it at a San Francisco fund-raiser of the elite. [back]

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