Saturday, December 17, 2011

Penis snatching comes to Europe

I’m not much of a comedian, but I can usually elicit a chuckle -- if only of disbelief -- by talking about penis snatching. Depending on one’s point of view, genital removal by occult means is either a rumor or an epidemic or both, and it has swept across western, central and southern Africa over the past two decades or so. I encountered an outbreak in Tiringoulou, in CAR’s far Northeast, in March 2010. Penis snatching falls into solidly into the category of African-news-so-bizarre-it’s-funny, and for that reason I often feel a little guilty when I regale people with these tales, for I fear they stoke false images of Africa as the home of startlingly irrational people.

What I hadn’t realized until my mom happened upon a reference on the Norwegian Wikipedia site about witch trials there is that genital theft was a major preoccupation in Europe, too, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. Detailed accounts of these crimes can be found in the 1486 volume Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”). The Malleus’s authorship is attributed to two Dominican scholar/inquisitioners living in present-day Germany. Their objective was simple: to convince people that witchcraft exists and that it is a devil-driven scourge demanding immediate eradication. After offering a proof of the existence of witchcraft, the authors begin describing different modes of witchcraft, how they are perpetrated, and what can be done to treat them. They conclude with detailed discussion of how witches should be punished and reformed, which, though advocating the death penalty and torture in certain cases, are surprisingly un-bloody, with forgiveness often an important element. (These instructions cover scenarios from "method three of passing sentence on a woman with a bad reputation who is to be exposed to questioning under torture" to "method two of passing sentences on a denounced woman who merely has a bad reputation" to "the method of passing sentence on a woman who has confessed heresy but is relapsed, though repentant".)

The book explains a range of practices such as turning people into wild animals and such, but by far the bulk of the sorcery described concerns anxieties over procreation. For instance, the authors go into cases of women becoming infertile, and men whose semen can no longer exit or lose power, and men who can no longer get an erection. It also discusses “the way in which they [witches] take away male members”. Here is one such case, recounted by a venerable father from the convent at Speyer. He was hearing confession one day when

“a certain young man showed up, and in his confession he claimed sorrowfully that he had lost his male member. I was astonished and did not wish to believe his words lightly, since the man who believes lightly is judged to be fickle-minded by the wise man. So, I discovered the truth through experience, perceiving nothing by sight when the young man removed his clothes and showed me the place. Then, I came up with a sensible plan and asked whether he considered any woman suspect. The young man said that the did, but she was away, living in Worms. Then I said, ‘Here are my instructions for you. Approach her as soon as possible and strive, to best of your abilities, to soften her with promises and enticing words,’ which is what he did do. A few days later he returned to thank me, claiming that he had regained every thing. I believed his words, though I was once more made certain through visual experience” (p. 324).

One of the main differences I’ve noticed between the European and African discussions of this kind of witchcraft is the importance accorded to the visual/physical aspect. In conversations about penis snatching with people in Tiringoulou, I never met anyone concerned with the physical possibility of removing (and eventually replacing) a “male member” without touching it. When I’ve discussed with people from outside of Central Africa, in contrast, their first question tends to be something along the lines of, “But they didn’t really remove the penis -- that’s impossible!” Already in 1487, the Malleus anticipates this concern. Its authors go to great lengths to explain the mechanics of the operation. For instance, they write:

At this point, a few things should be noted for a clearer understanding of the previous discussion of this topic. First, it should in no way be believed that such members are torn out of or separated from the body. Instead, they are hidden by the demon through the art of conjuring, so that they can be neither seen nor touched. This is shown by authority and reason... . Alexander of Hales says: “Properly speaking, conjuring is an illusion of the demon. This has no cause from the point of view of a change in the thing but only from the point of view of the perceiver, who is deceived, in terms of either the internal or the external sense of perception.” In connection with these words, it should be noted that in this instance the illusion is played on the two external senses (sight and touch), and not on the internal ones (the common sense, fantasy, the force of imagination, that of estimation, and memory (p. 324).

The authors later continue,

As for what pronouncement should be made about those sorceresses who sometimes keep large numbers of these members (twenty or thirty at once) in a bird’s nest of in some cabinet, where the members move as if alive or eat a stalk or fodder, as many have seen and the general report relates, it should be said that these things are all carried out through the Devil’s working and illusion. In this case, an illusion is played on the viewers’ senses of perception in the ways discussed above (p. 327).

(When picturing a nest of members, my mind leaps to the handbag full of penis butter sandwiches that a Tiringoulou man told me about. How odd for such similar images to become socially powerful in such different times and places.)

I’m not sure what to make of this observation about the importance of the physical element to tales of penis snatching. The most facile interpretation would be the developmentalist one: “Africa -- (still) 500 years behind Europe.” For obvious reasons that’s unsatisfactory, to say nothing of simply wrong. I’m in the early stages of developing an article comparing contemporary African penis snatching scares to these earlier European ones. I don’t yet know how it all fits together. For now I’m filing it under the trove that is the mental category of surprising connections -- a category that gives me satisfaction as much for the puzzles it introduces as those that it solves.

Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). 2006. New York: Cambridge. Christopher S. Mackay, ed.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.