Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


When Herodotus narrates what he was told by the barbarians among whom he travelled, he narrates fooleries, after the manner of the greater part of travellers. Thus, it is not to be supposed that he expects to be believed in his recital of the adventure of Gyges and Candaules; of Arion, carried on the back of a dolphin; of the oracle which was consulted on what Crœsus was at the time doing, that he was then going to dress a tortoise in a stew-pan; of Darius’ horse, which, being the first out of a certain number to neigh, in fact proclaimed his master a king; and of a hundred other fables, fit to amuse children, and to be compiled by rhetoricians. But when he speaks of what he has seen, of the customs of people he has examined, of their antiquities which he has consulted, he then addresses himself to men.

“It appears,” says he, in his book “Euterpe,” “that the inhabitants of Colchis sprang from Egypt. I judge so from my own observations rather than from hearsay; for I found that, at Colchis, the ancient Egyptians were more frequently recalled to my mind than the ancient customs of Colchis were when I was in Egypt.

“These inhabitants of the shores of the Euxine Sea stated themselves to be a colony founded by Sesostris. As for myself, I should think this probable, not merely because they are dark and woolly-haired, but because the inhabitants of Colchis, Egypt, and Ethiopia are the only people in the world who, from time immemorial, have practised circumcision; for the Phœnicians, and the people of Palestine, confess that they adopted the practice from the Egyptians. The Syrians, who at present inhabit the banks of Thermodon, acknowledge that it is, comparatively, but recently that they have conformed to it. It is principally from this usage that they are considered of Egyptian origin.

“With respect to Ethiopia and Egypt, as this ceremony is of great antiquity in both nations, I cannot by any means ascertain which has derived it from the other. It is, however, probable that the Ethiopians received it from the Egyptians; while, on the contrary, the Phœnicians have abolished the practice of circumcising new-born children since the enlargement of their commerce with the Greeks.”

From this passage of Herodotus it is evident that many people had adopted circumcision from Egypt, but no nation ever pretended to have received it from the Jews. To whom, then, can we attribute the origin of this custom; to a nation from whom five or six others acknowledge they took it, or to another nation, much less powerful, less commercial, less warlike, hid away in a corner of Arabia Petræa, and which never communicated any one of its usages to any other people?

The Jews admit that they were, many ages since, received in Egypt out of charity. Is it not probable that the lesser people imitated a usage of the superior one, and that the Jews adopted some customs from their masters?

Clement of Alexandria relates that Pythagoras, when travelling among the Egyptians, was obliged to be circumcised in order to be admitted to their mysteries. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary to be circumcised to be a priest in Egypt. Those priests existed when Joseph arrived in Egypt. The government was of great antiquity, and the ancient ceremonies of the country were observed with the most scrupulous exactness.

The Jews acknowledge that they remained in Egypt two hundred and five years. They say that, during that period, they did not become circumcised. It is clear, then, that for two hundred and five years the Egyptians did not receive circumcision from the Jews. Would they have adopted it from them after the Jews had stolen the vessels which they had lent them, and, according to their own account, fled with their plunder into the wilderness? Will a master adopt the principal symbol of the religion of a robbing and runaway slave? It is not in human nature.

It is stated in the Book of Joshua that the Jews were circumcised in the wilderness. “I have delivered you from what constituted your reproach among the Egyptians.” But what could this reproach be, to a people living between Phœnicians, Arabians, and Egyptians, but something which rendered them contemptible to these three nations? How effectually is that reproach removed by abstracting a small portion of the prepuce? Must not this be considered the natural meaning of the passage?

The Book of Genesis relates that Abraham had been circumcised before. But Abraham travelled in Egypt, which had been long a flourishing kingdom, governed by a powerful king. There is nothing to prevent the supposition that circumcision was, in this very ancient kingdom, an established usage. Moreover, the circumcision of Abraham led to no continuation; his posterity was not circumcised till the time of Joshua.

But, before the time of Joshua, the Jews, by their own acknowledgment, adopted many of the customs of the Egyptians. They imitated them in many sacrifices, in many ceremonies; as, for example, in the fasts observed on the eves of the feasts of Isis; in ablutions; in the custom of shaving the heads of the priests; in the incense, the branched candle-stick, the sacrifice of the red-haired cow, the purification with hyssop, the abstinence from swine’s flesh, the dread of using the kitchen utensils of foreigners; everything testifies that the little people of Hebrews, notwithstanding its aversion to the great Egyptian nation, had retained a vast number of the usages of its former masters. The goat Azazel, which was despatched into the wilderness laden with the sins of the people, was a visible imitation of an Egyptian practice. The rabbis are agreed, even, that the word Azazel is not Hebrew. Nothing, therefore, could exist to have prevented the Hebrews from imitating the Egyptians in circumcision, as the Arabs, their neighbors, did.

It is by no means extraordinary that God, who sanctified baptism, a practice so ancient among the Asiatics, should also have sanctified circumcision, not less ancient among the Africans. We have already remarked that he has a sovereign right to attach his favors to any symbol that he chooses.

As to what remains since the time when, under Joshua, the Jewish people became circumcised, it has retained that usage down to the present day. The Arabs, also, have faithfully adhered to it; but the Egyptians, who, in the earlier ages, circumcised both their males and females, in the course of time abandoned the practice entirely as to the latter, and at last applied it solely to priests, astrologers, and prophets. This we learn from Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. In fact, it is not clear that the Ptolemies ever received circumcision.

The Latin authors who treat the Jews with such profound contempt as to apply to them in derision the expressions, “curtus Apella,” “credat Judæus Apella,” “curti Judæi,” never apply such epithets to the Egyptians. The whole population of Egypt is at present circumcised, but for another reason than that which operated formerly; namely, because Mahometanism adopted the ancient circumcision of Arabia. It is this Arabian circumcision which has extended to the Ethiopians, among whom males and females are both still circumcised.

We must acknowledge that this ceremony appears at first a very strange one; but we should remember that, from the earliest times, the oriental priests consecrated themselves to their deities by peculiar marks. An ivy leaf was indented with a graver on the priests of Bacchus. Lucian tells us that those devoted to the goddess Isis impressed characters upon their wrist and neck. The priests of Cybele made themselves eunuchs.

It is highly probable that the Egyptians, who revered the instrument of human production, and bore its image in pomp in their processions, conceived the idea of offering to Isis and Osiris through whom everything on earth was produced, a small portion of that organ with which these deities had connected the perpetuation of the human species. Ancient oriental manners are so prodigiously different from our own that scarcely anything will appear extraordinary to a man of even but little reading. A Parisian is excessively surprised when he is told that the Hottentots deprive their male children of one of the evidences of virility. The Hottentots are perhaps surprised that the Parisians preserve both.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25