On the case of disappearing penises

By | September 27, 2011

A couple of weekends ago we hosted a friend who had just returned from Nigeria. She mentioned that penises were currently being ‘disappeared’ in the country. We smiled, we laughed, and I told the story of how I first learnt about disappearing penises. Like a good, self-respecting, PhD-holding anthropologist, I concluded by insisting that I really couldn’t say much else until someone did an ethnographic study of the topic.

I hadn’t thought about it since then until this evening when Teju Cole, during one of the times he breaks character as a writer of Small Fates, tweeted a link to the closest thing to an ethnographic study of disappearing penis – a Frank Bures article titled A mind dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves. It is a well nuanced piece whose quality does not derive only from the fact that it wounds my Nigerian pride by showing that  we are neither the originators of, nor the exclusive owners of the rights to, disappearing membrum virile.

Much like how a very quick look in the literature, as I was thinking of starting a research project on the study of internet fraud, showed that we cannot claim to have founded – or even be the greatest practioners of – the confidence trick, even though it is now known almost exclusively by its Nigerian name, 419. Bummer.

From the Bures article:

Nigeria was not the first site of mysterious genital disappearance. As with so many other things, its invention can be claimed by the Chinese. The first known reports of “genital retraction” date to around 300 B.C., when the mortal dangers of suo-yang, or “shrinking penis,” were briefly sketched in the Nei Ching, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic Text of Internal Medicine. Also in China, the first full description of the condition was recorded in 1835, in Pao Siaw-Ow’s collection of medical remedies, which describes suo-yang as a “ying type of fever” (meaning it arises from too much cold) and recommends that the patient get a little “heaty” yang for balance.

Fears of magical penis loss were not limited to the Orient. The Malleus Maleficarum, medieval Europeans’ primary guidebook to witches and their ways, warned that witches could cause one’s membrum virile to vanish, and indeed several chapters were dedicated to this topic. Likewise the Compendium Maleficarum warned that witches had many ways to affect one’s potency, the seventh of which included “a retraction, hiding or actual removal of the male genitals.” (This could be either a temporary or a permanent condition.) Even in the 1960s, there were reports of Italian migrant workers in Switzerland panicking over a loss of virility caused by witchcraft.

Read it all here.

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