It is clear from many of the contributions to BME that the ritual or ceremony that accompanies a body modification is at least as important to the person as the actual modification itself.

Quite often getting a tattoo or piercing marks an important point in a person's life.

All traditional pre-modern societies conduct these `rites of passage' in various ways. It is only our modern society that has seen fit to do away with such important aspects of existence. Today with our commodified, supermarket stackable identities it is probably even more important for the individual psyche that some form of `initiation' takes place.

It doesn't matter if the bod. mod. is one small, hidden tattoo or a major piece of surgery. The significance and circumstances - what it means to the person - is the all important thing.

I had my ear pierced in the early seventies. This was a very radical thing for a male to do in Australia back then, with no chance of getting a `straight' job. Today a single gold `sleeper' seems almost bourgeois suburban, you just about need two sleepers to get a job in a bank! Even though I have had other piercings and keep a 6 gauge frenum piercing with a 2" ring that sits behind the glans, I still regard my first piercing as vitally significant for a number of personal reasons.

The main reason for this contribution is to share some information about Australian Aboriginal circumcision and subincision. This will illustrate my point about the importance of ritual in human development and socialisation. In traditional Aboriginal society ALL males undergo circumcision, like other traditional cultures this marks the passage from childhood to adulthood.

"The rite of circumcision and its attendant ceremonies firmly and unequivocally establish a youth's status in Walbiri society. Should he fail to pass through these rites, he may not enter into his father's lodge, he may not participate in religious ceremonies, he cannot acquire a marriage line, he cannot legitimately obtain a wife; in short, he cannot become a social person"
The circumcision ceremony is carried out between 11 and 13 years of age, depending on individual time of puberty. It is far more significant than the later subincision ceremony.

The time of circumcision includes the whole society and involves dancing and singing with elaborate body painting and decoration. Only initiated males attend the actual cutting ceremony which is the culmination of many weeks preparation. The elaborate ceremonies; the passing on of certain spiritual and ancestral secrets; and the building up of tension prior to the cutting leave no doubt for the initiate that have undergone a serious `rite of passage'. The seriousness of the procedure can be seen from the following.

"A brother [tribesman] seizes the novice and places him face upward with his feet towards the fire. Another brother straddles him and presses his pubes against the lad's face to silence his cries, while a third grips his legs. A brother holds the shaft of the boy's penis, in order to protect "the inside bone" from injury; one of the circumcisors stretches the foreskin several inches, and another cuts it off with two or three quick slices. The rest of the brothers watch closely for it is their duty to KILL THE OPERATOR AT ONCE IF HE MUTILATES THE BOY."
It might be interesting to tell your favourite piercer of this practice just before he next pokes a needle through you!

Subincision takes place around 17 years of age and NOT all Aboriginal men are subincised. Subincision ceremonies are not quite as lavish and extensive as circumcision ceremonies, partly because they are `men's business' and partly because it is not as essential as circumcision.

"Just as the sun rises, the elder brothers tell two of the sister's husbands to lie on their backs, side by side with their feet towards the fire. The brothers place the youth on his back on top of the men. The brother hands the subinciser the knife, [traditionally made of stone] over which the fathers have previously sung to make it cut straight. To the accompaniment of loud chanting by the company, the man deftly slices open the youth's penis from the meatus to a point about an inch along the urethra. An elder brother holds the penis, to ensure that the "inside bone" is not cut, while other brothers stand ready to kill the inciser if he bungles the task".

REF: Religion in Aboriginal Australia. 1984. (ed.) Charlesworth, M. University of QLD Press.
- Raphael

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