Prepuces

In Brief

"To whom? . . . Ah, to be sure! . . . The islanders, Mulligan said to Haines casually, speak frequently of the collector of prepuces." Adopting the persona of an ethnographer detailing the exotic cultural practices of his countrymen to a visiting colleague, Mulligan explains their belief in a strange deity called Jehovah (aka God) who judges the loyalty of his followers by their willingness to slice rings of skin off the genital organs of their infant male offspring. Joyce no doubt wishes to offend Irish Catholics, but he may also be setting his sights higher: on the Holy Father and his conclave of cardinals in Rome.

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In Ithaca, Stephen too thinks of circumcision, while urinating with Bloom in Bloom’s back yard. Exposed penises make the scientific Bloom think of issues like “tumidity," "sanitariness," size, and hairiness, but they turn Stephen’s mind to the circumcision of Jesus Christ, and particularly to the question of “whether the divine prepuce, the carnal bridal ring of the holy Roman catholic apostolic church, conserved in Calcata, were deserving of simple hyperduly or of the fourth degree of latria accorded to the abscission of such divine excrescences as hair and toenails.” Gifford glosses the question posed by the dual nature of Christ: "is this relic a part of the body of Jesus, in which case it is due latria, the highest kind of worship, paid to God only . . . or is the relic 'human,' thus meriting hyperdulia, the veneration given to the Virgin Mary as the most exalted of human beings?" (586).

Christ’s foreskin, the only part of the divine body left behind on earth (not counting hair, sloughed skin, fingernails, and toenails), was indeed regarded not only as a holy relic, but as a “carnal bridal ring.” A book by David Farley, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (2009) notes that Catherine of Siena, the medieval saint, was reported to have worn her Lord’s foreskin as a ring around her finger. In doing so she was probably following the practice of many medieval female religious of becoming quite literally married to Christ—a phenomenon explored in Sarah McNamer’s Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (2009). Later, though, the sacred penis part ended up in the north Italian hill town of Calcata, making the town’s church an important pilgrimage destination. Farley’s adventure story starts from the fact that, in December 1983, the church’s parish priest announced to his congregation that the foreskin of Jesus had disappeared. 

In addition to confirming what Stephen says about bridal rings and about Calcata, Farley’s book discusses something that is never mentioned in Ulysses but that may very well account for Mulligan’s and Stephen’s strange obsession.  Although the divine foreskin had been an object of veneration for many centuries, and at one point belonged to the Vatican, Calcata’s long history of marketing it to pilgrims excited embarrassment and other ill feelings (penis envy?) among the princes of the church, and changes in Catholic theology made veneration of divine genitals more problematic than it had previously been. In 1900, therefore, the Vatican decreed that the parish could display its prize holding only on New Year’s Day. It declared, furthermore, that from that day forth anyone who spoke about the divine foreskin would be subject to excommunication. Given the fact that Joyce is up to speed on other aspects of the divine prepuce, it seems likely that he would have known about this papal ban. If so, he is making a point of spectacularly defying it, once in Telemachus, again in Scylla and Charybdis, and most volubly in Ithaca.

JH 2011
The circumcision of Christ: detail from the Twelve Apostles Altar painted by Friedrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
David Farley, An Irreverent Curiosity (2009).