In Brief

When Bloom is invested as Lord Mayor, Magistrate, Chairman, President, King, Emperor, Pope, and Messiah, he swears an oath of office while "Placing his right hand on his testicles." The business of swearing sacred oaths on the family jewels may appear to be one more of Circe's wild spontaneous fantasies, but in fact it was practiced by ancient Hebrews, and probably also by Romans. There may even be Irish historical analogues.

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Thornton was perhaps the first of Joyce's annotators to hear an echo of Genesis 24:2, where the aged Abraham commands his chief servant to "Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh" and swear a solemn oath "by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth." The servant does so at 24:9, and at 47:29 Jacob too asks his son Joseph to "put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt." Quoting from The Oxford Annotated Bible, Thornton notes that Abraham's euphemistic reference to his testicles "reflected the view that the fountain of reproductivity was sacred to the deity." The Harper's Bible Dictionary similarly comments that "The hand was placed under the thigh when oaths were taken because special veneration was given the organs of generation" (755).

The relevance of this sacred Hebrew practice is suggested by the words of Bloom's oath: "So may the Creator deal with me." But ancient Romans appear to have performed a more secular version of the action in their law courts. Slote cites W. W. Buckland's A Text-Book of Roman Law: "In Roman Law, a witness (testis) holds his testicles when he swears to tell the truth, so that the truthfulness of his testimony is guaranteed on the basis of his own procreative powers." The ultimate etymological roots of testis and the diminutive testiculus are obscure, but it seems that our western traditions of legal "testimony" are carrying forward at least some memory of men clutching their private parts. 

In an entertaining and informative 2009 blog on cabinetmagazine.org, Classics professor Joshua T. Katz throws some cold water on this popular understanding of Roman law while noting similar practices around the world: "An eighteenth-century BC Old Babylonian letter from the city of Kisurra (in present-day Iraq) includes the words, 'Thus you (have said to me): "Let your envoy grasp my testicles and my penis, and then I will give (it) to you.”' Hindu and Arabian pledges of honor from the eighteenth century AD and beyond in which men hold each other’s private parts are described in graphic detail by the orientalist and sexologist Allen Edwardes. Somewhat differently, in Athenian homicide trials, the accuser trampled the testicles of a boar, a ram, and a bull, swearing to the veracity of his claim and invoking destruction on himself and his family if he was perjuring himself. These are serious oaths." There may even have been Irish precedents. Gifford quotes from Samuel Beckett's Molloy: "What is one to think of the Irish oath by natives with the right hand on the relics of the saints and the left on the virile member?"

John Hunt 2022
Representation by an unknown artist of Abraham's command to his servant to put his hand "under my thigh." Source: kepticsannotatedbible.com.