Jon Stewart the other night spoke of the Congolese Penis Theft Panic, where men fear witches either steal or shrink their members.
My own heart shrank when I heard this. This is directly out of the middle ages, literally. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the 1500s witchhunting manual that figures in my novel The Witch’s Trinity, there are many passages about witches shrinking penises or making them outright disappear. It is puzzling and sad that parts of the world still labor under superstitions of the Dark Ages.
A quick glance at the Malleus table of contents reveals that Part One addresses the question “whether witches may work some Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be entirely removed and separate from the Body.” In Part Two, that sticky issue rears its head again (oh the terrible puns): “How, as it were, [witches] Deprive Man of his Virile Member.”
Luckily, there was hope offered for those miserable emasculated peasants, as Chapter Four of Part Two offers “Remedies prescribed for those who by Prestidigitatory Art has lost their Virile Members or have seemingly been Transformed into the Shapes of Beasts.”
Curiosity compels me to learn about these remedies. I have a copy of the Malleus, which is alive and unwell in reprints.
Well, pshaw, the member is still there, only “hidden by a glamour.” So how might these suffering men make the invisible visible again? The authors of the Malleus suggest that “They should as far as possible come to an amicable agreement with the witch herself.”
Riiiiiiiight. ‘Cause she’s gonna want to help with that right before she steps up to the stake to be burned.
You may notice that the section title also includes how to get out of being transformed into a beast. This section explores the anecdote of a sailor ashore in Cyprus who ate the eggs sold him by a local. An hour later, he went back to his ship, but his fellow sailors ran him off with a stick, crying, “Look what this ass is doing! Curse the beast, you are not coming on board.” The eggs had rendered him into a donkey.
He went back to the witch’s house, since his ship had sailed, and served her for three years as a beast of burden—with a few coffee breaks in which she and her fellow witches acknowledged him as a man and talked with him.
In the fourth year of his servitude, he and the witch passed by a church ringing its bell at the moment the Host was elevated. He knelt outside it, which piety was remarked by some merchants. The witch tried to beat him to get him to move, which only exposed her witchcraft. She was questioned and tortured, confessed. She agreed to transform him back to a man in return for her release. He sailed home, but she…well, the Malleus puts it in this succinct, chilling language: “Being again arrested, she paid the debt which her crimes merited.”
The New York Times recently wrote about children being accused of witchcraft in Angola, the Congo Republic and Congo, where this penis theft panic is happening. My blog post about it is here.