Penis Cover – Prepuce Cover – Penis Sheath
Annals of the SA Museum Vol. 58 Part 3 Pg 263 Zulu / Tsonga – Circa 1890
Many tribal art and costume collectors have groups of the female cache sex of various cultures in their displays, but few have focused on the male prepuce cover. Academics, collectors, dealers and indeed the modern descendants of the ethnic groups of Southern Africa have cumulatively lost interest in penis covers, and indeed forgotten their earlier social importance.
Abakwetha by Lister Hunter, a trader in Umtata – circa 1950.
Before the widespread adoption of Western garments, African men in Southern Africa generally wore a basic loin covering, usually consisting of a kilt type garment made up of strips of animal skin in the front and a flap of animal hide at the back, or a wrap of trade store fabric. While there was no shame in being seen without these garments, a man over the age of puberty would not think of appearing in company without a penis cover that consisted of a gourd or a plaited plant fibre cap worn over the tip of the penis. This was not simply for reasons of modesty or the shielding of a delicate area of the anatomy, but seen also as an essential item of protection against evil magic. Culturally specific uses for covers are known and there is record of very special examples made from elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.
Abakwetha by Mrs. Fred Clarke ‘nee Goss’, a trader at Gosshill / Pondoland – circa 1940
Barbara Tyrrell, who gained fame as a close observer and visual recorder of the tribal life and costume in Southern Africa, recalls the ubiquitous penis cover and wrote frankly in her book ‘Her African Quest’, of a childhood memory in Zululand: “The essential item of the male dress was the penis cover, small gourd or plated ‘box’, not necessarily for reasons of modesty but as protection against evil eye, evil influence. There was no same in nudity and a sporran not always a complete cover. We accepted and respected racial differences and I believed, quite simply, that the ‘box’ grew as part of their anatomy, just another evidence of difference.”
Swazi men Washing circa 1920 Zulu type – circa 1900.
For the purpose of disseminating knowledge, we share with you a scarce resource: a very carefully researched and illustrated paper by Michael W. Conner, PhD., ISA-AM presented in 1990 – which follows.
Illustration 1 Illustration 2
Illustration 1: Map of Nguni Movements c.1800. Krige, 1936, p.2
Illustration 2: Thembu/Fingo boys wearing prepuce covers. Laubscher, 1938, p.76, courtesy of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc.
Early visitors to southern Africa rarely considered the Nguni prepuce cover to be a form of dress. Men wearing only penis covers were simply described as walking about naked. Nevertheless, for the culturally related Nguni speaking peoples of southern Africa, such as the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Swazi, Thonga and their Nguni/Ngoni offshoots in present-day Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi, this form of Nguni ‘fig-leaf’ once constituted the respectable minimum in traditional attire—worn by men who were not so much ashamed of exposing the penis itself, as compelled by social propriety to conceal its sensitive and vulnerable glans.
In the 18th century the Nguni peoples were generally clustered together along the southeast coast of southern Africa. Neighboring peoples, such as the San and Sotho-Tswana inhabited the more marginal territory further inland, both to the north and southwest of the Nguni homesteads. Until late in the late 18th century, Nguni political units would best be described as semi-distinct cattle ranges managed by family groups who voluntarily placed themselves under the authority of a single clan head. Even the renown Zulu were originally but one such small ‘family’ unit.
Environmental barriers separated the Sotho, San and the Nguni related peoples of South Africa but were not so formidable as to preclude cultural exchanges. Nguni clans would almost certainly have developed exclusive features in dress. While similar items might be employed by several clans, the materials used and their placement on the body were often clan specific (1).
Illustration 3: Zulu man with skins front and back Angus, 1849.
Modesty is culturally determined and vulnerable to change. Classic Sutu dress proscribed a breech-cloth style of loin dress which left the buttocks exposed (2) When the Zulu added a buttocks covering to their dress in the mid-19th century, they soon came to refer to their Sutu neighbors as ‘people who run about naked’. Like Victorian visitors shocked and bemused by Nguni men wearing only a penis cover, the Nguni were quick to judge others by the standards of dress they had set for themselves. It was exactly this same sense of propriety which had compelled Shaka Zulu in the early 1820’s to demand that his european guests, Henry Ogle and Henry Francis Fynn senior, put on prepuce covers while living within his dominions. (3)
As early as the 1770’s the wearing of the simple prepuce cover was recognized by Karl Thunberg as constituting a distinctive Nguni culture trait.
“The Hottentots universally wore a bag just before the parts of shame, which was made of the gray part of the back of the Cape fox, and was fastened round the body with a thong. The Caffres (Nguni) wore a bag similar indeed to this, but made of another kind of skin,(4) and at the same time so small that it sometimes did not cover more than the foreskin.”(5)
The naturalist Ferdinand Krauss, visiting Natal in 1839, noted that the Zulu wore a hollow, three-inch oxhide cone without ornaments to cover the glans of the penis while other Nguni clans made these caps of straw, wood, skin, etc. and decorated them with copper rings and beads. (6) Other items of male dress, while socially prescribed, were optional. Clearly, the penis cover was for the Nguni a respectable form of minimum male attire.
Illustration 4 Illustration 5
Illustration 4: Thembu cattle herdsman wearing gourd/fruit penis cap, Baziya, Umtata 1935 (photo W.T.H. Beukes) (TM 35/107), Ann. SAM ,58, pt.3, p.263
Illustration 5: Mbilini (right) who led he attack on the 80th at the Intombi river, 1879, wearing traditional loin skins and headring. Barthorp, M., 1980, p.109
The daily attire of any Nguni man of some standing normally consisted of a simple sporran of animal pelts which only partially concealed his penis cover worn jauntily underneath. The Nguni considered it a both shocking and serious breech of social etiquette to expose the glans penis itself to either women or men. In some contexts exposing the glans could be a serious legal offense:
“If a man willfully exposes himself without the penis cover, he may be fined by the Chief. Should a man maliciously, or otherwise, pull off the penis cover of another, a fine of from one to five head of cattle may be inflicted, payable to the complainant (7)”
“Gaika on seeing one of his Heemraad (Imguia) going about without the partial covering for the penis and appearing in that way amongst women ordered him to replace it. He refused in consequence of which he was strangled (8)”
In other situations, nudity was actually proscribed by Nguni society and the voluntary removal of the penis cover facilitated ritual purification, almost as if by removing the cap, the healing ritual could more effectively accomplish a cure:
“On the way back to their camp, allsoever as had killed a foe at once made themselves apparent by doffing their skin-girdles and penis covers and carrying them in their raised right had, along with the assegai, blade upwards, that had done the deed. Arrived in camp, the captains called upon all such forthwith to fortify themselves against all evil consequences by various processes…The warriors were now adjudged sufficiently ‘clean’ to re-don their girdles and penis-covers, and sufficiently ‘safe’ to venture into the presence of his Majesty; to whom they now betook themselves.” (9)
Although frequently worn beneath animal tails, penis covers were not regarded by the Nguni as ‘underwear’ until the early part of the 20th century when the European style of wearing trousers and shorts over the cap became ubiquitous.
“Mount Frere Bhaca, especially of the older generation, also wear a penis sheath (incitsho), often under European-type trousers, for without it “it is as if you are naked”. It is made variously from soft goatskin, the cocoon of a caterpillar, carved from the hollow fruit of the umthombothi tree or from woven grass.” (10)
Nguni prepuce covers, clips or sheaths, were intimate objects usually made and fitted by the owner for his use alone. Interference with a man’s penis cover even by his wife was regarded as improper, dangerous, and suspicious behavior:
“When a married couple have quarrelled a woman may not touch her husband’s clothing, especially that which contains perspiration (shirt, loin-covering, underwear, penis box)” (11)
“In Nkandla law case 87/31 a man declared that he would have nothing to do with his wife, since she had interfered with his penis box” (12)
Unlike the ‘tails’ of Mada women of Gita Bissa, Nigeria, or of the Luyia of western Kenya which apparently acquired no personal patina, Nguni penis caps could not be re-sold upon the death of the owner (13), penis coverings throughout southern Africa were regarded as too imbued with bodily substances and personal association to be handed down or otherwise reused, outside of a purely ritual context, after the death of the owner.
On rare occasions, special penis covers might have been set aside as relics or used as ritual objects to communicate with ancestors.
“On this day (umkhosi) an ancient prepuce cover is used. It is one of the sacred articles, and on the first day on which the chief receives treatment it is balanced on the end of a piece of wood…..The wood is of umsimbiti tree, largely used on the coast for making walking sticks; and the prepuce cover is stated to have been taken from a man killed in some tribal war. It is not worn by the chief, but he has another which he wears for this special occasion.”(14)
Otherwise, social proscription dictated that the penis cover be destroyed and buried with its owner.
Due to the strong personal and cultural associations the Nguni held towards their penis covers, visitors found it difficult to collect used, decorated examples. The fact that scant collection information has been attached to any of these covers may be less a matter of a collector’s negligence, than the frank desire of the Nguni owner to preserve his anonymity. The caps powerful personal and cultural associations had to be obfuscated lest they be used against the owner and his kin. Estelle Hamilton-Welsh, a renown collector of southern African art throughout the first part of this century, wrote that although she often saw groups of Xhosa men wearing beautiful covers on ceremonial occasions, it was over thirty years before she was able to obtain even one of these. She added that even traders could not seem to persuade men to part with their covers (15) .
Illustration 6 Illustration 7
Illustration 6: Malawi Ngoni Men in Military Regalia c. 1900 Mozambique 27, 1941, p.100
Illustration 7: Malawi Ngoni crooked-neck penis caps. British Museum #1922 4-13.70, 68, 69. (These crooked necked gourd penis caps were collected from the Nguni related Ngoni of northern Malawi. They were donated to the British Museum in 1922. Their distinctive shape might be indicative of an early Nguni clan variation in penis covering style carried thousands of miles by Ngoni invaders. The peoples incorporated by the Ngoni on their migration northwards did not wear penis covers, and the peoples they resettled among in the mid-19th century came to regard the Ngoni custom of wearing a penis cover as a remarkable and distinguishing culture trait).
Nguni speaking peoples throughout southern Africa and even the various Ngoni off shoots which re-settled in Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi (16) continued to ascribe importance to the wearing of penis coverings. Certain men, especially those who had become renown warriors, might be seen walking about wearing only a penis covering well into the 1940’s. Some Xhosa have retained the custom of putting on a penis covering as part of a traditional circumcision ceremony to the present day (17)
Illustration 8 Illustration 9
Illustration 8: Male figure with ridged penis cap. #166
Illustration 9: Collection photo of similar ridged penis cap. Linden Museum, Stuttgart, #101973
The traditional culture of the Nguni is said not to have included freestanding figurative sculpture, yet several well carved male and female paired figures exist which clearly depict aspects of Nguni dress. The famous Tishman figure sports a fashionable, striated wooden penis cover similar to one collected in the 1920’s.
Illustration 10: Grooved decoration on a Zulu vessel,1835. Albany Museum #AM 184
While it is hard to distinguish the shape of a close fitting penis cap from that of the generally rounded shape of the glans penis itself, we can surmise from the importance of the penis cover to the Nguni, that the glans of all of these sculptures may well have once been covered. These figures may have once been fitted with a removable cap which has since become separated from the sculpture itself. A figure in the collections of the British Museum is evidence of this possibility, as it has been carved with a removable cap of polished black heartwood. In type, the miniature cap resembles similar caps collected between 1905 and 1950 in the Peabody museum at Harvard and elsewhere.
It is interesting to note that this corpus of paired figures is believed to have been carved sometime in the late 19th century and that they are all generally ascribed to the Nguni related Thonga. A close, rounded penis cap style was, however, not typical of the Thonga (18) in 1890. The Thonga are renown for wearing a penis sheath, the imbayi which is a covering for the penis about six or seven inches long, made of softened skin, sewn together into a bag. It was held in position by strings tied round the loins. The tip of the imbayi sheath might be raised by this string either to right or left, or could be left to hang straight down (19) . This Thonga style of penis sheath is said to have became extinct before 1897. Presumably, the popular late-19th century Zulu fashion of wearing a penis cap under soft animal pelts or western style pants supplanted it.
Illustration 11 Illustration 12
Illustration 11: Male figure with removable penis cap. British Museum #1919-12-2.1; also Sydow, Africanische Plastic, 1954, p 141
Illustration 12: Penis Caps. Zulu, South Africa, L. 3 3/8 in. Miscellaneous materials including horn and wood. The Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. Collected between 1905 and 1950. Sieber, African Textiles and Decorative Arts. 1973, p.12. (The material, size, and even slight differences in the shape of each of these penis caps can sometimes be attributed to ethnic variation).
Like most African peoples, the Nguni had long practiced circumcision. It has been argued that even partial circumcision will allow for more freedom in sexual intercourse (20), and that by removing the prepuce entirely the probability of contracting certain genital diseases may be reduced. To the Nguni, circumcision was clearly a metaphor for castration—a process of strengthening. Castrated bulls (oxen) were observed to become stronger. It was, for instance, the castrated black bull which was the preferred sacrificial beast and the bovine most closely associated with the perogative of royalty. In circumcision, boys, like these bulls, were ‘made strong’ by medicines and by removing the foreskin—a symbolic castration (21)
Illustration 13 Illustration 14
Illustration 13: Aluminum Glans cover. Pitt-Rivers Museum, 1921 Photo courtesy of William Dewey, University of Iowa, Iowa City (Penis covers were endemic to southern Africa. As late as the 1920’s the British were manufacturing an the aluminum glans cover for regional trade.)
Illustration 14: Recently circumcised youth (umkhwetha) wearing penis sheath, Transkei; c 1954, p. 599, Ann. SAM, .58 pt.4
Circumcision constituted a rite of separation. It was a means of bestowing sexual responsibility and privilege on the sexually mature. The Nguni had long used this ritual as a convenient way to delineate an age-set of men available for military service. However, when Shaka Zulu’s kingdom came to preeminence, circumcision was prohibited for a large number of Nguni men. Instead of removing the prepuce, young men were merely treated with the medicines, then conscripted en mass into the national army and bivouacked indefinitely around a royal homestead (22).
Illustration 15: Royal homestead of Dingaan, 1836. Gardiner, p.29
This profound deviation from ancient custom gave Shaka enormous control over his nation’s human resources. Advancement to marriage and full sexual privilege in Zulu society was suddenly and indefinitely postponed. The darkened and polished latex headring became the visual substitute for a circumcised penis. It was a great day for a regiment when Shaka allowed it to finally become amaKehla or ‘ring-men’—free to take wives and acquire cattle (23).
Nguni males wore penis covers both before and after circumcision. Bhaca and Swazi youths, for example, were told to put on the penis cover as soon as they had begin to mature, and this was sometimes long before the rites of circumcision would be performed on them (24). With an abrupt halt to the custom of complete prepuce removal, a huge number of mature, young Zulu/Nguni men were now obviously left uncircumcised, while their elders, often senior military men, and their most distinguished and respected leaders, were already circumcised.
Illustration 16: Zulu man with headring. Tedder, 1968, p. 55
In spite of Shaka’s edict, the desire to circumcise could not be entirely suppressed. Bryant reports that Zulu youths surreptitiously performed an informal, partial circumcision on one another to cut the prepuce free and allow the glans to become slightly more visible (25). The general penis shape was thus consciously made more ’rounded’ in an effort to mimic the shape of the circumcised penis of the elders. Youths might visually allude to circumcision by wearing a rounded gourd, or fruit shell style of cap over the glans. It is even possible that Shaka mandated that all new recruits put on a certain style of penis covering, perhaps one similar to his own. The literature is unclear as to whether Shaka was himself circumcised. Upon reaching puberty, Shaka had refused his father’s offer of a loin dress and was renown for wearing the shell of the itongwane fruit. Apparently, in the late 1700’s, the shell of this fruit had been more widely used as a snuff box. Shaka’s own preference in minimal Nguni attire seemed peculiar and even remarkable to some, for his Nguni enemies are said to have made scornful reference to his wearing a snuff box for a penis cover—a rash impropriety that they soon came to regret (26).
As early as 1888, Campbell had described a hollowed out young calabash being worn as a Zulu penis-cap (27). While calabashes were commonly used as penis covers and seem to be of generally the same form, a clear distinction would have been drawn by the Nguni between covers made of a gourd (grown on a vine) and those made from ntongwane fruit produced by a species of strychnos tree. Strychnos spinosa and strychnos oncoba each produce a large (appoximately 12 cm.) rounded fruit. The Ngoni of Malawi prefer the smaller fruit of strychnos potatorum (appoximately 5 cm.).
Illustration 17: Leaves and fruit of the strychnos potatorum, or intongwane tree. Pullinger, J.S. 1982, p.150
Illustration 18 Illustration 19
Illustration 18: Drawing of a small fruit shell penis cap (Zulu) decorated with a strip pendant housed in the British Museum. Collected in Port Natal, 1859
Illustration 19: Drawing of a wire decorated gourd snuff box, showing technique of inlaid wire ornamentation.
Illustration 20 Illustration 21
Illustration 20: Photo of fruit snuff box. Courtesy of Private Collection
Illustration 21: Wire decorated snuff box. Sieber collection, Conner/Pelrine, The Geometric Vision, 1983, cover photo.
Carolee Kennedy has suggested that this decorative wire work is typical of the Nguni and other peoples living near Delagoa Bay (29). Although penis caps of brass wire decorated intongwane fruit or calabash are as yet unrecorded, wooden penis caps and many snuff containers decorated in this technique survive. We can only speculate that the intongwane fruit penis caps of Shaka’s time might once have been wire decorated with similar geometric symbols.
Illustration 22 Illustration 23
Illustration 22: Wire decorated wooden cap. British Museum #BM 1949 AF46-602 (Special caps were reserved for ceremonial occasions and many of these were ornamented for display. An attractively ornamented cap announced a degree of achievement in Nguni society. Certainly, the style, decoration and material of a man’s cap was an important ethnic and social marker).
Illustration 23: Wire decorated wooden cap, c. 1923 Field Museum of Natural History (210633). Conner/Pelrine, 1983, p. 24
Penis covers worn by the Nguni in southern Africa were fashioned from a host of materials and they occurred in a wide variety of shapes. However, three basic functional/formal distinctions can be made. Uncircumcised males with long foreskins might simply seal off the tip of the prepuce with a small clip in order to effectively hide the glans penis. No photos or illustrations seem to have been made of Nguni men wearing prepuce clips, and they may well have become extinct very early in the 19th century. In 1824 Andrew Smith described a clip worn by the Mponda Nguni: “One (penis cover is) much larger than the other and includes the glans; the other is about the size of a hazel nut and admits only the extremity of the skin which is kept there by the glans pressing it forcibly against the cover.” (30)
Illustration 24: Mada men wearing prepuce clips. JRAI, 12, 1912, p. 198
Illustration 25: Thembu/Fingo boys wearing prepuce covers. Laubscher, 1938, p. 76. Courtesy of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc.
Illustration 26: Swazi man wearing penis cap, Herbst, D. 1985, p. 137
The glans cap was a type of cover which enclosed the glans and the prepuce but left the penile shaft itself exposed. After circumcision, it would have been impossible for a man to simply pinch or clip the prepuce shut as he may have done in his youth. The penis cover of a circumcised, Le. sexually mature Zulu male before about 1818 must have somehow surrounded the entire glans in order to hold it securely.
Illustration 27 Illustration 28
Illustration 27: Young man wearing leaner isidla at dance, 1960. Xhosa, Willowvale. Incitscho woven of grass, 1948, 43 mm. Bhaca; Lugangeni Mt. Frere. Ann. SAM v. 58 pt 4, p. 527. (Notice the peculiar weaving technique used on the grass penis cap in this photo. Leather straps, sometimes with the fur left on, were also woven into caps).
Illustration 28: Leather penis-sheath, 1894—no data (Ratzel 1894 2:81). Ingxiba of leather, 1948, 500 mm, Xhosa, Owaninga, Willowvale, 1948 Ann SAM 58 pt 4, p. 527
The penis sheath covers glans, prepuce (if it has not already been removed) and the full length of the penis. The Thonga wore a penis sheath. A pocket-like, hollow ‘cone’ which covering the penis was observed and described by Krauss when visiting the Zulu in 1839 (31)
Illustration 29 Illustration 30
Illustration 29: Woman weaving cap Zululand (craft center). Courtesy of Carolee Kennedy
Illustration 30: Woman weaving cap Zululand, (detail). Courtesy of Carolee Kennedy (In spite of the division of labor implied by these photos of a woman weaving a penis cap, most Nguni men traditionally wove certain household items and would probably have woven their own penis caps to suit) ‘
Illustration 31 Illustration 32
Illustration 31: British Museum, general selection of caps from storage drawers.Courtesy of Carolee Kennedy
Illustration 32: Banana leaf stalk caps, c. 1920. Field Museum of Natural History (210631), 2 & UCLA (LX77-1244). While the most commonly collected Nguni penis cap is made of banana leaf stalk strips, this cap may actually be ‘modern’ innovation developed over 100 years ago in response the need tower caps under european style shorts and pants.
Illustration 33: Photo of two Thembu chain-decorated isidla of calabash, 1935. Diameter 40mm. Mqanduli, (TM35/340) & (TM35/338) Ann. SAM, v. 58 pt4, p. 527
Mature men probably owned more than one penis cap at a time and used different sizes and materials of caps according to socially proscribed norms of dress. An Nguni chief was often required to wear a special cap while participating in rituals:
“On this day (umkhosi) an ancient prepuce cover is used. It is one of the sacred articles, and on the first day on which the chief receives treatment it is balanced on the end of a piece of wood…..The wood is of umsimbiti tree, largely used on the coast for making walking-sticks; and the prepuce cover is stated to have been taken from a man killed in some tribal war. It is not worn by the chief, but he has another which he wears for this special occasion” (32)
The Swazi king wore a distinctive and symbolically evocative ivory penis cap on the most important day of the Ncwala ceremony, when he walked among his people while being highly praised.
“The King walks naked before the women and warriors with only a glowing white penis covering made from the tusk of an elephant.” (33)
After having achieved a certain social standing, distinguished Swazi men were awarded special permission to wear a penis-sheath made of prestige materials such as rhino horn (34). Special caps such as these could achieve an almost a jewel-like quality which would have suitably announced the owner’s social status to the community. Xhosa boys were also said to have worn different, usually larger and more elaborately decorated penis gourds when participating in vigorous jousting competitions (35).
Illustration 34: Thembu/Fingo youths wearing jousting gourds. Lauscher, 1938. Coutesy of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, Inc.
Illustration 35: ingxiba of calabash with ornamental chains, 1930. Xhosa, Cala (FH A769) Ann. SAM, v.58 pt. 4, p.527
A frank recognition of the artistic and cultural significance of the Nguni prepuce cover is essential to acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the role and formal expression of art and culture throughout the southern African region. Three functional categories of cover have been identified: The prepuce clip; the glans cap; and the penis sheath. Within these categories the Nguni created an astonishing variation of form and decoration. Covers were fashioned from leather, palm leaf, banana-leaf stalk, grass, metal, calabash, various fruit shells, cocoon skins, and both ivory and wood. It now seems unlikely that a single style of penis covering appertained to any single Nguni ethnic group, although some types may indeed have been more characteristic, especially in certain circumstances, such as traditional battle attire. Some caps were reserved by their owners for use only in specific contexts. In the 19th and early 20th century different styles of Nguni penis covers evidently co-existed and were probably adapted to suit changing norms, persisting through the middle of the 20th century. Recent field observation indicates that the putting on of a penis cover continues to play a symbolic role in some contemporary Xhosa circumcision ceremonies, and further research may yet yield even more surprising insights into the aesthetic resilience of this quintessential form of Nguni dress.