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Friday 10 February 2012

Devilish superstitions

Paul Jackson sent this photograph of a Bronze Age round barrow at Wilsford Cum Lake near Amesbury in Wiltshire. The barrow—a prehistoric burial mound—is the grassy hump in the background (it can be seen more clearly in the inset, which comes from Google Street View). Barrows of this kind are fairly common in Wiltshire, as well as other parts of Britain, but this is a particularly well-preserved example. It’s 4.4 metres (14½ feet) high and 36 metres (118 feet) in diameter; it dates from circa 1000 BC.

Round barrows are artificial mounds, built during the Bronze Age for the burial of high-status individuals. Over time, however, their original purpose—and man-made origin—was forgotten. They were widely considered “the work of the devil”, and in some parts of the country round barrows are known as “Devil’s humps”.

Over the centuries, ignorant superstition has attributed a wide range of phenomena to the “work of the Devil”, from eclipses and fossils to warts, migraines and masturbation. As mentioned in The Devil of Rennes-le-Chateau, masturbation continued to be demonized well into the nineteenth century. Production of excessive amounts of semen (to get back to the subject of the photograph) was thought to lead to loss of energy and vitality. Ejaculation twice a week into the marital uterus was good; ejaculation six times a day over your jeans was bad.

One of the most vocal proponents of the anti-masturbation movement was William Acton, who wrote in 1857: “Apathy, loss of memory, abeyance of concentrative power, indisposition for action and incoherence of language are the most characteristic mental phenomena resulting from masturbation in young men. The large expenditure of semen has exhausted the vital force.”

The “too much ejaculation is bad for you” superstition is surprisingly widespread. As well as Victorian England, similar beliefs can be found in the Tantric Yoga and Kamasutra-style “sacred sex” practices of India, and in Taoism and Qi Gong in China. In the context of the latter system, the loss of ejaculatory fluid is associated with a corresponding loss of “qi”, the vital life force -- resulting in premature aging, general fatigue and susceptibility to disease.

The word “cum”, by the way, is Latin for “with”. Wilsford Cum Lake is a parish made up of two small villages, one called Wilsford and the other called Lake. I’m sure that’s what you thought as soon as you saw Paul’s photograph.

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