Masculinization rituals among the Sambia
The boys of the Sambia undergo rites of passage involving bloodletting and semen ingestion on the way to manhood and fatherhood
The Simbari Anga are a tribe of mountain-dwelling, hunting, and horticultural people who live in Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea consists of half the island of New Guinea, an island north of Australia. Much of our knowledge of the Simbari Anga people is thanks to the long-term fieldwork conducted by anthropologist Gilbert Herdt. Herdt is Emeritus Professor of Human Sexuality Studies and Anthropology and a Founder of the Department of Sexuality Studies and the National Sexuality Resource Centre at San Francisco State University. Herdt has published three books about the Sambia.
Herdt is so connected to the Sambia that it was he who gave them the name Sambia. What is so interesting about the Sambia, especially to an anthropologist with a particular interest in sexual practices?
Going way out on a limb here, maybe it has a little something to do with the Sambia’s practices of ritualized homosexuality and semen ingestion practices involving pubescent boys.
Take a moment to consider your gut reaction
As inhabitants of the West far removed from the Sambia, both geographically and culturally, it is easy to recoil from such notions as ritual homosexuality and semen ingestion. But perhaps that reaction says as much about us as it does about the Sambia. As the writers at orijinculture.com put it in the article The Sambia Tribe’s Initiation From Boyz to Men:
In today’s society, we have to be careful about how we view and portray cultural practices as due to our own ignorance and conditioning as inhabitants of the West, which are heavy influenced by Eurocentric theories, we are prone to condemn things that are unfamiliar to us or might deem them to be ‘barbaric.’
Judgment aside, what should we know?
The process of masculinization – a transition from boyhood to childhood – among the Sambia consists of six separate stages. The stages take between 10 to 15 years to complete and begin at age six to 10. The six stages of the masculinization ritual are called Maku (from ages 7 to 13), Imbutu, Ipmangwi (from ages 13 to 16), Nupusha (at age 16, at least), Taketnyi, and Moondung.
Underlying the ritual rites of passage is an idea that women are dangerous to men. To become a man, a boy must detach himself from his mother and other women to prove and show that they can live without them. This begins with the boys being removed from their mothers as seven-year-olds.
The earliest stages include bloodletting to remove the mother’s presence from the boy. The Sambia believe that boys are not born with what it takes – jurungdu – to develop muscle, stature, bravery, and the other characteristics of a successful warrior.
The Sambia believe that jurungdu is concentrated in semen. Several stages of the rituals of masculinization require that the boys consume semen, during ritualized homosexual acts. By ingesting semen, the boys obtained the necessary masculine spirit to become men. The youngest participants in the masculinization rituals receive semen. As they progress through the rituals, they become donors of semen to younger participants.
In today’s society, we have to be careful about how we view and portray cultural practices as due to our own ignorance and conditioning as inhabitants of the West
During the Immangwi stage of the process, boys progress through puberty and no longer need to receive jurungdu. At that point, they are taught gender roles and about heterosexual intercourse. During this learning stage, from ages 13 to 16, the boys look for a wife and marry. Upon marriage and commencement of heterosexual intercourse, the boys enter the Nupusha stage when they are at least 16 years old. Bloodletting will occur again once the boy’s wife undergoes her first menstrual cycle as his wife during Taiketnyi.
The rituals of masculinization end – and the boy is deemed to have become a man – when his wife delivers their child at the ritual stage called Moondung.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
There were ancient cultures a lot closer to home, and long lost to history.
There are systems of belief that seem foreign to us, but that undergird entire other cultures.