…Nearly everywhere all over the world at a primitive stage of thought, and even to some extent in the highest civilisation, the sight of the sexual organs or of the sexual act, the image or even the names of the sexual parts of either man or woman, are believed to have a curiously potent influence, sometimes beneficent, but quite as often maleficent. The two kinds of influence may even be combined, and Riedel, quoted by Ploss and Bartels, states that the Ambon islanders carve a schematic representation of the vulva on their fruit trees, in part to promote the productiveness of the trees, and in part to scare any unauthorised person who might be tempted to steal the fruit. The precautions prescribed as regards coitus at Loango are evidently associated with religious fears. In Ceylon, again (as a medical correspondent there informs me), where the penis is worshipped and held sacred, a native never allows it to be seen, except under compulsion, by a doctor, and even a wife must neither see it nor touch it nor ask for coitus, though she must grant as much as the husband desires. All savage and barbarous peoples who have attained any high degree of ceremonialism have included the functions not only of sex, but also of excretion, more or less stringently within the bounds of that ceremonialism. It is only necessary to refer to the Jewish ritual books of the Old Testament, to Hesiod, and to the customs prevalent among Mohammedan peoples. Modesty in eating, also, has its roots by no means only in the fear of causing disgust, but very largely in this kind of ritual, and Crawley has shown how numerous and frequent among primitive peoples are the religious implications of eating and drinking. So profound is this dread of the sacred mystery of sex, and so widespread is the ritual based upon it, that some have imagined that here alone we may find the complete explanation of modesty, and Salomon Reinach declares that “at the origin of the emotion of modesty lies a taboo.”
Durkheim (“La Prohibition de l’Inceste,” L’Année Sociologique, 1898, p. 50), arguing that whatever sense of repugnance women may inspire must necessarily reach the highest point around the womb, which is hence subjected to the most stringent taboo, incidentally suggests that here is an origin of modesty. “The sexual organs must be veiled at an early period, to prevent the dangerous effluvia which they give off from reaching the environment. The veil is often a method of intercepting magic action. Once constituted, the practice would be maintained and transformed.”
It was doubtless as a secondary and derived significance that the veil became, as Reinach (“Le Voile de l’Oblation,” op. cit., pp. 299-311) shows it was, alike among the Romans and in the Catholic Church, the sign of consecration to the gods.