views updated May 14 2018

feet bipedalism, emerging about 3 million years ago, is considered to have been a crucial step in evolution, especially as it allowed the hand to develop into a distinct and specialized appendage. Not simply a primitive hand, the human foot is adapted to a form of bipedalism distinctive for the efficacy of its stride. Australopithecus africanus, for instance, had a fully ‘modern’ foot 2–5 million years ago, and probably walked with a stride. Unlike other primates, the human foot is not prehensile — that is, not able to grasp objects with the aid of an opposed first digit like the thumb. Though the toes of the human foot are generally not capable of independent or precise movement, the flexor muscles of the big toe are vital to our gait. The human foot is stable, yet adaptable to walking and running on rough and sloping ground. Like fingerprints, footprints are unique to each individual; thus, the footprints of infants are often recorded as part of birth records in hospitals.

Structure and movement

The feet have two distinct functions: to support the body when standing, and to act as levers when walking. For support, they need to be as rigidly flat on the ground as possible, but the bones and joints which form the skeleton of the foot have an arched form, both from front to back and from side to side, which requires strong support from fibrous ligaments and from muscular contraction to withstand the stress when it is performing as a lever.

The bones, from heel to toe, are the tarsal and metatarsal bones and the phalanges. One of the tarsal bones takes part in the ankle joint. Under this is the largest bone (calcaneum), which is cushioned by soft tissue below to form the heel; attached to it is the exceptionally thick and strong tendon of the calf muscles, which spans the back of the ankle, allowing contraction of the muscles to lift the heel. This tendon can sometimes be torn — a painful condition which seriously interferes with walking — and it is known as the Achilles tendon, from the ‘heel’ of mythological vulnerability. In front of the ankle, a prominent tendon from the shin muscles stands out when the foot is pointed upwards. Other leg muscles can tilt the foot inwards or outwards.

Movement of the whole foot at the ankle is achieved mainly by contraction of muscles in the lower leg, and the same is true of some other foot movements. Within the leg are the muscles which extend (point up) the toes — via their long tendons, which cross the front of the ankle (held close to it by fibrous bands), and reach to the small bones (phalanges) of the toes. Muscles which flex (curl down) the toes (including a separate important one for flexing the big toe) lie deep in the calf, and their tendons run behind the bony knob (malleolus) on the inner side of the ankle, and thence across the sole to reach their insertions. Behind the malleolus on the outer side, tendons from other leg muscles run in the sole to the metatarsals, such that their contraction plants the foot firmly on the ground. Attachments of tendons of leg muscles from both sides to the underside of the foot bones is important for retaining the ‘arches’. Each of these long tendons has a lubricated synovial sheath, which can become inflamed and painful in the condition of tenosynovitis.

There is also a complex set of small muscles within the foot itself, mainly in the sole, arranged in no less than four layers and protected by a very strong fibrous sheet reaching from heel to toes. These muscles can flex the toes, splay the big toe and the little toe outwards, or pull in the sides of the foot; they actively modify the foot's shape, and maintain its strength and flexibility in the face of the continually changing strains and pressures of walking and running. The foot muscles themselves assist in retaining the arches, but it is mainly a failure of the leg muscles which leads to ‘fallen arches’ or ‘flat feet’. In unusual circumstances, the remarkable achievements of some foot-painting artists show the extent to which the movements of feet and toes can sometimes be trained into hand-like precision.

The foot as a measure

The foot has been used as a standard linear measurement in various cultures. The English foot, still in use today in the US, was defined in 1959 as being 30.48 cm. The foot is also a unit of measure in poetry, indicating the smallest unit; a foot is usually defined as one stressed and one or two unstressed syllables, as in the word ‘poet’. The number of feet per line determines the metre of a poem: if a single line contains one foot, it is called monometer, two feet is diameter, three is trimeter, etc.

Religions and the feet

The washing of another's feet has long been performed as a gesture of humility in Western culture. An act of hospitality in ancient Palestine, servants or the wife of the host might wash a guest's feet. Jesus is said to have washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper (John 13: 1–15), and the early Christian Church introduced foot washing as a ritual (pedilavium) imitating the humility and selfless love of Jesus. Foot washing on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, appeared as a rite in the Roman Catholic Church during the seventh century. In some European countries, the social elite would wash the feet of the poor and give them gifts on this day, a practice which continued in England until the mid eighteenth century. Many Episcopal and some other Protestant churches, for instance the Mennonites, still practice foot washing today.

The Buddha's footprints play an important role in Buddhist iconography. Emphasizing the transiency of all things, for several centuries after his death in the fifth century bc, the Buddha was represented only by his footprints. For instance, his footprints in stone can be seen at the base of the tree where he is said to have attained enlightenment.

Historian Sander Gilman has analyzed the cultural meaning of the Jewish foot, which he claims has been associated in Christian societies with the cloven hoof of the devil. During the nineteenth century, the ‘weak’ feet of the Jewish male were perceived as a sign of his unfittedness for military service, and hence his inability to participate fully in the European nation state. The Jew's feet were partially responsible for his or her allegedly idiosyncratic and heavy-footed gait. Flat-footedness in particular was believed to be a racial characteristic of Jews, and also blacks, throughout the Nazi period. Interestingly, while a sign of atavism, flat-footedness was also considered a result of ‘modern’, urban living and its unhealthy and disabling influences.


Like the Jew's feet, the tiny bound feet of Chinese women have served as a complex social signifier. Though a less severe form of foot-binding is also practised by the Kutchin Indians of Alaska, the most well-known form of foot-binding first became popular among Chinese women under the T'ang dynasty in the seventh century, and continued to be practised well into the twentieth century. The goal was to achieve the look of tiny, delicate, ‘golden lily’ feet; this was accomplished by tightly binding the feet, stunting their growth and breaking the bones. Beginning as early as the age of five, cultural critic Mary Daly (1978) discusses foot-binding as a form of painful and crippling mutilation imposed on women by a deeply patriarchal society. The process is indeed extremely painful and can last for over 10 years, until the feet have stopped growing and have adopted the desired shape; Chinese women continue to bind their feet throughout their lives in order to maintain and improve their form. A sign of status and desirability in marriage, foot-binding was practised on all levels of Chinese society, including among the working class. A girl's bound feet were an indication not only of her sexual desirability, but also of her self-discipline, her ability for self-sacrifice, and the care with which she had been raised by her mother. The psychological implications of such torment being inflicted upon a young girl by her mother has been the subject of much speculation. There is a Chinese adage that a mother cannot love both her daughter and her daughter's feet at the same time. As a sex-segregated ritual, men were excluded, in theory, from knowing anything about the process or pain involved. This taboo in some ways reconciled the practice with Confusion teachings which clearly forbade self-mutilation. C. Fred Blake argues that the female mystique of foot-binding helped to exempt men from direct responsibility for dominating and degrading women.

Blake has re-examined the relationship between foot-binding and women's labour in China, and revised the traditional interpretation that foot-binding was a way in which women made themselves useless as a sign of the wealth and status of the men on whom they depended. Blake argues that foot-bound women perform all sorts of manual and menial labour, including agricultural field work and domestic service. What foot-binding does is to make women's labour less visible; the foot-bound woman only appeared ‘useless’ and helpless, while in fact her labour, both economic and reproductive, made vital contributions to the family economy and to society in general.

An imperial edict prohibiting foot-binding was issued in 1644 and remained in effect until 1911, but the practice lingered until the Great Leap Forward in 1958–60. Part of the problem was that these were political movements, propagated by men and medical professionals, while foot-binding continued to be a traditional female practice. Interestingly, in traditional Chinese culture, two types of women had natural-sized feet: uncivilized, clumsy, and crude women, and extraordinarily powerful women, like legendary female warriors, goddesses, and Guan Yin, the Buddhist redeemer of humanity.

The bound foot was highly eroticized, often compared to a ‘golden lotus’, a central symbol in Buddhism. It was not unusual for a man to have a pet name for his wife's feet. The suggestion that foot-binding was part of sexual maturity, a prelude to the trials of marriage and childbirth, is indicative of an association between the foot and the womb in Chinese culture. Sigmund Freud proposed that by maiming their own feet, Chinese women allayed the castration anxieties of men.

The Chinese are not the only culture to eroticize the foot. Ancient Egyptians decorated feet with henna, and toe rings are common in many cultures. Pedicures and all manner of products to beautify and eroticize the feet, including nail polish and various forms of foot jewellery, are widely available throughout the world today. Foot and shoe fetishes are well-known forms of ‘perversion’ in European and Asian cultures as well. Stressing that it is often not possible to trace the origins of subconscious connections, Freud mentions the foot as an age-old sexual symbol, and a frequent locus for the displacement of desire. The shoe or slipper, he notes, often operates as a symbol of the female genitalia.

Sarah Goodfellow, and Sheila Jennett


C. Fred Blake , (1994). Foot-binding in Neo-Confucian China and the appropriation of female labor. Signs, 19(3), 676–712.
Sander Gilman, S. (1991). The Jewish Foot. The Jew's Body. Routledge, New York.

See also ankle; skeleton; walking.


views updated May 14 2018


FEET are multivalent symbols. In some mythologies the rays of the sunas depicted, for example, in the figure of the swastikaare likened to feet. C. G. Jung finds the foot frequently phallic in significance; others believe it is sometimes a symbol of the soul, an idea rarely directly substantiated but indirectly confirmed when lameness is taken to symbolize some defect of the spirit, as in the cases of Hephaistos, Wieland the blacksmith, Mani, and Oedipus.

The heel of the foot is both suitable for and vulnerable to attack; it may dispatch a serpent or it may be the locus of a fatal wound (Achilles, Sigurd, and Ka). In the Hebrew scriptures, Jacob grasps Esau's heel in order to defeat him. In Celtic legend, Gwydion masters Arianrhod by grasping her foot.

Feet are also vulnerable because of their contact with the earth. Vital and sacred forces can be drained away through them. For this reason, the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II was carried on the shoulders of noblemen, and members of the royal family in Uganda were carried on the shoulders of men of the Buffalo clan. An emperor of Japan, it is said, would have been deprived of his office had his feet ever touched the earth. The Irish hero Oisín, who had lived in the Land of Youth for three hundred years, could remain young upon revisiting the land of his birth only if he did not touch his feet to the ground.

The foot is also a symbol of humility because it touches and is besmirched by the dust of the earth. Victory and subjection are represented by the conqueror placing his foot on the neck of the vanquished or using him as a footstool. Worshipers all over the ancient world removed their shoes before entering sanctuaries and temples, as Muslims, Hindus, and Jains do today before entering places of worship. Foot washing has commonly served as part of rites of purification.

Foot washing as an act of hospitality was also widespread throughout the ancient world. The Christian ritual of foot washing was derived from this practice, and especially from Jesus' washing his disciples' feet (Jn. 13:5). As such, the ritual does not focus on cleansing but on humility, and on the Christian ideals of willing service and penitence.

Footprints of divine or holy figures may symbolize the way to the truth, or the salvation offered by them. Footprints of both Viu and the Buddha appear all over India. Such physical evidence of the earthly presence of divinity is a way of picturing what is wholly transcendent. This is probably the intended symbolism in depictions of Christ's ascension, found especially in eleventh-century English art, where only the feet and part of the legs show at the top of the picture. On a carved medieval bench-end from Launcells in Cornwall, the feet of Christ are seen vanishing into clouds while footprints are left on a rock. Similarily, pilgrims to Palestine can see footprints in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives.


There is no really adequate discussion of feet as a religious symbol. James G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, 3d ed., rev. & enl. (London, 19111915), discusses the taboo against touching the feet to the ground, but he focuses on the loss of power and on the earth as the agency of loss rather than on feet. For a more convenient and up-to-date source, see The New Golden Bough, the one-volume abridgment by Theodor H. Gaster (New York, 1959). On foot washing, see G. A. Frank Knight's article "Feet-Washing," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 5 (Edinburgh, 1912), which discusses both secular and religious customs in great detail. Concerning Hephaistos and the "magical or shamanic lameness," consult Hephaïstos, ou La légende du magicien by Marie Delcourt (Paris, 1957).

Elaine Magalis (1987)


views updated May 23 2018

feet feet of clay a fundamental flaw or weakness in a person otherwise revered, with biblical allusion to a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, in which a magnificent idol has feet ‘part of iron and part of clay’; Daniel interprets this to signify a future kingdom that will be ‘partly strong, and partly broken’, and will eventually fall.
get one's feet wet begin to participate in an activity.
have (or keep) both feet on the ground be (or remain) practical and sensible.
sweep someone off their feet quickly and overpoweringly charm someone.

see also the cat would eat fish but would not wet her feet, shake the dust off one's feet, foot, not let the grass grow under one's feet, cut the ground from under someone's feet.


views updated May 23 2018

feet / fēt/ • plural form of foot.