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CASTRATION . Castration is a custom found both in mythological tales and in ritual practices of peoples of various origins, cultural levels, and geographical locations. Because there is a preponderance of documentation of the custom in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean cultures, the origin and propagating center of this custom has often been ascribed to ancient Semitic culture. But evidence of castration has also been found in other, different cultures that were never influenced by Semitic culture, which seems to rule out a hypothesis of diffusion. Besides, the act of castration, both mythological and ritual, is naturally connected with other practices, beliefs, and doctrines that are all related in some way to sex and sexuality. Their connections (with circumcision, bisexuality, virginity, and celibacy) constitute a kind of compact but multivariegated "symbolic universe."


Many of the cosmogonic myths are based on two cosmic entities, Sky and Earth, who are originally united in a sexual embrace from which violent action alone can separate them. A tale of the Maori in New Zealand says that offspring born of the endless mating of Rangi ("sky") and Papa ("earth") are held in darkness and spacelessness. Finally the offspring decide to separate their parents, cutting the father's "tendons" (probably a euphemism) and pushing him up to achieve the present separation of sky and earth. The cosmogonic motif of the primordial couple is found in almost all Oceanic civilizations and widely in Africa and the Americas. But the act of violent separation of the two cosmic entities is seldom clearly described as a real act of castration, even if its symbolic verisimilitude leads one to think of it in this way. An example of castration presented in a straightforward manner is in the Greek cosmogonic myth, Hesiod's Theogony. The god Ouranos ("sky") and the goddess Gaia ("earth") conceive a breed of divine beings, but the god exhausts his paternal role in procreation and keeps his children from any kind of activity, thrusting them again into their mother's womb. At last one of them, Kronos, makes an ambush and cuts off his father's sexual organ, throwing it behind his own back. The goddess Gaia is fertilized by the blood of Ouranos, while from his sexual organ, which falls into the sea, is born the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Thus the only way to eliminate Ouranos, whose existence consisted of mere sexual and procreative activity, was to castrate him: this is the only opportunity to "murder," in some sense, an immortal god. This castration is a positive event because it breaks the cycle of endless and useless reproduction and gives Ouranos's offspring a living space between sky and earth. It represents moreover a fundamental moment in the establishment of the real and ordered world. From the morphological point of view, the myth of Ouranos's castration is typical of the image of the heavenly divine being who, after his initial performance, leaves the stage, becoming a deus otiosus.

Comparative analysis has pointed out important resemblances to the myth of the impotence of Varua, an Indo-Iranian god, and also to the investiture ritual of the king in India (Dumézil, 1948). Analogies exist also with the Navajo creation myth (Dine Bahane ), in which the First Woman gives birth to twins with her husband. These twins, who are nadleeh (intersexed, neither male nor female), ordered the world, slayed the dragons, and invented pottery and all sort of tools. Historical analysis, on the other hand, has indicated some parallel cases in cosmogonic myths of the ancient Near East. The Mesopotamian creation epic, Enuma elish, tells of the god Enki, who defeats and annihilates his enemy Mummu, taking off his crown, smashing his head, and finally cutting off his penis. The Hittite myth of Kumarbi contains even more similarities to Ouranos's story. This cosmogony, combining one of the earliest Hurrian stories with some elements of Assyro-Babylonian mythology, deals with a succession of children's rebellions against their fathers. In this myth Kumarbi pursues his father, Anu, who seeks safety by flying toward the sky, but the son grabs his father's feet, dragging him to the ground. Then, seized by excitement, Kumarbi bites his father's penis, tears it off, and swallows it, laughing and boasting of his bravado. But the swallowed sexual organ makes him pregnant with terrifying gods who will soon defeat him in turn.

Scholars are in agreement that the similarity between Greek and Hittite myths can be explained as an indication of direct historical derivation on the grounds of similar general structure and the common presence of castration. Nevertheless there are significant differences between these myths, and there remains a notable uncertainty about how the motif spread. A recurrence of Ouranos's castration can be found in the cosmogony of Philo of Byblos, a late Phoenician author who claims a reference to Sanchuniathon, an ancient Phoenician author. Mixing local information with Greek conceptions in a syncretic and euhemeristic way, Philo ascribes to the god El-Kronos an act of castration against his father. The Hellenic pattern is clearly apparent, but archaeological discoveries at Ugarit (Ras Shamra) in Phoenicia, dating from the second millennium bce, seem to confirm to some extent the authenticity and antiquity of the myth. In a different case in the Prose Edda, an ancient Germanic cosmogony, the "father of everything," a personal entity with creative power, is also called "the castrated" with no further explanation. Scholars agree that many features of this divine being are not original but derived from Christian influences, and they think also that the castration element can be dated back to the earliest Greek tradition of Ouranos.

Besides these cosmogonic myths other kinds of myths in which castration constitutes a pattern of ritual action deserve mention. The close connection between myth and rite in these cases arouses the rightful suspicion that the myth may have been constructed in order to provide a motivation for the ritual practice. The most famous myth is the Greco-Roman story of the goddess Cybele and the god Attis. Cybele, venerated in Rome and in the Roman Empire under the name of Great Mother (Magna Mater), was an ancient goddess of fertility known in Anatolia since the second millennium bce under the name of Kubaba. Some iconographic and onomastic evidence suggests an even more remote origin going back to the Anatolian Neolithic and perhaps Mesopotamian civilization. The young servant-lover Attis, on the other hand, seems to have been introduced along with his mate only after the arrival in Anatolia of the Phrygians (c. eighth century bce). There are several mythical versions of Attis's castration (Hepding, 1903/1967). It is easy to follow a constant line of development from more ancient talesmuch more intricate and grotesqueto the embellished and romantic later versions. The original stories take place in an environment of unnatural primitiveness, monstrous procreations, violent loves, and bloody punishments. All these versions culminate in the story of Attis, who castrates himself in a fit of madness or out of a desire for absolute chastity. Sometimes Attis's castration is attributed to a wild boar or to a jealous entity who wants to punish him for his amorous exploits.

Similar is the Egyptian myth of the mystical couple Isis and Osiris, but here the mythical castration apparently does not constitute a pattern of ritual action. The god Osiris was dismembered, and fourteen pieces of his body were strewn all over Egypt. His wife, the goddess Isis, found the body. But Osiris's penis was thrown into the Nile and eaten by a fish, so Isis is forced to construct with sycamore wood a facsimile of his phallus. The Phoenician and Cypriot and in any case Semitic Adonis that lives out his short season seducing and being seduced by Aphrodite, whose vitality is overpowering, bled to death in a boar hunt. But his castration is only hypothetical, and above all there is no evidence that his priests practiced ritual castration. Two basic events, emasculation and death, therefore mark the mythical personalities of these young gods (but only problematically the concrete ritual castration of their followers) and signify the depotentiation of divine life and its inevitable repercussions on the life of the cosmos, which seems to imitate the vicissitude of the divine body (Casadio, 2003).


The documentation related to ritual practices records, first of all, that the act of castration can sometimes be the result of temporary exaltation or religious fanaticism. The religio-historical as well as ethnographic literature cites some examples, but their rarity and especially their complete isolation from myths, doctrines, and institutionalized interpretations make them subjects for studies in psychology (or psychopathology). The history of religions, on the other hand, is concerned with institutionalized acts of castration, for instance, within the so-called pubertal cults. All these practices belong to a broader category of ritual mutilations, like the custom of removal of one testicle, which is practiced almost exclusively among Camitic populations in Africa, where it seems to serve as a substitute for circumcision, a practice completely unknown to them. In the initiation rites of primitive peoples different practices involving male genitalia are frequent (circumcision, subincision), as are those involving female genitalia (clitoridectomy, infibulation), and their origin and significance seem rather difficult to establish. According to some scholars, these practices constitute symbolic equivalents of castration.

Another category of castration is the custom, widespread in the ancient Near East and in Semitic cultures, of castrated priests. The kurgarru, for instance, is a eunuch priest of Ishtar who officiates at the orgiastical rites in honor of the god Marduk. Many of the clergy of Hekate in Stratonicea, Caria, and in Laginas and the clergy of Artemis in Ephesus and of Atargatis in Hierapolis, Syria, were castrated. Some sporadic cases of analogous priestly castration have been reported in Brahmanic India, particularly in the northern mountains, and also in Nepal and Tibet. Usually the castrated priests are connected with a powerful and fertile goddess, sometimes with astral characteristics, and at other times with the features of a goddess of animals, who is conventionally called Mother Goddess.

Finally, there is a series of examples in which the ritual of castration appears entirely institutionalized, justified according to the myths of foundation or in accordance with precise beliefs and doctrines. Within the Cybele and Attis cult, the mythical castration of Attis is the foundation of the practice of castration of his priests (and perhaps of believers too), which is a kind of sacrament of consecration, a sacrifice recalling the god's passion, and sometimes a votive offering. The Gallias these priests are most commonly calleddedicated themselves to the goddess Cybele after willingly castrating themselves during ritual performances in which, in a frenzy of dances, obsessive beating of drums, and self-flagellation, they reached paroxysms of exaltation. The Galli wore female clothing and heavy makeup, their hair was long and loose, and they lived in a wandering missionary community, supporting themselves with alms they received for offering predictions and prognostications. At Pessinus in Asia Minor they ruled sacerdotal city-states in which temples and royal palaces were unified. In Greece they were generally despised and driven away because of their mutilation and their appearance; they were never fully assimilated into official religion. In Rome, where the cult of Cybele was introduced in 204 bce, and in the Roman Empire they were at first strictly regulated and controlled by the state; then they acquired, little by little, more importance and autonomy. The Roman distaste for eunuchism slowly faded away because of the approval of some emperors of the practice and because of a certain lessening of bloodier and crueler aspects of the cult.

Thus the cult of Cybele and Attis had its temples and its brotherhood in Rome, and its feasts included in the sacral calendar. Little by little, under the influence of a certain spiritualism and new symbolic interpretations, the cult assumed a mystic character and became a kind of mystery cult like other cults of Oriental origin. The castration of believers was easily explained as a sign of the search for perfection, a voluntary renunciation of the pleasures of the flesh, and the Attis figure became more and more spiritualized. During the later Roman Empire the self-castration of believers was probably replaced or integrated into the bloody and spectacular rite called the Taurobolium. A bull was slain and (probably) castrated, and its blood was shed over the believer as a lavation of intensified achievement, regenerative and purifying. Important mystical interpretations of relevant myths also were given in late antiquity by Naassene Gnostics, for example, by which "the mutilation of Attis means that he was separated from the low earthly regions of creation" (Cosi, 1986, pp. 111113). For Julian the Apostate the castration of Attis means "a pause in the rush towards the infinite" (Cosi, 1986, pp. 111113).

Castration appears sporadically in practices of groups, sects, and isolated thinkers that link it to doctrines preaching asceticism and sexual abstinence and regard it as an escape from the temptations of the flesh. Such doctrineswhich have remarkable precedents and parallels within the pagan as well as the Judaic worlddeveloped during the first centuries of the Christian era and were inclined to radicalize the pronouncement by Matthew on eunuchs (Mt. 19:12) as well as the orthodox position (of Paul, for instance) on the prestige of virginity. Strongly connected with sexual and marital morality, bound to the theme of ecclesiastical celibacy, and intertwined with the rise of monasticism, this topic is evinced in some authors as a preaching of the enkrateia (continence), understood as the complete rejection of any kind of sexual intercourse. If within the ecclesiastical and orthodox line virginity and chastity are recommended solely on the basis of motivations, such as the imitation of Christ or in anticipation of the kingdom of heaven, according to these doctrines sexual abstinence becomes a necessary condition of salvation and is based on ontological and protological motivations of the dualistic and Platonic mold. According to some writers, the Greek father Origen (third century ce) and other ecclesiastic authorities castrated themselves in order to extinguish definitively any desire for sexual intercourse. At the same time, in the mysterious sect of the Valesians (from Valesius, the founder), castration was a normal practice. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, refuted the sect and accused it of heresy. It also seems that among the Manichaeans the current obligation of chastity was transformed in some cases into the practice of self-castration. The phenomenon must have been rather widespread, because it was addressed by the Council of Nicaea (325 ce) and a bull of Pope Leo I (c. 395 ce).

A renewal of the practice of castration for the sake of proselytism and asceticism (a call to remove the "organs of sin") is found among the Skoptsy (the castrated), a Russian sectarian community that developed from the complex movement of the Raskol schism during the mid-eighteenth century. The Skoptsy were long persecuted, but they spread throughout Russia during the next century and survived in some Romanian peasant communities until 1950.


From this brief review of facts relative to castration in some myths and ritual practices, it becomes clear that even if the ancient Semitic (and Mediterranean) world offers the majority of the documentation and shows some cases of dependence and evolution, it cannot be considered the unique source of the diffusion of this practice. In the same way it is impossible to decide on a univocal interpretation of the practice of castration that can explain in all cases its causes and motivations. Sometimes the connection with themes of fertility and procreation is primary, so that castration of a "vegetation spirit" ("Dying and rising god," in the words of James George Frazer [1890, I, pp. 278279]) constitutes a dramatic event stopping the flow of life or containing it within more orderly boundaries. "Functional" is otherwise the explanation provided by Walter Burkert (1979): the act of castration, producing neither man nor woman but "nothing," puts a man outside archaic society and makes apostasy impossible. At other times, on the basis of doctrinary principles, castration is instead related to a search for asexuality understood as a privileged condition. In some cases this asexuality resolves into a kind of symbolic bisexuality that aims to reproduce in the believer the powerful joint presence of both sexes that is found in certain androgynous primordial figures. Interpretations influenced by psychoanalysis have often been offered to explain these themes. Finally, in many cases castration is clearly demanded as an extreme form of mystical practice in currents of thought that celebrate abstention as a choice in life and as a condition of salvation.

See Also

Androgynes; Clitoridectomy; Cybele; Dying and Rising Gods; Hierodouleia; Virginity.


For "Dying and rising gods," see James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, I-II (London, 1890). For a discussion of castration as a form of substitution sacrifice, see Henri Graillot's treatment of the myth and the ritual of Cybele and Attis in his now classic Le culte de Cybèle, mère des dieux, à Rome et dans l'Empire romain (Paris, 1912). For a more modern treatment, see Maarten J. Vermaseren's Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult (London, 1977). Vermaseren compiled archaeological and literary documents concerning the cult in Corpus cultus Cybelae Attidisque, 7 vols. (Leiden, 19771989). See also Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley, Calif., 1979); Dario M. Cosi, Casta Mater Idaea: Giuliano l'Apostata e l'etica della sessualità (Venice, 1986); Shaun Tougher, ed., Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (London, 2002); and Maria Grazia Lancellotti, Attis: Between Myth and History; King, Priest, and God (Leiden, 2002), a radically historicizing treatment of myth and ritual. For a discussion of Ouranos and Kumarbi, see Hans Gustav Güterbock, ed., Kumarbi: Mythen vom churritischen Kronos aus den hethitischen Fragmenten zusammengestellt (Zurich, 1946). For a reappraisal of the evidence of Dionysos, see Eric Csapo, "Riding the Phallus for Dionysus," Phoenix 51 (1997): 253295. The literary sources for Attis are in Hugo Hepding's Attis, seine Mythen und sein Kult (Giessen, 1903; reprint, Giessen and Berlin, 1967). A comparative study of Indian and Iranian ritual is Georges Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 4th ed. (Paris, 1948). The theme of sexual abstinence is addressed in Ugo Bianchi, ed., La tradizione dell'enkrateia: Motivazioni ontologiche e protologiche (Rome, 1985). See in general Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge, Mass., 1996); Gary Taylor, Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood (New York, 2002); and Giovanni Casadio, "The Failing Male God: Emasculation, Death, and Other Accidents in the Ancient Mediterranean World," Numen 50 (2003): 231268.

Dario M. Cosi (1987 and 2005)

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