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eunuchs From the Greek ‘eunouchos’, meaning ‘euné’ (bed) and ‘echein’ (to have charge of), the word eunuch literally means ‘chamberlain’. As the traditional sense of the word seems to imply, not every person referred to as a eunuch was necessarily castrated. In ancient and oriental history not every favourite minister of the king who was given the name eunuch had necessarily ‘suffered the cut’. It was rather the humility and loyalty of these chamberlains, along with other behaviourial characteristics traditionally associated with eunuchs, which gave them their name. There were three different types of eunuch identifiable by the three different methods of castration. The slaves whose penis and testes had both been severed were called castrati by the Romans and sandali or es-sendelle by the Arabs. Spadones was the word used to describe those eunuchs whose testicles had been literally torn from their bodies, but not cut off. By far the most common method of emasculation was to detach the testicles by a single cut, and these eunuchs, who were called thlibias or semivir, retained their penis.

From a physiological point of view, two different types of eunuchs can be distinguished depending on whether castration has taken place before or after puberty. In the latter case, eunuchs retain, in some instances, the capacity to achieve erection, and the penis, if still present, maintains its normal size. In the case of emasculation before puberty many features of childhood are prolonged. The voice, for example, stays high-pitched, the body develops a rounded contour, and the loss of hormones produces an unusual tallness and also prevents the skin from tanning.

From the point of view of mythological beliefs, many ancient sources seem to point to Semiramis, a mythical Persian queen, as the initiator of this cruel practice. The French erudite Ancillon, who anonymously published a book on the subject at the beginning of the eighteenth century, refers to Poliphar as the first eunuch mentioned in the Bible. Apart from those who were castrated as a result of their defeat in warfare — a practice very well documented throughout the course of history — eunuchs constituted political or religious institutions in Assyria, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia, Italy, and China. In China, the existence of eunuchs can be traced to the eighth century bc. In many of these cases, eunuchs were subject socially to a mixture of respect and repulsion. According to the English historian Gibbon, they constituted a moral plague in the court of the Roman emperors Gordiano III, Constancio Honorio, and Arcadius.

Eunuchs are also found in religious rites. The cult of Artemisa, in the sanctuary of Ephesus, was hosted by virgins and eunuchs, and the priests of the goddess Cybele shared the same condition. Furthermore, the spring festivals of this latter goddess, who, according to the legend, had fallen in love with Attis, who was either castrated while he slept or emas-culated himself, seemed to have favoured self-mutilation among their followers. This practice, usually connected with the attempt to avoid the sin of fornication, has continued until relatively recent times among certain Russian religious sects.

Historically, the most famous eunuchs have been the Muslim slaves who were in charge of the seraglio. The life of these eunuchs was described by the French philosopher Montesquieu in his Letters persanes, published in 1721. Equally famous were the singers of Italian baroque music, the most renowned among them being the Italian castrato Carlo Broschi Farinelli (1705–82).

J. Moscoso

See also castration.

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