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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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Castration refers to the removal of the testicles of a human or animal so as to render him infertile. Although castration technically refers to only removal of the testicles, the term is sometimes used to refer to the removal of the penis. In many cultures castration of humans is used as a punishment for crimes, while some religious sects have practiced castration as a means of dedicating the body to a god. In Asia and the Middle East, castrated men, known as eunuchs, were charged with protecting the harems of wealthy or powerful men from incursions by other men. As such eunuchs had a unique proximity to centers of power and often wielded enormous influence in their societies. In seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, gifted male singers, known as castrati, were castrated before puberty to prevent their voices from deepening and changing registers. In spite of the elevated social status of eunuchs and castrati in earlier times, however, castration more recently tends to be utilized primarily as punishment for or prevention of sexual offenses.


Generally speaking castration refers to any method whereby a male loses the use of his testes. Historically the most common means of castration involved the removal of the testicles from the body. The most important effect of castration is sterility. In the prepubescent, castration generally results in a less muscular frame, lack of sex drive, an undeveloped prominentia laryngea (Adam's apple), and a high-pitched voice. Men who undergo castration after puberty normally experience a reduced sex drive, but such men can sometimes maintain an erection.


Human castration seems to have originated during the Stone Age, and archaeological evidence of eunuchs appears to follow the same distribution and chronology as animal domestication and human conquest. Thus as stable civilizations and communities spread from the Middle East outward to China and India, so too did eunuchs begin to appear in areas where humans settled. The first humans to be castrated were most likely prisoners of war who were enslaved rather than killed after capture.

It appears that the earliest institutional use of castration may have been the consecration of castrated slaves to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of war. The followers of the goddess Cybele, a religious cult that dates from around 750 bce and persisted into the early Christian era, voluntarily castrated themselves as a means of dedicating themselves to their goddess; evidence of the castration practice appears as early as 415 bce.

Early Christians also occasionally saw castration as a means to spiritual salvation. The most famous of these, Origen, castrated himself circa 209 in an effort to follow the New Testament scripture Matthew 19:12, which refers to eunuchs "who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Argument over the interpretation of this biblical passage raged among Christians for hundreds of years. At least one Christian sect required compulsory castration, but in 325 the Council of Nicaea condemned self-castration. In the fifth century, Saint Augustine pushed for an interpretation of Matthew's text that read castration as an allegory for celibacy, a position that the Church espoused informally for several centuries before codifying it in 1139 with the outlaw of clerical marriage. In spite of the church's attempt to read castration as mere celibacy, however, Pierre Abelard, a twelfth-century philosopher who was castrated by the outraged relations of his young lover, Heloise, firmly believed that his castration was divinely ordained and had brought him closer to God.

Although the Church had long since outlawed self-castration and though eunuchs were not a common feature of Western European medieval life, church choirs—which prohibited singing by women—utilized castrati. In this the Roman Catholic Church mimicked the Byzantine Church, in which eunuch choirs were traditional for hundreds of years. As noted castration prevented a boy's voice from changing and deepening; in addition as he developed, the size and power of the castrato's ribcage and lungs, combined with an unusually high vocal range, created a highly prized, unique singing voice. The castrati were regular features of church choirs by the sixteenth century and were common until the end of the nineteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many castrati moved out of church choirs and into Italian opera houses, where their singing became a well-known, popular entertainment.

In contrast to the limited positions available to European eunuchs, castrated men in Asian, African, and Middle Eastern societies often wielded considerable social and political power. Eunuchs were often employed as household servants, entrusted with the personal care of the ruler. Expanding on the practices of their Roman, Byzantine, and Persian predecessors, medieval Muslim rulers used eunuchs not only to control their concubines and legitimate wives, but also in a variety of other domestic and ceremonial functions. Eunuchs were considered to be more loyal to their masters than intact men and, indeed, often were, as their positions close to society's rich and powerful accorded them a certain level of prestige and influence. In many eastern cultures, including the Byzantine Empire, China, and Assyria, some of the most renowned commanders of armies and navies were eunuchs. In Greece, Persia, Rome, and China, household servants and palace guards were often eunuchs, sometimes organized into elaborate hierarchies. In one African state, eunuchs administered justice in the king's name and controlled the line of succession. In both China and Vietnam, rulers trusted only eunuchs to fill the highest ranks of civil servants, believing that because they couldn't reproduce, eunuchs would be less likely to try and establish their own dynasties. Nonetheless, it appears that Chinese eunuchs at times wielded considerable political power, and in seventeenth century Persia, palace eunuchs gained such effective control that for a number of years they ruled the country under a series of figureheads. In many cultures, most notably the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were employed to guard the harems of the richest and most powerful men, thereby acquiring for themselves a social status and access to power that placed them close to the upper tiers of society.

By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in contrast to the powerful positions occupied by many eunuchs throughout history, societies in Europe and North America viewed castrated men primarily as weak, effeminate non-men. Even as early as Augustine's fifth-century commentaries on eunuchs, the Christian European world had begun to regard the castrated man as something profoundly unnatural.

In 1908 psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud developed his theory of castration anxiety, which hypothesizes that a normal part of male childhood development includes the belief that girls have no penis because they have been castrated, thereby instituting a lifelong, subconscious anxiety on the part of the male that he too will lose his penis. While Freud's theory has been largely discredited, it is noteworthy insofar as it signals a shift in thinking about castration. Until the twentieth century, castration referred almost exclusively to the removal of the testicles; Freud's theory equates castration with the loss of the penis and, coupled with the theory's female corollary, penis envy, situates the penis at the crux of masculine privilege and power. This understanding of the centrality of the penis can be seen at work in popular uses of the term castration, including as a metaphorical reference to a real or perceived lack of power on the part of male and to the emasculating effect of a powerful woman on a man.


Castration has long been used as a method of punishment for criminal acts in many societies. It was frequently used in the waging of war, as a means of punishing, controlling, or subjugating a fallen enemy. In the United States, in the decades following the Civil War, castration often accompanied the lynching of black men in the South as a simultaneous punishment for and warning against miscegenation, whether real or imagined. Castration was also used as a criminal sentence in many societies. In some cases, only the testicles were removed; in others all the genitalia were excised, often condemning the victim to a painful death. Prior to the eighteenth century, castration was often written into the law as punishment for certain crimes or specifically designated as the sentence for a particular crime. In Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, criminals were sometimes sentenced to death followed by dismemberment and castration.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sterilization was often used to control criminal populations and to punish or treat sex offenders. The development of vasectomy techniques (which sterilize by blocking the connection between the testicles and prostrate rather than by removing the testicles) in the nineteenth century meant that castration as such was no longer employed for treatment or punishment of criminals; the scientific nature of the new procedure appears to have made sterilization generally more palatable. In the early-twentieth century, the United States experimented with a number of procedures—often performed without the knowledge or consent of the victims—and sterilization laws designed to reduce the criminality of the general population and help maintain the purity of bloodlines in the face of high United States immigration rates. The discovery after World War II that Nazi doctors had experimented with similar sterilization techniques and policies dampened popular enthusiasm for the project. More recently chemical castration, which temporarily reduces testosterone production, has been attempted on a number of sex offenders, and, in the early-twenty-first century, the possibility and ethicality of legislating such treatment is under debate.

see also Castrati; Eunuchs; Hijrās; Penis.


"Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement." Eugenics Archive. Available from

Kuefler, Mathew. 2001. The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Monick, Eugene. 1991. Castration and Male Rage: The Phallic Wound. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Ringrose, Katherine M. 2003. The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scholz, Piotr O. 1999. Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, trans. John A. Broadman and Shelley L. Repr., Frisch. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2001.

Taylor, Gary. 2000. Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. New York and London: Routledge.

                                         Maureen Lauder

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castration means removal of the testicles (testes). Sperm (spermatozoa) are made within the seminiferous tubules, which account for most of the volume of the testes. The male hormone, testosterone, is made by the ‘Leydig cells’ (named after a nineteenth-century German microscopist) which lie between the seminiferous tubules.

Because the testicles make spermatozoa and testosterone, their removal results not only in sterility but also in loss of testosterone-dependent characteristics, including sex drive and the more typically male aggressive competitive drive in life. Historically in some societies, these effects were deliberately achieved in the creation of eunuchs, who would pose no sexual threat when employed to serve, for example, the women in a Turkish harem or a Chinese palace. Castrated boys retain their unbroken voice, and the history of the ‘castrati’ is told below. Castrated men tend to put on weight and are more liable to heart attacks.

In medical practice castration is sometimes used in the treatment of prostate cancer. This is because prostate cancer grows in response to testosterone and most of the cancer cells die when deprived of it. The main benefit of castration for an elderly man with prostate cancer is that he does not have to remember to take any medication. Occasionally castration is necessary to treat testicular cancer when it involves both testicles; in this situation male hormone can be replaced by implants or patches and the typical eunuchoid characteristics can be avoided.

The term ‘castration’ is traditionally applied only to the male, but it is sometimes used also to refer to the removal of the ovaries in the female. The term ‘chemical castration’ may also be used to describe the hormonal suppression of the function of the testes, which mimics their removal.

Social and historical aspects

Castration was undertaken in earlier times because of the powerful, magical association with the genitalia. Thus the castration of the enemy or the enemy's corpse in some societies was a means of transferring the power of the male warrior to the victor. Slaves in ancient Rome and the Ottoman Empire could be castrated. Their castrated nature reflected their low social status.

Beginning in 1550–60 the practice of castration for musical purposes appears in Ferrara and Rome. In the musical tradition of the early modern period in Europe, the castration of young male singers provided a higher-pitched voice to sing soprano roles. The prohibition against women's voices in the Church had led to the attempt to create male parallels to women's voices. In the secular sphere, these voices became equally central to Italian opera in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indeed the term ‘musico’ came to be an eighteenth-century euphemism for castrato. From the late seventeenth century the central male operatic role (primo uomo) in opera seria was sung by a castrato. The quality of the castrato's voice was unique. Castrati were considered to have ‘natural’ voices, as opposed to males who sang falsetto (whose studied voices were considered to be artificial). Many, such as the eighteenth-century castrati, Nicolo Grimaldi (‘Nicolini’) and Carlo Brosche (‘Farinelli’), became extraordinarily famous in their own times. Beginning in the eighteenth century (at the height of their fame) there was a concerted attack on the practice and under the rule of the Jacobins in Italy (1796) the practice was banned, albeit temporarily. The last such castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in the early twentieth century and an acoustic recording exists of his voice (made in 1902–3).

With the discovery in the 1830s that an implanted testis could produce an internal secretion, a ‘scientific’ basis for the magical thinking about the relationship of sexuality and power was established. Thus in the course of the nineteenth century ovariectomies were performed as therapy for pathologies such as ‘hysteria’. (The analogous procedure was the use of male circumcision as a surgical intervention for ‘masturbatory insanity’.) The famed cultural critic Max Nordau wrote his medical dissertation in Paris on the topic of De la castration de la femme under the aegis of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in 1882. In the late twentieth century, ‘chemical castration’ has become discussed as a punishment for sexually oriented crimes such as serial rape and paedophilia.

In psychoanalysis castration is the fantasy of loss of the penis by the female or the anxiety about actual loss by the male. In the development of this concept of castration and penis envy, there was a powerful association of castration with the origins of anti-Semitism in the act of circumcision. In Sigmund Freud's, An outline of psychoanalysis, which occupied his final months of life, Freud again returns to the ‘meaning’ of psychoanalysis in an extended footnote concerning the anxiety which the young boy feels when threatened with castration by his mother, a castration which is to be implemented by the father because of the child's masturbatory activity:
Castration has a place too in the Oedipus legend, for the blinding with which Oedipus punishes himself after the discovery of his crime is, by the evidence of dreams, a symbolic substitute for castration. The possibility cannot be excluded that a phylogenetic memory trace may contribute to the extraordinary terrifying effect of the threat — a memory trace from the pre-history of the primal family, when the jealous father actually robbed his son of his genitals if the latter became troublesome to him as a rival with a woman. The custom of circumcision, another symbolic substitute for castration, can only be understood as an expression of submission to the father's will. (cf. the puberty rites of primitive peoples.) No investigation has yet been made of the form taken by the events described above among peoples and in civilizations which do not suppress masturbation in children. (Standard Edition 23: 190.)

Two factors enter into this discussion: first, again, the theme of the unknown — here the unknown world of an unrepressed sexuality — and second, the universal claims of the phylogenetic model. It is this primary biological model which dominated Freud's biological thinking (as it did most of his contemporaries). Linked to this was the general acceptance of the view that acquired characteristics were inherited (the Lamarckian model). Indeed, Freud's biological model for this was a standard one for most late nineteenth-century biological scientists and physicians. The double model played itself out not only in the realm of the physical development of the genotype, but also in the construction of psychology of the group. It is in the real, phylogenetic experience of earlier generations that the psyche is formed, and it is in such group experience that the psychic development of each of us is mirrored. Employing Freud's theoretical matrix, Arnold Zweig in the 1930s noted that the Jewish prisoners in Rome had very low status because they had been vanquished and because ‘they bore the sign of circumcision which was associated in the eyes of the people with castration’. Powerlessness and circumcision are linked because of the involuntary nature of castration in Roman society and because of its association with the status of the slave. This is quoted in the standard German Jewish Encyclopedia of the 1920s. Such a ‘Jewish’ view echoes those such as Conrad Rieger's that male Jews have a peculiar pathological construction such as a ‘loss or absence of the testicles’. Both make the male less than a full-fledged man; a castrated man.

Tim Hargreave, and Sander L. Gilman


Barbier, P. (1996). The world of the castrati: the history of an extraordinary operatic phenomenon, (trans. Margaret Crosland). Souvenir, London.
Cheney, V. T. (1995). A brief history of castration. Crucial Concepts, Ozone Park, NY.
Gilman, S. L. (1993). The case of Sigmund Freud: medicine and identity at the fin de siècle. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

See also sex hormones; sperm; testes.
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CASTRATION , the removal of testes or ovaries. In the Hebrew Bible, the term saris, commonly rendered "eunuch," occurs more than 40 times. As a rule, the saris designated a court official who, occasionally, even reached the high rank of military commander (ii Kings 25:19). Sarisim were found serving at the courts of Egypt (Gen. 37:36), Ethiopia (Jer. 38:7), Persia (Esth. 1:10ff.), and even Israel (ii Kings 9:32). Since in at least one known case (Pharaoh's Potiphar) the saris was definitely married (Gen. 39:7ff.), it is doubtful whether the term always or usually refers specifically to a eunuch rather than to a palace official in general. Whatever the exact designation of the term, Judaism has always forbidden all forms of castration. Alone among the nations of antiquity, the Hebrews imposed a religious prohibition on the emasculation of men and even animals, a prohibition not found in the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Christ, or Muhammad. The Bible directly refers to the ban on castration only by excluding castrated animals from serving as sacrifices on the altar (Lev. 22:24), a descendant of Aaron "who hath his stones crushed" from the priestly service (Lev. 21:20), and a man "that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts" from entering into "the assembly of the Lord" (Deut. 23:2), i.e., from marrying within the Jewish community. In the Talmud (Shab. 110b–111a) and codes (e.g., Sh. Ar. eh 5:11–14), the biblical interdict is widely extended to cover any deliberate impairment of the male reproductive organs in domestic animals, beasts, birds, and man, including the castration of a person who is already impotent or genitally maimed. While technically emasculation does not apply to females, the sterilization of women is also prohibited, though somewhat less severely (ibid.). The Talmud records one view according to which the ban on castration is of universal validity, having been included among the *Noachide Laws (Sanh. 56b).

The explicit disqualification of priestly castrates strikingly indicates how repulsive to Judaism is the notion of emasculating ecclesiastics or temple servants in order to promote their spirituality, let alone for so slight a motive as to preserve the soprano voices of religious choristers (practices widely rampant among ancient and medieval Christians). Jewish law, by contrast, not only abhorred such operations but extended the ban to certain categories of judges and synagogue officials (Tosef., Sanh. 7:5; Sof. 14:17). As in the religious rulings on *birth control, only pressing medical considerations are recognized as setting aside the objections to castration or other forms of deliberate sterilization. Numerous recent rabbinic responsa discuss and rule on such operations in various circumstances, e.g., prostatectomies which may involve a generally forbidden form of emasculation by severing the seminal ducts. The opposition to the castration of animals by Jews also raises serious halakhic problems frequently treated in rabbinic literature (for a wide-ranging survey of relevant responsa, see Oẓar ha-Posekim, Even ha-Ezer, 1 (19552), 208–55; and Birg, in No'am 1 (1958), 245–62).


J. Preuss, Biblisch-talmudische Medizin (19233), 251–62; I. Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (1959), 159–67.

[Immanuel Jakobovits]

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cas·trate / ˈkasˌtrāt/ • v. [tr.] remove the testicles of (a male animal or man). ∎ fig. deprive of power, vitality, or vigor: [as adj.] (castrated) the nation is a castrated giant, afraid to really punish subversives. • n. a man or male animal whose testicles have been removed. DERIVATIVES: cas·tra·tion / kaˈstrāshən/ n. cas·tra·tor / -ˌtrātər/ n.

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castrateabate, ablate, aerate, ait, await, backdate, bait, bate, berate, castrate, collate, conflate, crate, create, cremate, date, deflate, dictate, dilate, distraite, donate, downstate, eight, elate, equate, estate, fate, fellate, fête, fixate, freight, frustrate, gait, gate, gestate, gradate, grate, great, gyrate, hate, hydrate, inflate, innate, interrelate, interstate, irate, Kate, Kuwait, lactate, late, locate, lustrate, mandate, mate, migrate, misdate, misstate, mistranslate, mutate, narrate, negate, notate, orate, ornate, Pate, placate, plate, prate, prorate, prostrate, pulsate, pupate, quadrate, rate, rotate, sate, sedate, serrate, short weight, skate, slate, spate, spectate, spruit, stagnate, state, straight, strait, Tate, tête-à-tête, Thwaite, translate, translocate, transmigrate, truncate, underrate, understate, underweight, update, uprate, upstate, up-to-date, vacate, vibrate, wait, weight

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98. Castration

  1. Abélard, Peter castrated by irate father of lover, Héloise. [Fr. Lit.: Héloise and Abélard ]
  2. Barnes, Jake castrated journalist whom Brett Ashley loves. [Am. Lit.: The Sun Also Rises ]
  3. Cybele hermaphroditic goddess honored orgiastically, usually by emasculation. [Phrygian Myth.: Parrinder, 68]
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castration Removal of the sexual glands (testes or ovaries) from an animal or human. In human beings, removal of the testes has been used as a form of punishment, a way of sexually incapacitating slaves to produce eunuchs, a way of artificially creating soprano voices (castrato) and as a method of stopping the spread of cancer. It can also make animals tamer.

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castrate XVII. f. pp. stem of L. castrāre, f. *castrum knife; see -ATE 3.
So castration XV. — F. or L.

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castration (kas-tray-shŏn) n. removal of the sex glands (the testes or the ovaries).

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