The topic of eunuchs—deliberately castrated human males—is one that has received increasing attention in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In large part this is because of the growth of gender studies. The distinctive physical nature of eunuchs has begged questions about their gender identity throughout history, and they present a rich field for study.
The origins of eunuchs are unknown. Perhaps it developed from the use of castration as a form of punishment, or was a deliberate transfer of practice from the field of animal husbandry. The phenomenon is especially associated with Asia. Assyria and China are the earliest known civilizations to feature eunuchs, using them from the second millennium bce.
It is primarily in the setting of royal and imperial courts that eunuchs have been found in history. In addition to the Assyrian and Chinese courts, eunuchs famously distinguish those of the Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, though others used them too (such as Ptolemaic Egypt and the Arab Caliphates).
ROLES THROUGHOUT HISTORY
In the popular imagination, eunuchs are most associated with the role of guarding royal and imperial women; visions of harems come easily to mind. Indeed one etymology of the Greek word eunuch is "guardian of the bed." Greeks and Romans even thought it was a royal woman who was responsible for the invention of eunuchs. It is true that this was one role that eunuchs had at courts (and in elite households too), but this was not their only function. Eunuchs were just as likely, if not more so, to be in the company of men. Also, they were not just attendants, but could hold significant office and wield political influence. In the later Roman Empire the office of grand chamberlain (praepositus sacri cubiculi) brought great social status and could bring great power, because of the proximity to the emperor that the post entailed. The chief white and black eunuchs of the Ottoman sultan could also be forces to be reckoned with. Eunuchs of royal and imperial women could be powerful too, with examples including Staurakios and Aetios, who featured in the government of the Byzantine empress Eirene (r. 797–802), and Li Lianying, hairdresser to the Chinese empress dowager Cixi (1861–1908). The duties of eunuchs in the service of courts could extend to major roles not related to personal attendance, even military commands. The eunuch Narses was the hero of the reconquest of Italy under the Roman emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565). And in China, the eunuch Zheng He was the admiral of several expeditions in the fifteenth century.
Of course, eunuchs do not just feature in history as the personnel of courts and elite households. They became especially conspicuous in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe as singers. Although the unique musical quality of the eunuch voice was not unknown before this time (indeed there were eunuchs in the papal choir by the beginning of the seventeenth century), the birth of opera led to the particular prominence of the castrati. The day of the castrati, however, was in decline by the end of the eighteenth century, with a change in musical tastes and increasing opposition to castration. In 1902 Pope Leo XIII banned any new eunuchs from joining the papal choir, and in 1922 Alessandro Moreschi (known as the Angel of Rome), the last castrato to have served in the choir, died.
Eunuchs have had a more pronounced place in religious history beyond their role as church singers. They have been figures in a number of religions, usually in the guise of self-castrates, that is, those who willingly castrated themselves. This marks them out from other eunuchs, because the latter tended to be castrated against their will and when they had not yet reached puberty; self-castration in a religious context tends to be undertaken by mature individuals. With regard to religion in Greco-Roman antiquity, eunuchs are met in association with mother goddesses. The most famous instance is that of Cybele (or the Magna Mater [Great Mother]), whose cult was centered in Asia Minor at Pessinus in Phrygia, but who was particularly popular among the Romans, her cult image having been transferred to Rome in 204 bce. Associated with the goddess was the figure of Attis, her human consort. In one version of the myth the goddess drove her lover to castrate himself because he had been unfaithful to her. It is possible that the example of Attis accounts for the place of self-castration in the cult of Cybele, though other theories exist. The eunuch priests of the goddess were known as galli, and adopted distinct behavior. They would dress as women, wear makeup and jewelry, and grow their hair long.
Such behavior provides a startling parallel with the modern-day case of the hijras of India. The hijras are castrated voluntarily, and this practice forms part of their dedication to the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata, though there are also Christian and Muslim members of their communities. The hijras dress and act like women, taking female names and using female kinship terms to describe the relationships between them.
Self-castration has also existed in a Christian context. In the Gospel according to Matthew (19:12), Jesus identified three types of eunuchs: those who are born eunuchs, those who are made eunuchs, and those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Some early Christians understood the last category literally rather than metaphorically, and welcomed castration, the most famous (reputed) example being the theologian Origen. The Council of Nicaea in 325 banned self-castrates from serving as clergy, but it is clear the practice was not so easily halted.
Indeed Christian eunuchs dramatically resurfaced in modern Russia in the shape of the Skoptsy (meaning literally "self-castrators"), who embraced castration to secure purity and salvation. Male Skoptsy could undergo the removal of just the testicles ("minor seal") or of the penis also ("major seal"). Unusually, female members could also experience genital mutilation, encompassing the removal of nipples, breasts, and external parts of the vagina. The Skoptsy came to light in the 1770s, and were persecuted for most of their existence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought initial respite, but ultimately witnessed their demise.
OPINIONS ABOUT THEIR NATURE AND CHARACTER
Throughout history eunuchs have elicited strong and divergent opinions about their nature and character. Given the altered physical state of those castrated prior to puberty, the question of their sex and gender identity has been a key issue. For Aristotle eunuchs were feminized beings, grouped with women and children rather than men. In the Greco-Roman world, the perceived feminized condition of eunuchs led to them being attributed with feminine behavioral traits. Another view of eunuchs was that they were neither man nor woman, but a third sex, or even lacking any distinct identity.
In terms of sexual behavior eunuchs have been associated with homosexuality. Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) is alleged to have had a eunuch lover, Bagoas (the title character of Mary Renault's 1972 novel, The Persian Boy), while the Roman emperor Nero (r. 54–68 ce) is said to have had his lover Sporus castrated and to have gone through a wedding ceremony with him, the eunuch taking the role of the bride. But eunuchs also appear as the sexual partners of women, and in Greco-Roman and Arabic thought one encounters the view that eunuchs were women with men and men with women. Whether eunuchs could marry occupied Christian thought. The Byzantine emperor Leo VI (r. 886–912) rejected this on the grounds that the purpose of marriage was procreation. The instance of castrati marrying women (a famous case is that of Tenducci in 1766) provoked Charles Ancillon's Traité des eunuques (1707; Treatise on eunuchs), which was designed to establish why eunuchs should not be allowed to get married. In China, however, eunuchs were permitted to marry. It is clear that the value of eunuchs as guardians of women was not so much that sexual relations would not occur, but that pregnancy would be avoided.
The role of eunuchs in politics was also cause for comment. This could be extremely negative, such as with the cases of the later Roman and Chinese empires. Some Roman literature of the fourth century ce (such as the history of Ammianus Marcellinus and the invectives of Claudian against the grand chamberlain Eutropius) is notably hostile to the involvement in government of court eunuchs, who are depicted as corrupt and greedy (views that have a wide currency, originating in part from Orientalism but also from ideas about the character of eunuchs). It seems that such antipathy was a reaction of the traditional elite to the new political significance of court eunuchs, most of whom would also have been of slave origin. In China there is a comparable reaction by the Confucian elite. Nevertheless, positive views of eunuchs existed as well. They could be considered loyal agents, and entrusted with special tasks. In the field of religion a similar dichotomy can be found. Eunuchs can be viewed as depraved sensual beings, but also as pure and chaste. In a Christian context this led to an association of eunuchs with angels, which underscored the notion that they had a distinct identity.
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Jay, Jennifer W. 1993. "Another Side of Chinese Eunuch History: Castration, Marriage, Adoption, and Burial." Canadian Journal of History 28(3): 459-478.
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