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European illustration of a eunuch (1749)


A eunuch ( ) is a castrated man, in particular one castrated early enough to have major hormonal consequences; the term usually refers to those castrated in order to perform a specific social function, as was common in many societies of the past. The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagashmarker in the twenty first century BC. Over the millennia since, they have performed a wide variety of functions in many different cultures such as: courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, government officials, military commanders, and guardians of women or harem servants. In some translations of ancient texts, individuals identified as eunuchs sometimes historically included men who were impotent with women, as well as those who were celibate.

Etymology and origins

The English word eunuch is from the Greek eune ("bed") and ekhein ("to keep"), effectively "bed keeper".

Servants or slave were usually castrated in order to make them safer servants of a royal court where physical access to the ruler could wield great influence. Seemingly lowly domestic functions such as making the ruler's bed, bathing him, cutting his hair, carrying him in his litter or even relaying messages could in theory give a eunuch "the ruler's ear" and impart de facto power on the formally humble but trusted servant. Similar instances are reflected in the humble origins and etymology of many high offices (e.g., chancellor began as a servant guarding the entrance to an official's study). Eunuchs supposedly did not generally have loyalties to the military, the aristocracy, or to a family of their own (having neither offspring nor in-laws, at the very least), and were thus seen as more trustworthy and less interested in establishing a private 'dynasty'. Because their condition usually lowered their social status, they could also be easily replaced or killed without repercussion. In cultures that had both harem and eunuchs, eunuchs were sometimes used as harem servants (compare the female odalisque) or seraglio guards.

In Latin, the words eunuchus, spado and castratus were used to describe eunuchs.

Eunuchs by region and epoch

Ancient Middle East

Eunuchs were familiar figures in the Assyrian Empire (ca. 850 till 622 B.C.), in the court of the Egyptian Pharaohs (down to the Lagid dynasty known as Ptolemies, ending with Cleopatra). Political eunuchism became a fully established institution among the Achamenide Persians

China

In ancient Chinamarker castration was both a traditional punishment (until the Sui Dynasty) and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. At the end of the Ming Dynastymarker there were about 70,000 eunuchs (宦官 huànguān, or 太監 tàijiàn) employed by the emperor, with some serving inside the Imperial palacemarker. Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of prime ministers. Self-castration was commonplace and half-hearted attempts were sometimes made to make it illegal. The number of eunuchs in Imperial employ had fallen to 470 in 1912, when the practice of using them ceased.

It is said that the justification of the employment of eunuchs as high-ranking civil servants was that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty. In many cases, eunuchs were considered more reliable than the scholar officials. A similar system existed in Vietnammarker.

The tension between eunuchs in the service of the emperor and virtuous Confucian officials is a familiar theme in Chinese history. In his History of Government, Samuel Finer points out that reality was not always that clear-cut. There were instances of very capable eunuchs, who were valuable advisors to their emperor, and the resistance of the "virtuous" officials often stemmed from jealousy on their part. Ray Huang argues that in reality, eunuchs represented the personal will of the Emperor, while the officials represented the alternate political will of the bureaucracy. The clash between them would thus have been a clash of ideologies or political agenda.

European Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci was the first European to reach Chinamarker with a European musical instrument, who presented a Harpsichord to the Mingmarker imperial court in 1601. He trained four eunuchs to play it.

Ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium

The practice was also well established in Europe among the Greeks and Romans, although more rarely as court functionaries than in Asia. The third sex Galli of Cybele were considered by some to be eunuchs. In late Rome, emperors such as Constantine were surrounded by eunuchs for such functions as bathing, hair cutting, dressing, and bureaucratic functions, in effect acting as a shield between the emperor and his administrators from physical contact. Eunuchs were believed loyal and dispensable.

At the Byzantine imperial court, there were a great number of eunuchs employed in domestic and administrative functions, actually organized as a separate hierarchy, following a parallel career of their own. Archieunuchs—each in charge of a group of eunuchs—were among the principal officers in Constantinoplemarker, under the emperors. Under Justinian in the fifth century, the eunuch Narses functioned as a successful general in a number of campaigns.

Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

The Ottoman court harem—within the Topkapı Palacemarker (1465–1853) and later the Dolmabahçe Palacemarker (1853–1909) in Istanbulmarker—was under the administration of the eunuchs. These were of two categories: Black Eunuchs and White Eunuchs. Black Eunuchs were Africans who served the concubines and officials in the Harem together with chamber maidens of low rank. The White Eunuchs were Europeans from the Balkans. They served the recruits at the Palace School and were from 1582 prohibited from entering the Harem. An important figure in the Ottoman court was the Chief Black Eunuch (Kızlar Ağası or Harem Ağası). In control of the Harem and a perfect net of spies in the Black Eunuchs, the Chief Eunuch was involved in almost every palace intrigue and could thereby gain power over either the sultan or one of his viziers, ministers or other court officials.

India

Eunuchs in Indian royalty

Eunuchs were frequently employed in Imperial Indian palaces as servants for female royalty, and often attained high-status positions in Indian society. Eunuchs in Imperial palaces were organized in a hierarchy, often with a senior or chief eunuch ("Khwaja Saras") directing junior eunuchs below him. Eunuchs were highly valued for their strength, ability to provide protection for ladies' palaces and trustworthiness, allowing eunuchs to live amongst women with fewer worries. This enabled eunuchs to serve as messengers, watchmen, attendants and guards for palaces. Often, eunuchs also doubled as part of the King's court of advisers.

As a result of the number of high-status job openings available for eunuchs, poor families often converted one of their sons into a eunuch and had him work in the imperial palaces to create a steady source of revenue for the family and ensure a comfortable lifestyle for the son. This practice of castration was banned throughout the Empire in 1668 by Aurangzeb, but continued covertly.

The hijra of India

The Ancient Indian Kama Sutra refers to people of a "third sex" (triteeyaprakrti), who can be dressed either in men's or in women's clothes and perform fellatio on men. The term has been translated as "eunuchs" (as in Sir Richard Burton's translation of the book), but these persons have also been considered to be the equivalent of the modern hijra of India.

Hijra, a Hindi term traditionally translated into English as "eunuch", actually refers to what modern Westerners would call male-to-female transgender people and effeminate homosexuals (although some of them reportedly identify as belonging to a third sex). Some of them undergo ritual castration, but the majority do not. They usually dress in saris (traditional Indian garb worn by women) and wear heavy make-up. They typically live in the margins of society, face discriminationRavaging the Vulnerable: Abuses Against Persons at High Risk of HIV Infection in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch, August 2003. Report online.
See also: Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (Karnataka) Report on Human Rights Violations Against the Transgender Community, released in September 2003. Reported in Being a Eunuch, By Siddarth Narrain, for Frontline, 14 October 2003. and earn their living in various ways, e.g., by coming uninvited at weddings, births, new shop openings and other major family events and singing until they are paid or given gifts to go away.The ceremony is supposed to bring good luck and fertility, while the curse of an unappeased hijra is feared by many. Other sources of income for the hijra are begging and prostitution. The begging is accompanied by singing and dancing and the hijras usually get the money easily. Some Indian provincial officials have used the assistance of hijras to collect taxes in the same fashion; they knock on the doors of shopkeepers, while dancing and singing, and embarrass them into paying. Recently, hijras have started to found organizations to improve their social condition and fight discrimination. There has even been a wave of hijra entering politics and being elected to high political positions. In the epic Mahabaratha of India, Arjuna, one of the 5 heroes who is originally a handsome man, warrior and great archer becomes Brihannala, a eunuch when they spend their last year of exile in the kingdom of Virata. Brihannala/Arjuna lived among the palace women as a teacher of song and dance.

Religious castration

Castration as part of religious practice, and eunuchs occupying religious roles have been established prior to classical antiquity. Archaeological finds at Çatalhöyükmarker in Anatoliamarker indicate worship of a 'Magna Mater' figure, a forerunner of the Cybele goddess found in later Anatoliamarker and other parts of the near East. Later Roman followers of Cybele, were called Galli, who practiced ritual self-castration, known as sanguinaria.

The practice of religious castration continued into the Christian era, with members of the early church castrating themselves for religious purposes, although the extent and even the existence of this practice among Christians is subject to debate. The early theologian Origen found scriptural justification for the practice in ,. where Jesus says, "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." (NRSV)

Tertullian, a second century Church Father, described Jesus himself and Paul of Tarsus as spadones, which is translated as "eunuchs" in some contexts. The meaning of spado in late antiquity can be interpreted as a metaphor for celibacy, however Tertullian's specifically refers to St. Paul as being castrated.

Eunuch priests have served various goddesses from India for many centuries. Similar phenomena are exemplified by some modern Indian communities of the Hijra type, which are associated with a deity and with certain rituals and festivals – notably the devotees of Yellammadevi, or jogappas, who are not castrated and the Ali of southern India, of whom at least some are.

The eighteenth-century Russianmarker Skoptzy (скопцы) sect was an example of a castration cult, where its members regarded castration as a way of renouncing the sins of the flesh. Several members of the twentieth century Heaven's Gate cult were found to have been castrated, apparently voluntarily and for the same reasons.

Castrato singers

Eunuchs castrated before puberty were also valued and trained in several cultures for their exceptional voices, which retained a childlike and other-worldly flexibility and treble pitch. Such eunuchs were known as castrati. Unfortunately the choice had to be made at an age when the boy would not yet be able to consciously choose whether to sacrifice his sexual potency, and there was no guarantee that the voice would remain of musical excellence after the operation.

As women were sometimes forbidden to sing in Church, their place was taken by castrati. The practice, known as castratism, remained popular until the eighteenth century and was known into the nineteenth century. The last famous Italian castrato, Giovanni Velluti, died in 1861. The sole existing recording of a castrato singer documents the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, the last eunuch in the Sistine Chapelmarker choir, who died in 1922. Unfortunately, the early twentieth century recording is of poor quality.

Non-castrated eunuchs

According to Byzantine historian Kathryn Ringrose, while the pagan of Classical Antiquity based their notions of gender in general and eunuchs in particular on physiology (the genitalia), the Byzantine Christians based them on behaviour and more specifically procreation. Hence, by Late Antiquity the term "eunuch" had come to be applied not only to castrated men, but also to a wide range of men with comparable behavior, who had "chosen to withdraw from worldly activities and thus refused to procreate". The broad sense of the term "eunuch" is reflected in the compendium of Roman law created by Justinian I in the sixth century known as the Digest or Pandects. That text distinguishes between two types of eunuchs – spadones (a general term denoting "one who has no generative power, an impotent person, whether by nature or by castration", D 50.16.128) and castrati (castrated males, physically incapable of procreation). Spadones are eligible to marry women (D 23.3.39.1), institute posthumous heirs (D 28.2.6), and adopt children (Institutions of Justinian 1.11.9), unless they are castrati.

Eunuchs in the Contemporary World

There may be more castrated men in the world today than ever before in human history. Most of these men would not consider themselves to be eunuchs, but they fit all of the characteristics other than acceptance of the label.

The hijra of India (see above) may number as many as 2,000,000, and are usually described as eunuchs, although they may be closer to male-to-female transsexual people, but have surgical castration instead of reassignment surgery, and seldom have access to hormones. The loss of testosterone and lack of estrogen means their bodies take on the characteristics of post-pubertal eunuchs.

The most commonly castrated men are advanced prostate cancer patients. In the United States alone there are more than 200,000 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed each year. It is estimated that over 80,000 of these men will be surgically or chemically castrated within six months of diagnosis. With the average life expectancy after castration, there are approximately a half million chemically or surgically castrated prostate cancer patients at any time in the U.S. alone. While most of these men would deny the term “eunuch,” they meet all physiological characteristics of post-pubertal eunuchs. Some do, however, embrace the term for the historic and psychological grounding that it gives them.

While treatment of testicular cancer frequently involves removal of one testicle, it seldom requires removal of both. Accidents involving the loss of both testicles are also rare. In the case of both testicular cancer patients and accident victims, testosterone replacement therapy prevents the individuals from experiencing the hormone loss that characterizes true eunuchs.

Convicted sex offenders who have been castrated are rare; a lack of testosterone and the consequent ability to better control their own libido does result in negligible recidivism.

The most common group that actually embraces the term “eunuch” are the contemporary voluntary eunuchs, who number 7,000 to 10,000 in North America, with many more around the world.

Many of these are males who have a Male-to-Eunuch Gender Dysphoria. While they are born with male genitalia, their brain tells them that they are not male, but neither are they female. They seek castration to align their bodies with their brain sex. A second large group of the contemporary eunuchs have a Body Integrity Identity Disorder. This occurs when the brain does not accept the presence of some specific body part. Surgery is often the only way to effect a cure. The balance of contemporary voluntary eunuchs are scattered across a wide variety of paraphilias.

Notable eunuchs

See also: Category: Eunuchs
In chronological order.

  • Aspamistres or Mithridates (5th century BC) Bodyguard of Xerxes I of Persiamarker, and (with Artabanus) his murderer.
  • Artoxares: An envoy of Artaxerxes I and Darius II of Persia.
  • Bagoas (4th century BC) Prime minister of king Artaxerxes III of Persia, and his murderer. (Bagoas is an old Persian/Farsai word meaning Eunuch.)
  • Bagoas (4th century BC) A favorite of Alexander the Great. Influential in changing Alexander's attitude toward Persians and therefore in the king's policy decision to try to integrate the conquered peoples fully into his Empire as loyal subjects. He thereby paved the way for the relative success of Alexander's Seleucid successors and greatly enhanced the penetration of Greek culture to the East.
  • Philetaerus (4th/3rd century BC): founder of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamum
  • Sima Qian – old romanization: Ssu-ma Chi'en (2nd/1st century BC)  Was the first person to have practiced modern historiography – gathering and analyzing both primary and secondary sources in order to write his monumental history of the Chinese empire.
  • Ganymedes (1st century BC) Highly capable adviser and general of Cleopatra VII's sister and rival, Princess Arsinoe. Unsuccessfully attacked Julius Caesar three times at Alexandria.
  • Pothinus (1st century BC) Regent for pharaoh Ptolemy XII.
  • Unidentified eunuch of the Ethiopian court (1st century BC), described in The Acts of the Apostles (chapter 8). Philip the Evangelist, one of the original seven deacons, is directed by the Holy Spirit to catch up to the eunuch's chariot and hears him reading from the Book of Isaiah (chapter 53). It's a section, which prophesies Jesus' crucifixion, and Philip witnesses to the eunuch about the fulfillment of the prophecy. The eunuch is baptized shortly thereafter. It's the first recorded case of the conversion of someone who had possibly been marginalized for gender reasons.
  • Cai Lun – Ts'ai Lun in the old romanization (1st/2nd century AD) Reasonable evidence exists to suggest that he was truly the inventor of paper. At the very least, he established the importance of paper and standardized its manufacture in the Chinese empire.
  • Origen – early Christian theologian, allegedly castrated himself based on his reading of the Gospel of Matthew 19:12 (For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.). Despite the fact that the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote that Jesus was a eunuch, there is no corroboration in any other early source. (The Skoptsy did, however, believe it to be true.) Tertullian also wrote that he knew, personally, the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and that he was a eunuch. Again, this is not attested elsewhere, nor is the account of Origen's self-castration.
  • Eutropius (5th century AD) Only eunuch known to have attained the highly distinguished and very influential position of Roman Consul.
  • Chrysaphius – chief minister of Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II, architect of imperial policy towards the Huns.
  • Narses (478–573) General of Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, responsible for destroying the Ostrogoths in 552 at the Battle of Taginae in Italy and saving Rome for the empire.
  • Ignatius of Constantinople (799–877). Twice Patriarch of Constantinople during troubled political times [847–858 and 867–877]. First absolutely unquestioned eunuch saint, recognized by both the Orthodox and Roman Churches. (There are a great many early saints who were probably eunuchs, though few either as influential nor unquestioned as to their castration.)
  • Ly Thuong Kiet (1019–1105), general during the Ly Dynasty in Vietnam. Penned what is considered the first Vietnamese declaration of independence. Regarded as a Vietnamese national hero.
  • Pierre Abélard (1079–1142), French scholastic philosopher and theologian. Forcibly castrated while in bed by his lover's uncle.
  • Malik Kafur (fl. 1296 - 1316), was a eunuch slave who became a general in the army of Alauddin Khilji, ruler of the Delhi sultanate.
  • Zheng He (1371–1433), famous admiral who led huge Chinese fleets of exploration around the Indian Ocean.
  • Judar Pasha (late sixteenth century) A Spanish eunuch who became the head of the Moroccan invasion force into the Songhai Empire.
  • Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli (1705–82), the most famous Italian castrato.
  • Kim Cheo Son, one of the most famous eunuchs in Korean dynasty, ably served kings in the Joseon dynasty. His life is now the subject of a popular historical drama currently airing in South Korea.
  • Mohammad Khan Qajar, was the chief of the Qajar tribe. He became the King/Shah of Persia in 1794 and established the Qajar dynasty.




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