When I Stop Naming Eunuchs
by Tucker Lieberman
I always wanted to be a monk. How joyful the solemnity must be, spending all day singing or muttering sagely, surrounded by farm animals, making jam and cheese, never having to worry what I'm expected to wear. But I wasn't raised Christian or Buddhist, so I am condemned to the rat race. My interest in monks, however, led me to the discovery of eunuchs, and for that alone I am grateful.
I'm not referring to castrated men who live
today, although I have met some; here I'm talking about the men who lived
long ago, ancestors shrouded in mystery, who, with varying degrees of
consent, were transformed into a third sex. My first assumptions
about eunuchs were that they were something like Tolkien hobbits:
harmless, affable, childlike people with subtle magical powers. Like
monks, they were human-with-a-twist. Their magic was heightened by the
secrecy around them. It seemed that if I could just put all the names and
dates, which are scattered in history
books, in one place, I would know something of value and could tap into the eunuch's' power and magic.
And so an obsession was born. In the mockumentary "Best in Show," the character Harlan recalls how, as a child, he used to recite the names of nuts—"peanut, hazelnut, cashew nut, macadamia nut"—until his mother yelled, "Harlan Pepper, will you stop naming nuts!" This is not unlike my situation, although I name eunuchs quietly, and my mother does not mind.
But back to the monks for a moment. It is the cyclical time enjoyed by monks that intrigues me. Every morning, every evening, year in and year out, the same old story, until the routine defeats time itself, and all that remains is the individual, forced to confront himself. The monotony of daily life reveals his most inert and frustrating characteristics. The cloister holds him, and every wall is a mirror.
The very word "eunuch" functions like a monk's routine. It is shockingly self-confrontational. There is a finality and irreversibility to castration, and using the word implies that the man's essence has subtly but significantly changed. "Eunuch" is used in various metaphorical ways today. To me, it means someone compelled to address the thing he cannot change. His body has become his cloister, where he may suffer, grieve, meditate, or transcend himself.
Our culture today resists this theme. Physical ailments are to be cured with pills; unhappiness is to be changed through "right thinking"; grief is to be hidden or shunned like a plague; and fulfillment is to be bought in a mall. The culture sees no value, sees only stupidity and perversion in dwelling on what cannot be changed. Men who have been castrated rarely call themselves "eunuch," will not even speak their own name unless they have hope of fixing themselves.
This is the wilderness in which the monk hears his vocation.
This is where I start naming eunuchs.
I can start with the Church father Origen who shocked his superiors in 209 with his fanatical approach to celibacy, or the thousands of monks who massed on the Nile after Constantine gave Christians the right to associate in 315. Many were castrated despite the Nicaean Council's prohibition. Their leader Pachomius was a fanatical believer in celibacy, and his initial devotion to cult of the castrated Egyptian god Osiris before converting to Christianity is reason to think he personally may have been castrated. Osiris was known in Rome but the castrated Greek god Attis had a greater influence there. Standing out with their crimped, bleached hair and loud public displays, the Attis-worshippers called gallae immigrated to Rome from modern-day Turkey in the second century BCE. Their castration ritual occurred on the spring equinox when they celebrated the death and resurrection of their god and decorated a pine tree to symbolize his body. Comparing celibate Christians to gallae was used as an insult for a thousand years, even by other Christians.
Christianity was always uncomfortable with this drastic approach to celibacy. There were at least two grumpy early Christian rationales against castration, according to Gary Taylor in Castration: (a) it didn't eliminate lust, and actually facilitated sexual sin by working as a contraceptive; (b) it did eliminate lust, and therefore eunuchs were cheaters and losers because holiness had to be won by struggling against lust. Early Christian women evaded marriage by hiding in men's monasteries disguised as beardless eunuch monks, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Abelard is an aberration on this list because he was mutilated in a surprise attack following a disagreement, but at least he became a monk, so I happily count him in the list.
Of course, any complete list includes the castrati singers. Many have heard of Farinelli, who spent a decade lulling the despondent Philip V of Spain to sleep, and was one of the most famous stage stars who ever lived. Castrati like him were taught church music as a Christian vocation in four major orphanage-conservatories in Naples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Abandoned by their parents in early childhood, some posed as angels at children's funerals to earn extra money, according to Patrick Barbier in The World of the Castrati. The castrati, however, were no angels. It all depends on what you think an angel is. Some theologians said angels were apathes, "unfeeling," according to Kathryn Ringrose in The Perfet Servant, whereas the castrati were known for their capacity for passion. It was a eunuch, Allegri, who composed "Miserere." Filippo Balatri was so ashamed of his body that he requested no one bathe his corpse.
Much of these eunuchs' unhappiness was due to loneliness, as the Church forbid them from marrying to prevent them from funneling church property to wives, shortly after priests received the same mandate in 1139. James Joyce had Leopold Bloom meditate on the castrati and on his own repressed sexuality and comment: "Suppose they wouldn't feel anything after. Kind of a placid. ... Who knows? eunuch. One way out of it."
Eunuchs never got me out of anything. There is no way out, as far as I can tell. The project of listing them is a rabbit hole. Reciting names is relaxing, but there are always more to find, so it doesn't put me to sleep, which I've heard is a benefit of counting other things, like, for instance, sheep. The Skoptzy were a more recent Christian sect in Russia whose last recorded castration was in 1951. They believed breasts and testicles were the halves of the forbidden fruit that cleaved to the human body after the Fall and must be removed to regain physical perfection. (Right about here is where I usually hear the voice: "Harlan Pepper, will you stop naming nuts!")
Every religion, it seems, has a eunuch myth. When Ouranos was castrated, Aphrodite was born. Shiva cut himself in frustration and the world was born. Odin, the Norse "hanged god," spent nine days suffering in a tree. The infertile, masculine-leaning hermaphrodites in the Dine (Navajo) Native American creation myth taught industry to humanity. Duke Clinchsor in the Arthurian myth became a better magician after his mutilation. Adonis was gored by a boar. Dionysus was scattered. Osiris became a god after he was killed by his brother. Attis was driven mad by his jealous mother. Jesus, by a few maverick interpretations, was part of the expansive brotherhood.
When I make my list of historical eunuchs, I include feminine priestesses, called the Bissu, of the pre-Islamic Bugis nomads in Indonesia, and the society of the Eunuchs of the Prophet, founded by Sunni Muslims in the twelfth century. Marching in procession every night with lanterns, the latter served in Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Jerusalem. They guarded preachers, corrected pilgrims in their prayer recitations, touched relics without being struck by lightning, and prayed for deceased wealthy individuals who had endowed positions for them to do so. The word "eunuch" may literally mean Bed Guard, but many of them, in my opinion, have been Door Openers and Key Bearers to the spiritual realms.
It would be wrong to give the impression that all eunuchs were monks or priests. The majority were not directly connected to any religious group, and only were castrated when they were taken as slaves. Still, the finality of their condition and the very name of their tribe have a haunting, mysterious quality. Eunuch servants, it turns out, are just as pleasing for me to name as eunuch monks.
Romans—and later, Muslims—forbade castration of their own kind but adored foreign slaves. Greeks trafficked in eunuchs in the ports of Ephesus and Sardis. Persian kings kept concubines like Bagoas who was passed from Darius to Alexander the Great, and servants, some of whom, like Artaxares with his artificial beard, aspired to the throne. Greek-ruled Egypt saw eunuch regents. Coptic Christian monks in Egypt castrated African boys who had been dragged through the Sahara or ferried up the Nile or Red Sea to be sold in Arab lands. European Jews sold Slavs (the origin of "slave") to Muslim Spain.
China preferred to employ its own people. Self-castration was a way to bypass years of study for the civil service examination and to be assured palace employment, but many eunuch servants were nevertheless talented. The first silk-based paper was said to have been invented by the eunuch Cai Lun in 105 CE. Later that century, palace eunuchs were empowered with the right to own property and adopt heirs, and after less than two generations they attempted a failed rebellion that resulted in thousands of beheadings of their tribe. They regained power as time passed. Shih-Shang Henry Tsai's history in Eunuchs of the Ming Dynasty is a text from which their names can be indexed with relish, as follows: Guo Shoujing helped build the Grand Canal under Kublai Khan. Nguyen An, given as tribute from Vietnam, designed the Forbidden City. The admiral Cheng Ho led seven naval expeditions in the fifteenth century and invested the kings of Sumatra and Japan. The good Feng Bao, patron of the arts and mentor for Emperor Wanli, once talked Wanli out of attempting to imprison a mob of thousands. The bad Zhang Yong hid a treasure greater than China's annual budget and encouraged Emperor Zhengde's idleness. There were so many eunuchs, they formed detective agencies to police each other. The starving populace towards the end of the Ming Dynasty continued to castrate itself despite a buffer of disgruntled applicants, and self-castration had to be outlawed. There were 70,000 eunuchs in the Chinese palace at that time.
Rome never runs out of names either. Sporus, publicly married to Nero in a mock ceremony, killed himself rather than be raped by gladiators. Eutropius didn't survive the year after his appointment as a Roman Consul in 399 when the poet Claudian's diatribe labeled him a bad omen and worse than a woman. But eunuchs eventually gained a measure of respect. After the general Narses quelled the Nika insurrection that killed tens of thousands of people, Emperor Justinian selected him to overthrow the Ostrogoths in Italy, which he did in a decisive battle in 552. He faked the beheading of hostages and "resurrected" them as a condition of the enemy's surrender, as L.H. Fauber retold the story in Narses: Hammer of the Goths. He retired to Rome's Palatine Hill, the original site of the gallae's shrine to Attis, although the gallae had been banished from Rome when he was a young man. One of his final achievements was the building of the eunuch monastery of the Katharoi. Ironically, he had shown the Roman soldiers how to be "real men," always demanding traditional Roman discipline as a precaution against effeminacy.
Byzantine eunuchs enjoyed their apex of power in the ninth to eleventh centuries. "The history of Byzantium reads from one castration to the next," Peter Tompkins wrote in The Eunuch and the Virgin. Rodolphe Guilland named a hundred or so in a 1943 essay "Les Eunuques dans l'Empire Byzantin." For example, in the tenth century Basil, the illegitimate son of Romanus I, was sterilized to prevent his imperial hopes. He became a grand chamberlain, the confidant of three empresses, the chief advisor for Romanus II, a military officer commanded by the future emperor John Tzimisces, and he lived to see his great-nephew Basil II take the throne.
The city of Constantinople was transferred to Ottoman rule in 1453. The Ottoman court had always segregated European and African eunuchs, with the white eunuchs having more power until an incidence of corruption in the seventeenth century resulted in privilege being given to the black eunuchs. The chief black eunuch then managed the harem and the mosque finances. He was permitted to approach the sultan at any time and rode behind him in procession. While most people probably think of the Turkish harem when they hear the word "eunuch," it is less well known that some of these emasculated black Christians living among Muslims were among the most wealthy and powerful men in the world at the time.
Once, everyone knew what it meant to be a eunuch. It meant a paradoxical status between slavery and prestige. It meant a reputation for sensuality and disinterest. It meant being the subject of rumors, speculation, and superstition. It meant approximating the angels and prophets, while being an ordinary businessman, farmer, or husband was out of reach.
There are many eunuchs in the Bible, but it is a finite source unless one wants to investigate ambiguous characters or theologians' comments. The individuals here mainly fall into the category of servant rather than prophet. Potiphar, chief of the Egyptian Pharaoh's guards, who bought Joseph. Ashpenaz, who trained Daniel for the Babylonian king's service—and Daniel himself, by several early theologians' assumptions. Shaashgaz and Hegai, who prepared new concubines for the Persian king. Ebed-Melech who rescued Jeremiah from a well, and Nebushazban who removed Jeremiah from the Babylonian court. Nehemiah, cupbearer for Artaxerxes. Nathan-Melech, chamberlain who guarded the horses dedicated to the sun-god that were destroyed by King Josiah. Most famous is the nameless Ethiopian eunuch who confronted Philip the Evangelist on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and asked, "Why shouldn't I be baptized?" Castration in the Hebrew Bible is attributed to foreigners, even in the prophet Isaiah's special blessing to the eunuchs, which Jon Berquist in Judaism in Persia's Shadow argues was a tool to make peace between the Jewish exiles and the new Persian rule. In the New Testament, Jesus refers obliquely to gender egalitarianism, amputating offending body parts, and accepting that men become eunuchs for a lot of different reasons.
It has been three years since I named my first eunuch. At what point does one stop naming eunuchs and start naming, say, giant sequoias? When does one move on and get a new research topic, just as the biologist and sex-researcher-to-be Alfred Kinsey reached a point where he had collected enough gall wasps?
Sometimes it seems that my list has expanded to fill its parameters and I need a new lead. Other days, I feel the taxonomy is just the beginning, and what is needed is only to keep reciting it, in hope that its meaning will become apparent.
And then there are the days when I want to fall into that deep eunuch mystery and become a monk. Perhaps someday I will finally change my religion, give away my brightly colored clothes, and just take the vow of poverty. When I am a monk, my superiors, understanding my peculiar temptation, will limit my trips to the library to once a week. But, for now, scouring histories for eunuchs still calms me down at the end of the day. It is at least as reassuring as Vespers.
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