A eunuch (//; Greek: εὐνοῦχος) is a man who (by the common definition of the term) may have been castrated, typically early enough in his life for this change to have major hormonal consequences. In some ancient texts, "eunuch" may refer to a man who is not castrated but who is impotent, celibate, or otherwise not inclined to marry and procreate. Castration was typically carried out on the soon-to-be eunuch without his consent in order that he might perform a specific social function; this was common in many societies. The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagash in the 21st century BC. Over the millennia since, they have performed a wide variety of functions in many different cultures: courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, soldiers, royal guards, government officials and guardians of women or harem servants.
Eunuchs would probably be servants or slaves who, because of their function, had been castrated, usually in order to make them reliable 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 originally denoted a servant guarding the entrance to an official's study). Eunuchs supposedly did not generally have loyalties to the military, the aristocracy, nor 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 harems 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 denote eunuchs.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Eunuchs by region and epoch
- 2.1 Ancient Middle East
- 2.2 Ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium
- 2.3 China
- 2.4 Korea
- 2.5 Vietnam
- 2.6 Thailand
- 2.7 Burma
- 2.8 Ottoman Empire
- 2.9 Indian subcontinent
- 3 Religious castration
- 4 Eunuchs in the Bible
- 5 Non-castrated eunuchs
- 6 Castrato singers
- 7 Eunuchs in the contemporary world
- 8 In popular culture
- 9 Notable eunuchs
- 10 Notes
- 11 Sources and references
- 12 External links
Eunuch comes from the Greek word eunoukhos, first attested in a fragment of Hipponax, the 6th century BCE comic poet and prolific inventor of compound words. The acerbic poet describes a certain lover of fine food having "consumed his estate dining lavishly and at leisure every day on tuna and garlic-honey cheese paté like a Lampsacene eunoukhos”. In ancient classical literature from the early 5th century onward, the word generally designates some incapacity for or abstention from procreation, whether due to natural constitution or to physical mutilation. For instance, Lucian suggests two methods to determine whether someone is a eunuch: physical inspection of the body, or scrutiny of his ability to perform sexually with females (Lucian, Eunuchus 12).
The earliest surviving etymology of the word is from late antiquity. The 5th century (CE) Etymologicon by Orion of Thebes offers two alternative origins for the word eunuch: first, to tēn eunēn ekhein, "guarding the bed", a derivation inferred from eunuchs' established role at the time as "bedchamber attendants" in the imperial palace, and second, to eu tou nou ekhein, "being good with respect to the mind", which Orion explains based on their "being deprived of male-female intercourse (esterēmenou tou misgesthai), the things that the ancients used to call irrational (anoēta, literally: 'mindless')". Orion's second option reflects well-established idioms in Greek, as shown by entries for noos, eunoos and ekhein in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, while the first option is not listed as an idiom under eunē in that standard reference work. However, the first option was cited by the late 9th century Byzantine emperor Leo VI in his New Constitution 98 banning the marriage of eunuchs, in which he noted eunuchs' reputation as trustworthy guardians of the marriage bed (eunē) and claimed that the very word eunuch attested to this kind of employment. The emperor also goes further than Orion by attributing eunuchs' lack of male-female intercourse specifically to castration, which he said was performed with the intention “that they will no longer do the things that males do, or at least to extinguish whatever has to do with desire for the female sex”. The 11th century Byzantine monk Nikon of the Black Mountain, opting instead for Orion's second alternative, stated that the word came from eunoein (eu “good” + nous “mind”), thus meaning "to be well-minded, well-inclined, well-disposed or favorable”, but unlike Orion he argued that this was due to the trust that certain jealous and suspicious foreign rulers placed in the loyalty of their eunuchized servants. Theophylact of Ohrid in a dialogue In Defence of Eunuchs also stated that the origin of the word was from eunoein and ekhein, “to have, hold”, since they were always “well-disposed” toward the master who “held” or owned them. The 12th century Etymologicum Magnum (s.v. eunoukhos) essentially repeats the entry from Orion, but stands by the first option, while attributing the second option to what "some say". In the late 12th century, Eustathius of Thessalonica (Commentaries on Homer 1256.30, 1643.16) offered an original derivation of the word from eunis + okheuein, "deprived of mating".
In translations of the Bible into modern European languages, such as the Luther Bible or the King James Bible, the word eunuchus as found in the Latin Vulgate is usually rendered as officer, official or chamberlain, consistent with the idea that the original meaning of eunuch was bed-keeper (Orion's first option). Modern religious scholars have been disinclined to assume that the courts of Israel and Judah included castrated men, even though the original translation of the Bible into Greek used the word eunoukhos.
The early 17th century scholar and theologian Gerardus Vossius therefore explains that the word originally designated an office, and he affirms the view that it was derived from eunē and ekhein (i.e. “bed-keeper”). He says the word only came to be applied to castrated men in general because such men were the usual holders of that office. Still, Vossius notes the alternate etymologies offered by Eustathius (“deprived of mating”) and others (“having the mind in a good state”), calling these analyses “quite subtle”. Then, after having previously declared that eunuch designated an office (i.e., not a personal characteristic), Vossius ultimately sums up his argument in a different way, saying that the word “originally signified continent men” to whom the care of women was entrusted, and later came to refer to castration because “among foreigners” that role was performed “by those with mutilated bodies”.
Modern etymologists have followed Orion's first option. In an influential 1925 essay on the word eunuch and related terms, Ernst Maass suggested that Eustathius’s derivation “can or must be laid to rest”, and he affirmed the derivation from eunē and ekhein (“guardian of the bed”), without mentioning the other derivation from eunoos and ekhein (“having a well-disposed state of mind”).
One major problem, however, with the derivation from eunē (“bed”) is that, according to the rules of Greek vowel contractions (see crasis), the ou in eunoukhos requires an o-sound between the contracted words, specifically e+o, e+ou, o+e, o+ei, o+o or o+ou, and cannot feature an a-sound there. As an alpha-declension noun, eunē features the stem-vowel -a-, but an a-sound will not combine with any other vowels to produce the ou that occurs in eunoukhos. All words (other than eunoukhos anyway) that are formed by adding onto eunē have an a-sound or long e-sound in the combined syllable, as in eunater or eunēter (“bed-fellow”), eunaios (“in one’s bed”) or eunēthen (“from or out of bed”). By analogy, a compound between eunē and ekhein would be expected to come out as eunēkhos, or in English "eunech". Even if the form okhos (“carrier” or “holder”) were compounded with eunē, as many dictionaries suggest, the stem-vowel a from eunē combined with the initial o from okhos would combine to form an omega, and the resulting word (“bed-carrier”) would be expected to come out as eunōkhos, with the English word becoming "eunoch". On the other hand, the etymology offered by Eustathius (eunis + okheuein) would work only if eunis contributes an e-sound or o-sound to the compound. Unfortunately, there are no known compounds of eunis to use for comparison. Consequently, the rules of Greek vowel contraction at any rate favor the derivation from eunoos and ekhein (“having a well-disposed state of mind”). And in fact, other words that have the same ending -oukhos feature a stem-vowel o in the first word of the compound, such as skēptoukhos, rabdoukhos, lampadoukhos, ofioukhos and kleidoukhos.
Be that as it may, virtually all modern reference works cite the derivation from eunē and ekhein ("keeper of the bed").
Eunuchs by region and epoch
Ancient Middle East
Eunuchs were familiar figures in the Assyrian Empire (ca. 850 until 622 BCE) and in the court of the Egyptian Pharaohs (down to the Lagid dynasty known as Ptolemies, ending with Cleopatra),(30 BCE). Political eunuchism became a fully established institution among the Achamenide Persians. Eunuchs held powerful positions in the Achaemenide court. The eunuch Bagoas (not to be confused with Alexander's Bagoas) was the Vizier of Artaxerxes III and IV, and was the primary power behind the throne during their reigns, until he was killed by Darius III.
Ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium
The practice was also well established in other Mediterranean areas among the Greeks and Romans, although a role as court functionaries does not arise until Byzantine times. The Galli or Priests of Cybele were eunuchs.
In the late period of the Roman Empire, after the adoption of the oriental royal court model by the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine, Emperors 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, thus enjoying great influence in the Imperial Court (see Eusebius and Eutropius). Eunuchs were believed loyal and indispensable.
The Roman poet Martial rails against a woman who has sex with partially castrated eunuchs (those whose testicles were removed or rendered inactive only) in the bitter epigram (VI, 67): "Do you ask, Panychus, why your Caelia only consorts with eunuchs? Caelia wants the flowers of marriage – not the fruits."  It is up for debate whether this passage is representative of any sort of widely practiced behavior, however.
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 Constantinople, under the emperors. Under Justinian in the 6th century, the eunuch Narses functioned as a successful general in a number of campaigns. By the last centuries of the Empire the number of roles reserved for eunuchs had reduced, and their use may have been all but over.
Following the Byzantine tradition, eunuchs had important tasks at the court of the Norman kingdom of Sicily during the middle 12th century. One of them, Philip of Mahdia, has been admiratus admiratorum, and another one, Peter the caid, was prime minister.
From ancient times until the Sui Dynasty, castration was both a traditional punishment (one of the Five Punishments) and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of even the Grand Secretaries. Zheng He, who lived during the Ming Dynasty, is an example of such a eunuch. Self-castration was a common practice, although it was not always performed completely, which led to its being made illegal.
It is said that the justification for 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 Vietnam.
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 advisers 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.
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Men sentenced to castration were turned into eunuch slaves of the Qin dynasty state to perform forced labor for projects such as the Terracotta Army. The Qin government confiscated the property and enslaved the families of rapists who received castration as a punishment. Men punished with castration during the Han dynasty were also used as slave labor.
In Han dynasty China castration continued to be used as a punishment for various offences. Sima Qian, the famous Chinese historian, was castrated by order of the Han Emperor of China for dissent. In another incident multiple people, including a chief scribe and his underlings, were subjected to castration.
When the Ming army finally captured Yunnan from Mongols in 1382, thousands of prisoners were killed and, according to the custom in times of war, their young sons – including Zheng He – were castrated. During the Miao Rebellions (Ming Dynasty), Chinese commanders castrated thousands of Miao boys when their tribes revolted, and then gave them as slaves to various officials.
On 30 Jan 1406, the Ming Yongle Emperor expressed horror when the Ryukyuans castrated some of their own children to become eunuchs in order to give them to Yongle. Yongle said that the boys who were castrated were innocent and didn't deserve castration, and he returned the boys to Ryukyu and instructed them not to send eunuchs again.
Many of the non-Han Chinese peoples who founded states in China after invading originally did not have eunuchs as part of their culture, but adopted it from the Han Chinese.
Khitan Liao dynasty
The Khitan adopted the practice of using eunuchs from the Chinese and the eunuchs were non-Khitan prisoners of war. The Khitan were a nomadic Mongolic people and originally did not have eunuchs as part of their culture. When the Khitan founded the Liao Dynasty they developed a harem system with concubines and wives and adopted eunuchs as part of it. The eunuchs were not Khitan and they came from two sources, all of their eunuchs were captured ethnic Chinese from the Central Plains. The Khitan captured Chinese people who were already eunuchs at the Jin court when they invaded of the Later Jin. Another source was during their war with the Chinese Song dynasty, the Khitan would raid China, capture Han Chinese boys as prisoners of war and emasculate them to become eunuchs. The emasculation of captured Chinese boys guaranteed a continuous supply of eunuchs to serve in the Liao Dynasty harem. The Empress Dowager Chengtian played a large role in the raids to capture and emasculate the boys. The Khitan Empress Dowager Xiao Chuo (Chengtian) of the Khitan Liao state took power at age 30 in 982 as a regent for her son. She personally led her own army against the Song Chinese in 986 and defeated them in battle, fighting the retreating Chinese army. She then ordered the castration of around 100 ethnic Chinese boys she had captured in China, supplementing the Khitan's supply of eunuchs to serve at her court, among them was Wang Ji'en. The boys were all under ten years old and were selected for their good looks.
The History of Liao 遼史 described and praised Empress Chengtian's capture and mass castration of Chinese boys in a biography on the Chinese eunuch Wang Ji'en.
Manchu Qing dynasty
The sons and grandsons of the rebel Yaqub Beg in China were all castrated. Surviving members of Yaqub Beg's family included his 4 sons, 4 grandchildren (2 grandsons and 2 granddaughters), and 4 wives. They either died in prison in Lanzhou, Gansu, or were killed by the Chinese. His sons Yima Kuli, K'ati Kuli, Maiti Kuli, and grandson Aisan Ahung were the only survivors in 1879. They were all underage children, and put on trial, sentenced to an agonizing death if they were complicit in their father's rebellious "sedition", or if they were innocent of their fathers' crimes, were to be sentenced to castration and serve as eunuch slaves to Chinese troops, when they reached 11 years old, and were handed over to the Imperial Household to be executed or castrated. In 1879, it was confirmed that the sentence of castration was carried out; Yaqub Beg's son and grandsons were castrated by the Chinese court in 1879 and turned into eunuchs to work in the Imperial Palace.
The eunuchs of Korea, called Naesi (내시, 內侍), were officials to the king and other royalty in traditional Korean society. The first recorded appearance of a Korean eunuch was in Goryeosa ("History of Goryeo"), a compilation about the Goryeo period. In 1392, with the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, the Naesi system was revised, and the department was renamed the "Department of Naesi" (내시부, 內侍府).
The Naesi system included two ranks, those of Sangseon (상선, 尙膳, "Chief of Naesi"), who held the official title of senior second rank, and Naegwan (내관, 內官, "Common official naesi"), both of which held rank as officers. 140 naesi in total served the palace in Joseon Dynasty period. They also took the exam on Confucianism every month. The naesi system was repealed in 1894 following Gabo reform.
According to legend, castration consisted of daubing a boy's genitals with human feces and having a dog bite them off. During the Yuan Dynasty, eunuchs became a desirable commodity for tributes, and dog bites were replaced by more sophisticated surgical techniques.
The Vietnamese adopted the eunuch system and castration techniques from China. Records show that the Vietnamese performed castration in a painful procedure by removing the entire genitalia with both penis and testicles being cut off with a sharp knife or metal blade. The procedure was agonizing since the entire penis was cut off. The young man's thighs and abdomen would be tied and others would pin him down on a table. The genitals would be sterilized with pepper water and then cut off. A tube would be then inserted into the urethra to allow urination during healing. The eunuchs served as slaves to the Vietnamese palace women in the harem like the consorts, concubines, maids, Queen, and Princesses, doing most of the work. The only man allowed in the Palace was the Emperor, the only others allowed were his women and the eunuchs since they were not able to have sexual relations with the women. The eunuchs were assigned to do work for the palace women like massaging and applying make up to the women and preparing them for sex with the Emperor.
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The Trần Dynasty sent Vietnamese boy eunuchs as tribute to Ming Dynasty China several times, in 1383, 1384 and 1385 Nguyen Dao, Nguyen Toan, Tru Ca, and Ngo Tin were among several Vietnamese eunuchs sent to China.
Fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam (Ming Dynasty)
During the Fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam, the Ming Chinese under the Yongle Emperor castrated many young Vietnamese boys, choosing them for their handsomeness and ability, and brought them to Nanjing to serve as eunuchs. Among them were the architect-engineer Nguyễn An and Nguyen Lang (阮浪). Vietnamese were among the many eunuchs of different origins found at Yongle's court. Among the eunuchs in charge of the Capital Battalions of Beijing was Xing An, a Vietnamese.
In the Lê Dynasty the Vietnamese Emperor Lê Thánh Tông was aggressive in his relations with foreign countries including China. A large amount of trade between Guangdong and Vietnam happened during his reign. Early accounts recorded that the Vietnamese captured Chinese whose ships had blown off course and detained them. Young Chinese men were selected by the Vietnamese for castration to become eunuch slaves to the Vietnamese. It has been speculated by modern historians that the Chinese who were captured and castrated by the Vietnamese were involved in trade between China and Vietnam instead of actually being blown off course by the wind and they were punished as part of a crackdown on foreign trade by Vietnam.
Several Malay envoys from the Malacca sultanate were attacked and captured in 1469 by the Lê Dynasty of Annam (Vietnam) as they were returning to Malacca from China. The Vietnamese enslaved and castrated the young from among the captured.
A 1472 entry in the Ming Shilu reported that when some Chinese from Nanhai county escaped back to China after their ship had been blown off course into Vietnam, where they had been forced to serve as soldiers in Vietnam's military. The escapees also reported that they found out up to 100 Chinese men remained captive in Vietnam after they were caught and castrated by the Vietnamese after their ships were blown off course into Vietnam. The Chinese Ministry of Revenue responded by ordering Chinese civilians and soldiers to stop going abroad to foreign countries. China's relations with Vietnam during this period were marked by the punishment of prisoners by castration.
A 1499 entry in the Ming Shilu recorded that thirteen Chinese men from Wenchang including a young man named Wu Rui were captured by the Vietnamese after their ship was blown off course while traveling from Hainan to Guangdong's Qin subprefecture (Qinzhou), after which they ended up near the coast of Vietnam, during the Chenghua Emperor's rule (1447 - 1487) . Twelve of them were enslaved to work as agricultural laborers, while the youngest, Wu Rui (吳瑞) was selected for castration since he was the only young man and he became a eunuch attendant at the Vietnamese imperial palace in Thang Long. After years of service, he was promoted at the death of the Vietnamese ruler in 1497 to a military position in northern Vietnam. A soldier told him of an escape route back to China and Wu Rui escaped to Longzhou. The local chief planned to sell him back to the Vietnamese, but Wu was rescued by the Pingxiang magistrate and then was sent to Beijing to work as a eunuch in the palace.
The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư records that in 1467 in An Bang province of Dai Viet (now Quảng Ninh Province) a Chinese ship blew off course onto the shore. The Chinese were detained and not allowed to return to China as ordered by Le Thanh Tong. This incident may be the same one where Wu Rui was captured.
Commoners were banned from undergoing castration in Vietnam, only adult men of high social rank could be castrated, most eunuchs were born as such with a congenital abnormality. The Vietnamese government mandated that boys born with defective genitalia were to be reported to officials, in exchange for the town being freed from mandatory labor requirements. The boy would have the option of serving as a eunuch official or serving the palace women when he became ten years old. This law was put in place in 1838 during the Nguyễn Dynasty. The only males allowed inside the Forbidden City at Huế were the Emperor and his eunuchs.
The presence of eunuchs in Vietnam was used by the French colonizers to degrade the Vietnamese.
In Siam (modern Thailand) Indian Muslims from the Coromandel Coast served as eunuchs in the Thai palace and court. The Thai at times asked eunuchs from China to visit the court in Thailand and advise them on court ritual since they held them in high regard.
The Ottoman court harem—within the Topkapı Palace (1465–1853) and later the Dolmabahçe Palace (1853–1909) in Istanbul—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 Dar al-Saada Ağası). In control of both the Harem and a 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. One of the most powerful Chief Eunuchs was Beshir Agha in the 1730s, who played a crucial role in establishing the Ottoman version of Hanafi Islam throughout the Empire by founding libraries and schools.
The eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire were created mainly at one Coptic monastery, at Abou Gerbe monastery on Mount Ghebel Eter. The Coptic priests sliced the penis and testicles off Nubian or Abyssinian slave boys around the age of eight. The boys were captured from Abyssinia and other areas in Sudan like Darfur and Kordofan, then brought into Sudan and Egypt. During the operation, the Coptic clergyman chained the boys to tables and after slicing off their sexual organs, stuck a piece of bamboo into the genital area, then submerged them in neck-high sand to burn. The recovery rate was ten percent. The resulting eunuchs fetched large profits in contrast to eunuchs from other areas.
Eunuchs in Indian Hindu sultanates (Before Mughals)
Eunuchs were frequently employed in Imperial palaces by Hindu rulers as servants for female royalty, as guards of the royal harem, and as sexual mates for the nobles. Some of these attained high-status positions in society. An early example of such a high-ranking eunuch was Malik Kafur---a Hindu boy captured and enslaved (along with tens of thousands of other Hindus who were typically captured during such raids) during the raids of the Delhi Sultanate into Gujarat. He was made into a Eunuch, and on account of his good looks became a sexual favorite with Ala-ud-din Khilji. Zia-ud-din Barani describes in much detail the relations between him and Khilji. Kafur rose to become Malik Naib (head of the army) and led Khilji's expeditions into the South of India.
Eunuchs in Imperial palaces were organized in a hierarchy, often with a senior or chief eunuch (Urdu: 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.
The hijra of South Asia
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 and Urdu 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) or shalwar kameez (traditional garb worn by women in South Asia) and wear heavy make-up. They typically live in the margins of society and face discrimination. However, they are integral to several Hindu ceremonies which is primary form of their livelihood. They are a part of dance programs (sometimes adult) in marriage ceremonies. They also perform certain ceremonies for the couple in Hindu tradition. Other means to earn their living are: 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, such as the Shemale Foundation Pakistan.
Castration as part of religious practice, and eunuchs occupying religious roles have been established prior to classical antiquity. Archaeological finds at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia indicate worship of a 'Magna Mater' figure, a forerunner of the goddess Cybele found in later Anatolia 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 practising celibacy (including castration) for religious purposes, although the extent and even the existence of this practice among Christians is subject to debate. The early theologian Origen found evidence of the practice in Matthew 19:10-12,: "His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 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 2nd-century Church Father, described Jesus himself and Paul of Tarsus as spadones, which is translated as "eunuchs" in some contexts. Quoting from the cited book: "... Tertullian takes 'spado' to mean virgin ...". 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, 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 18th-century Russian 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 20th-century Heaven's Gate cult were found to have been castrated, apparently voluntarily and for the same reasons.
Eunuchs in the Bible
Eunuchs are mentioned many times in the Bible such as in the Book of Isaiah (56:4) using the word סריס (saris). Although the Ancient Hebrews did not practice castration, eunuchs were common in other cultures featured in the Bible, such as Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, the Persian Empire and Ancient Rome. In the Book of Esther, servants of the harem of Ahasuerus such as Hegai and Shashgaz as well as other servants such as Hatach, Harbonah, Bigthan, and Teresh are referred to as sarisim. Being exposed to the consorts of the king, they would have likely been castrated.
There is some confusion regarding eunuchs in Old Testament passages, since the Hebrew word for eunuch, saris (סריס), could also refer to other servants and officials who had not been castrated but served in similar capacities. The Egyptian royal servant Potiphar is described as a saris in Genesis 39:1, although he was married and hence unlikely to have been a eunuch. The cupbearer who became governor of Judah, Nehemiah, may have been a eunuch.
One of the earliest converts to Christianity was an Ethiopian eunuch who was a high court official of Candace the Queen of Ethiopia. Acts 8:27-39 The reference to "eunuchs" in Matthew 19:12 has yielded various interpretations.
Hippocrates describes a particular ethnic group afflicted with high rates of erectile dysfunction as "the most eunuchoid of all nations" (Airs Waters Places 22). According to Aristotle in Generation of Animals (1.2, 4.1), male or female gender is defined by the function played in procreation and consists of two elements: the faculty to procreate and the anatomical parts needed to put that faculty in practice. Any man who either lacked the faculty of procreation from birth, even with a full set of genitals (Gen.An. 2.7), or was eventually deprived of the anatomical parts necessary for procreation met the definition of a eunuch. Hence, the term "eunuch" was applied not only to castrated men, but also to a wide range of men who were unable to procreate. The broad sense of the term "eunuch" is reflected in the compendium of ancient Roman laws collected by Justinian I in the 6th century known as the Digest or Pandects. Those texts distinguish between the general category of eunuchs (spadones, denoting "one who has no generative power, an impotent person, whether by nature or by castration", D 50.16.128) and the more specific subset of castrati (castrated males, physically incapable of procreation). Eunuchs (spadones) sold in the slave markets were deemed by the jurist Ulpian to be "not defective or diseased, but healthy", because they were anatomically able to procreate just like monorchids (D 18.104.22.168). On the other hand, as Julius Paulus pointed out, "if someone is a eunuch in such a way that he is missing a necessary part of his body" (D 21.1.7), then he would be deemed diseased. In these Roman legal texts, spadones are eligible to marry women (D 22.214.171.124), institute posthumous heirs (D 28.2.6), and adopt children (Institutions of Justinian 1.11.9), unless they are castrati.
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 reproductive capabilities, 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 18th century and was known into the 19th 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 Chapel choir, who died in 1922.
Eunuchs in the contemporary world
The hijra of India (see above) may number as many as 2,000,000, and are usually described as eunuchs, although they may be more of a male-to-female transsexual individual, 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.
Convicted sex offenders who have been castrated are rare, although there is debate as to whether the drastic reduction of testosterone and the consequent diminishing of libido might have an effect on recidivism.
A study on eunuchs has found that they live 13.5 years longer than non-eunuch men as a result of a lack of testosterone, which suppresses the immune system, and its resultant negative effects on health.
In popular culture
- The 2001 documentary film Bombay Eunuch examines the changing role of India's hijras, some of whom are also eunuchs
- The 2011 film Nilkantho treats the plight of the Indian hijras with sensitivity
- The 2003 documentary film American Eunuchs investigates the underworld of modern eunuchs in America
- Kiss the Moon, a 2010 documentary set in Pakistan, portrays three generations of eunuchs examining the ancient rituals and religious beliefs surrounding their community
- The Last Eunuch, a 1988 Chinese biographical film directed by Zhang ZhiLiang, tells the story of Sun YaoTing, who saw the last royal palace’s extravagant lifestyle and experienced the breakdown of the last imperial empire and felt the new changes brought by the new age.
- In Mel Brook's 1981 comedy History of the World, Part I, under the section of "The Roman Empire", an entire scene is devoted to a joke about Eunuchs, the length of African genitals, and the song, "Caldonia"; all rolled into one.
- Several tales of the Arabian Nights focus on eunuchs
- Eunuchs feature prominently in Montesquieu's 1722 novel Lettres Persanes, about Persian visitors to 18th-century France
- Bagoas, the eunuch favorite of Alexander the Great, is the main character and narrator of The Persian Boy, a 1972 historical novel by Mary Renault
- The Janissary Tree and its sequels are crime novels set in Istanbul in the 1830s, written by Jason Goodwin featuring Yashim, a eunuch detective
- George R. R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire features the eunuch Varys, also called the Spider, a court official, bearing the title of Master of Whisperers, the equivalent of the real world spymaster. The Unsullied, elite eunuch soldiers are also greatly featured in the books.
- In the manga "Red River (manga)" one of the main villains, Urhi, is a eunuch.
In chronological order.
- Aspamistres or Mithridates (5th century BCE): bodyguard of Xerxes I of Persia, and (with Artabanus) his murderer.
- Artoxares: an envoy of Artaxerxes I and Darius II of Persia.
- Bagoas (4th century BCE): prime minister of king Artaxerxes III of Persia, and his assassin. (Bagoas is an old Persian word meaning eunuch.)
- Bagoas (4th century BCE): 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 diffusion of Greek culture to the East.
- Philetaerus (4th/3rd century BCE): founder of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamum
- Sima Qian (old romanization Ssu-ma Chi'en; 2nd/1st century BCE): 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 BCE): 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 BCE): regent for pharaoh Ptolemy XII.
- Sporus (1st century BCE): an attractive Roman boy who was castrated by, and later married to, Emperor Nero
- Unidentified eunuch of the Ethiopian court (1st century CE), 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). Philip explained that the section prophesies Jesus' crucifixion, which Philip described to the eunuch. The eunuch was baptized shortly thereafter.
- Cai Lun (old romanization Ts'ai Lun; 1st/2nd century CE): 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.)
- Eutropius (5th century): 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.
- Solomon: general and governor of Africa under Justinian I
- Staurakios: chief associate and minister of the Byzantine empress Irene of Athens
- 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.)
- Yazaman al-Khadim (died 891): Emir of Tarsus and successful commander in the wars against Byzantium
- Mu'nis al-Khadim (845/846–933/934): Commander-in-chief of the Abbasid armies between 908 and his death,
- Joseph Bringas: chief minister of the Byzantine Empire under Romanos II (959-963).
- Jia Xian (c. 1010- c. 1070): Chinese mathematician, Invented the Jia Xian triangle for the calculation of square roots and cube roots.
- Ly Thuong Kiet (1019–1105): general during the Lý 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 by his girlfriend's uncle while in bed.
- Malik Kafur (fl. 1296–1316): 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 16th century): a Spanish eunuch who became the head of the Moroccan invasion force into the Songhai Empire.
- Kim Cheo Seon: one of the most famous eunuchs in Korean Joseon Dynasty, ably served kings in the Joseon dynasty. His life is now the subject of a historical drama in South Korea.
- Mohammad Khan Qajar: chief of the Qajar tribe. He became the King/Shah of Persia in 1794 and established the Qajar dynasty.
- Zhao Gao: favourite of Qin Shihuangdi, who plotted against Li Si (died 210 BC)
- Zhang Rang: head of the infamous "10 Changshi" (Ten attendants) of Eastern Han Dynasty
- Huang Hao: eunuch in the state of Shu; also appears in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- Cen Hun: eunuch in the state of Wu during the Three Kingdoms Period
- Gao Lishi: a loyal and trusted friend of Tang emperor Xuanzong
- Le Van Duyet: famous 18th-century Vietnamese eunuch, military strategist and government official (not a true eunuch, he was born a hermaphrodite)
- Senesino (1686–1758): Italian contralto castrato singer.
- Farinelli (1705–1782): Italian soprano castrato singer.
- Giusto Fernando Tenducci (c. 1736–1790): Italian soprano castrato singer.
- Li Fuguo: The Tang eunuch who began another era of eunuch rule
- Yu Chao'en: Tang eunuch who began his "career" as army supervisor
- Wang Zhen: first Ming eunuch with much power, see Tumu Crisis
- Gang Bing: patron saint of eunuchs in China who castrated himself to demonstrate his loyalty to emperor Yongle
- Yishiha: admiral in charge of expeditions down the Amur River under the Yongle and Xuande Emperors
- Liu Jin: a well-known eunuch despot
- Wei Zhongxian: most infamous eunuch in Chinese history
- Wu Rui: a Chinese eunuch in Lê Dynasty Annam (Vietnam)
- Li Lianying: a despotic eunuch of the Qing Dynasty
- Boston Corbett (1832 – presumed dead 1894): who killed John Wilkes Booth, castrated himself to avoid temptation from prostitutes
- Alessandro Moreschi (1858–1922), Italian castrato singer, the only one to make recordings.
- Sun Yaoting (1902–1996): last surviving imperial eunuch of Chinese history
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- *The EUNUCHS AND SINICIZATION IN THE NON-HAN CONQUEST DYNASTIES OF CHINA
- JENNIFER W. JAY
- UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA, Canada
- This paper was presented at the Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast Conference, June 16–18, 1995, at Forest Grove, Oregon, U.S.A. Research for this project was facilitated by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. (Although the link is to a forum, the paper is posted in its full length there since it is not available online as it was never published. The following links are to papers and articles where the original paper by Jennifer W. Jay was referenced in the bibliography)
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- University of Alberta, Alberta, Canada
- Eunuchs and Sinicization in the non-Han Conquest Dynasties of China
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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.
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- Long-Term Consequences of Castration in Men: Lessons from the Skoptzy and the Eunuchs of the Chinese and Ottoman Courts, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism December 1, 1999 vol. 84 no. 12 4324-4331