A eunuch is an infertile human male whose testicles have either been removed (deliberately or by accident) or are otherwise non-functional. The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagash in the 21st century B.C. 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.
The English word eunuch is from the Greek eune ("bed") and ekhein ("to keep"), effectively "bed keeper." Servants or slaves were usually castrated in order to make them a safer servant 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, literally giving him "the ruler's ear" could impart de facto power on the formally humble but trusted servant, as reflected in the humble origins and etymology of many high offices (e.g. chancellor started out 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 harems and eunuchs, eunuchs were sometimes used as harem servants (compare the female odalisque) or seraglio guards.
The first mention of eunuchs was made in the Assyrian Empire (ca. 850 till 622 B.C.). Eunuchs were also familiar figures in the court of the Achaemenid emperors of Persia and the Egyptian Pharaohs (down to the Lagid dynasty known as Ptolemees, ending with Cleopatra).
In ancient China 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 Dynasty there were 70,000 eunuchs (宦官 huàn'guān, or 太監 tàijiān) in the Imperial palace. The value of such employment—certain eunuchs gained immense power that may have superseded that of the prime ministers—was such that self-castration had to be made illegal. The number of eunuchs in Imperial employ had fallen to 470 in 1912, when their employment ceased. 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. Concurrently, a similar system existed in Vietnam.
The tension between depraved eunuchs in the service of the emperor and virtuous Confucian officials resisting their tyranny is a familiar theme in Chinese history. In his History of Government, S.E. 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 was procrastination on the part of a privileged class which blindly resisted any change, whether it be for the good or the bad of the empire.
Eunuchs are also known in India and throughout the East. In India the Hijra are eunuchs who have had both the penis and testes removed. They usually dress in saris, or Indian garb worn by women, and wear heavy make-up. They are considered as good luck and are invited to bless the bride and the groom during weddings.
The practice was also well established in Europe among the Greeks and Romans, although more rarely as court functionaries than in Asia. For example 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 however, there was a great number of eunuchs employed in domestic and administrative functions, actually organized as a separate hierarachy, following a parallel career of their own. Allegedly it was only after the Muslim Arabs conquered parts of the Roman Empire that they acquired eunuchs from the Romans, and not knowing what else to do with them, made them into harem guards.
The Galli, followers of the goddess Cybele practiced ritual self-castration, sanguinaria. Even in Christian times the practice continued; however, the Church did not follow the example of the early theologian Origen, who castrated himself based on his reading of the Gospel of Matthew 19:12.
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. The Hijra of India still practice a ritual castration that involves the removal of both the penis and testes. They are often refered to as eunuchs.
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; unfortunately the choice had to be made at an age the boy would not yet be able to consciously choose whether to sacrifice in his sexual potency, and there was no guarantee that the voice would remain of musical excellence after the operation. Such eunuchs were known as castrati.
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, did not die until early in the 19th century. The sole existing recording of a castrato singer documents the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, one of the last eunuchs in the Sistine Chapel choir. Unfortunately, the early 20th century recording is of poor quality and Moreschi, who was never trained for the stage, is not considered a great singer.
Eunuchs in modern times
There are many millions of eunuchs in many countries around the world, including India and Bangladesh.
The term is also used, though technically incorrect, for men who are considered 'emasculated' elsewise then by the removal of male genitals, such as sufferers of physical or psychosomatical impotence, and even for homosexuals, the reasoning being that although they remain perfectly capable of sexual performance, their exclusive orientation to infertile intercourse renders them biologically emasculated.
The body dysmorphic disorder or dysmorphophobia characterized by desire to be a eunuch is called skoptic syndrome, named after the Skoptzy sect. However, in the latest issue of DSM, there are no references to the term, and it is virtually unknown in psychological literature. It is also important to notice that the term, along with GID, can and is also used to imply "minority mainstream view/practices" without negatively implying dysfunction or 'wrongness', nor is it applicable to all people with a desire for castration, due to the highly diverse nature of reasons for volunteer castration. This particularly in view that castration has a history, up to the modern age, of therapeutic use; according to Victor T. Cheney, in his Castration: Advantages and Disadvantages (Authorhouse, Dec. 2003), castration has been documented to effectively reduce symptoms in people with schizophrenia, psychosis, violent behaviors, paraphilias, manias, overactive libido, baldness, sleep apnea, as well as prostate disorders and prevention of various sexually transmitted diseases, by means of eliminated or reduced sexual activity. Many men indeed chose to become eunuchs for some of these reasons. This desire is still present in modern populations, as evidenced in the large membership in message boards on the Internet related to the topic. Alternatively, some men derive sexual excitement from the idea of being castrated or otherwise having their genitals mutilated, usually by another person (see masochism and paraphilia). There has been frequent news coverage of incidents of self-castration (autocastration) and underground networks of people without medical licenses performing castrations. Most urologists have experience with patients who have attempted castration on themselves. According to a June 12 2002 article by Detroit Free Press: self-castrations tend to be more common than leaving the job to someone else, said Dr. Dana Ohl, a urologist at the U-M Medical Center who has operated on botched amateur castrations. "Usually, when these people just chop their own testicles off, they don't pay attention to the blood supply," he said.
According to Tom Burnham's Dictionary of Misinformation, a common misconception about eunuchs is that, since they were castrated, they were either unable or unwanting to defile or perform sexual intercourse with the women in the harem they were employed to watch over. This was not always true, however. If a eunuch was castrated after puberty, which was common, he would still be able to achieve an erection and engage in coitus, though no pregnancy could result. According to Burnham, some women preferred eunuchs as lovers since they never ejaculated and could, therefore, maintain erections longer.
Historically significant eunuchs
In chronological order.
- Daniel (5th century BC) He held a position in King Nebuchadnezzar's court that was reserved for eunuchs. That he, alone, of those who held that post, had not been castrated has been argued by a few theologians; however, his three companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were certainly eunuchs.
- Bagoas (4th century BC) A favorite of Alexander the Great. Influential in changing Alexander's attitude toward Persians & 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.
- Sima Qian - old romanization: Ssu-ma Chi'en (2nd/1st century BC) Was the first person to have practiced modern historiography - gatherering 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 & general of Cleopatra VII's sister & rival, Princess Arsinoe. Defeated & almost killed Julius Caesar in battle at Alexandria, capturing his cloak in the process. Could have changed the history of Rome and of the eastern Mediterranean if he had not been displaced through Egyptian court intrigue.
- Pothinus ( 1st century BC) Regent for pharaoh Ptolemy XII.
- 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, 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.
- Eutropius (5th century AD) Only eunuch known to have attained the highly distinguished and very influential position of Roman Consul.
- 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 & 867-877]. First absolutely unquestioned eunuch saint, recognised by both the Orthodox & 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) - Eunuch-turned-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 & theologian.
- Zheng He (1371-1433) Famous admiral who led huge Chinese fleets of exploration around the Indian Ocean and, perhaps, to America and Australia in the early 15th century.
- Judar Pasha (Late 16th century) A blonde, blue-eyed Spanish eunuch who became the head of the Moroccan invasion force into the Songhai Empire. In 1591, despite overwhelming odds, his forces conquered a large swath of sub-Saharan Africa for the Saadi Dynasty and firmly entrenched Islam in the region.
- Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli (1705-82) Greatest Italian castrato.
Some other famous eunuchs
- Shu Diao Intrigant eunuch who was responsible of a successor civil war in the feudal state of Qi
- 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
- Li Fuguo The Tang eunuch who began another era of eunuch rule
- Yu Chao'en Tang eunuch who began his "career" as army supervisor
- Tong Guan A eunuch of Song Dynasty; also appears in the novel Water Margin
- Wang Zhen First Ming eunuch with much power, see Tumu Crisis
- Liu Jin Another "famous" eunuch despot
- Wei Zhongxian Most infamous eunuch in Chinese history
- An Dehai Corrupt eunuch of Qing Dynasty - Favorite of Empress Dowager Cixi
- Li Lianying Another despotic eunuch of the Qing Dynasty
- Sun Yaoting (1902–1996) last imperial eunuch of Chinese history
- Boston Corbett, who killed John Wilkes Booth, castrated himself to avoid temptation from prostitutes.