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 Lagash 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 seem to include men who were impotent with women, those we would now call transgender or homosexual, and those who were simply celibate.
The English word eunuch
is from the Greek eune
") and ekhein
("to keep"), effectively "bed keeper." Servants or slaves
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
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
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).
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 about 70,000 eunuchs (宦官 huànguān
, or 太監 tàijiàn
) employed by the emperor, of whom only a relative few served inside the Imperial palace
. 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. However, in many cases they 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 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.
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 Constantinople
, under the emperors
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. For the Eunuchs in the Ottoman Great Sultan's harem and wider palace service, see the (Topkapi) Seraglio.
The hijra of India
The Ancient Indian Kama Sutra
refers to people of a "third sex
), 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
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 discrimination 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.
Among the earliest records of human religion are accounts of castration as an act of devotion, and sacred eunuchs are found in spiritual roles. Archaeological finds at Çatalhöyük
, a large Neolithic town of southern Anatolia
, suggest that such practises were common in the worship as far back as 7500 BC of a goddess similar perhaps to the Cybele
of historical records. The Galli
, later Roman followers of Cybele, also practiced ritual self-castration, known as sanguinaria
. The practice is said to have continued throughout Christian times, with many of the early church castrating themselves as an act of devotion, although the extent and even the existence of this practice among Christians is controversial.
A famous alleged example is the early theologian Origen, who is said to have found scriptural justification in the Matthew 19:12. In this passage, Jesus stated: "For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (King James Version)
Tertullian, a second century Church Father, described Jesus himself and Paul of Tarsus as spadones, which is translated as "eunuchs" in some contexts. However, these statements can be interpreted as a metaphor for celibacy, especially given the broad meaning of the term spado in Late Antiquity (see Non-castrated eunuchs below).
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 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 twentieth century Heaven's Gate cult were found to have been castrated, apparently voluntarily and for the same reasons.
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 Chapel choir, who died in 1922. Unfortunately, the early twentieth century recording is of poor quality.
According to Byzantine
historian Kathryn Ringrose, while the pagans
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 220.127.116.11), institute posthumous heirs (D 28.2.6), and adopt children (Institutions of Justinian 1.11.9), unless
they are castrati
Historically significant eunuchs
In chronological order.
Aspamistres or Mithridates (5th century BC) Bodyguard of Xerxes I of Persia, and (with Artabanus) his murderer.
- Artoxares: A 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.
- 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 & 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.
- 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.
See also Eunuchs
Other famous eunuchs
Eunuchs in fiction
- The Eunuch; a comedy by Roman playwright Terence.
- The Pardoner in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" is referred to in the General Prologue as either a "geldynge" or a "mare" (a gelding is a castrated male horse; a mare is a female horse). Neither the literary pilgrims nor modern scholars know whether he is a eunuch or a homosexual, as the text can be interpreted either way.
- In Sondheim's musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," there are several eunuch characters as guards to the local house of Courtesans.
- In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night Viola disguises herself as a man and asks to be introduced to Duke Orsino as a eunuch.
- In The Country Wife, the main character, Mr. Horner, pretends to be a man turned eunuch by impotence caused by syphilis in order to gain access to the bedrooms of married women, with interesting consequences.
- In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the character Mardian is a eunuch, in attendance on Cleopatra. She tells him: "I take no pleasure in aught an eunuch has.
- Eunuchs appear often as villains in Hong Kong kung fu and wuxia films set in ancient China. For example, the films "Dragon Inn (Xin long men ke zhan)", "Butterfly Sword (Xin liu xing hu die jian)", and "A Touch of Zen (Hsia nu)" all feature a eunuch or a group of eunuchs as the main villain. A popular eunuch villain used in ancient China stories is Eunuch Wei, who is based on a historical figure named Wei Zhongxian. Eunuch villains are usually in charge of powerful political posts, such as being the leader of the East Chamber.
- The Queen Salmissra, in David Edding's The Belgariad and The Malloreon, is only allowed to be served by eunuchs. Her Chief Eunuch Sadi becomes a principal character in the Mallorean, and is referred to in "The Prophecy" as "The Man who is no Man."
- There is a song by The Mars Volta called "Eunuch Provocateur" in their 2001 Tremulant EP.
- The character and narrator Taita in Wilbur Smith's "Egyptian" (1991-) series of novels is a eunuch (performed as a punishment while a slave).
- Varys, the spymaster, is a eunuch and a character in George RR Martin's, epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. There are also many other eunuchs of minor importance. There is also an army of eunuchs called the Unsullied, led by the Dragon Princess Daenerys Targaryen.
- Bagoas was the eunuch favorite of Alexander the Great (referenced above). Bagoas is the main character and narrator of The Persian Boy, a 1972 historical novel by Mary Renault.
- In the Dune series, Count Hasimir Fenring was a genetic eunuch and the Emperor's closest friend and adviser.
- Eunuchs feature prominently in Montesqieu's 1722 novel Lettres persanes, supposedly about Persian visitors to eighteenth-century France.
- Anne Rice wrote of castrati in her 1982 novel "Cry To Heaven". The story is centered on the castrati characters of Guido Maffeo and Tonio Treschi, teacher and student.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), Johnny Depp's character Jack Sparrow refers to Orlando Bloom's character Will as being a eunuch several times. These lines were apparently improvised by Johnny Depp.
- In Aladdin from the Arabian Nights, Princess Badroulbadour has several eunuchs as servants as well as woman servants.
- Fiona McIntosh's "Percheron" series centers on a harem, guarded by Eunuchs.
- In the book "Everworld: Realm of the Reaper" which is the fourth book in the Everworld series by K.A. Applegate Eunuchs guard the City of Hel (also known as "Her City").
- In the 1988 movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, the Sultan sings a song about the tougher parts of a eunuch's life.
- In the Blackadder episode Born to be King, Edmund Blackadder is mistaken for a eunuch by Dougal McAngus, Fourth Duke of Argyll.
- In the 1981 film written, produced and directed by Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I, during The Roman Empire segment, Josephus and Comicus are assisted in their escape from Caesar's Palace by Miriam and Empress Nympho, who hides Josephus as a eunuch in her rooms, but he is foiled by an erotic dance performed by the priestess of Venus.
- In the 1984 movie, The Ice Pirates, after being captured the two main heroes Jason (played by Robert Urich) and Roscoe (played by Michael D. Roberts) pretend to be eunuchs in order to obtain freedom.
- The Alteration a 1976 alternative history novel by Kingsley Amis is set in a parallel universe in which the Reformation did not take place. The main plot is the proposal to turn the boy chorister Hubert Anvil into a castrati singer to preserve his voice.
- In the 2006 film One Night With the King, Hadassah's (Esther's) would-be boyfriend, Jesse, is captured by the Persian empire and castrated.
- In Family Guy, episode Chitty Chitty Death Bang, Meg wants to know if a guy likes her, but finds out that he is a eunuch.
- In the book Candide by Voltaire one of the characters Candide encounters is a eunuch who was castrated and made to become a singer.
- The 2002 historical science fiction novel The Years of Rice and Salt features many eunuchs in its opening section, including the character Kyu and the historical Chinese admiral Zheng He.
- In the British sitcom Red Dwarf, Rimmer tells Lister that a hypnotherapist once told him he was Alexander The Great's Chief Eunuch in a previous life.
- Olympia, WA band Frumpies have a song called "Eunuch Nights".
- Two best selling novels by Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone, chronicle the investigations of Yashim Togalu, a Turkish eunuch detective to the Sultan's royal court, in 1830's Ottoman Empire.
- The historical novel Memoirs of a Byzantine Eunuch, by Christopher Harris (2002 Dedalus Books, ISBN 1 903517 03 6)
- In Michael Moorcock's novel The Dreaming City, the royal palace of Imrryr is guarded by eunuchs.
- In Valve Corporation's Half life 2 series, the Combine turns humans into Eunuchs for use in military purposes.
- In the British sitcom Peep Show, Mark often refers to his desire to become a Eunuch in preference to marrying Sophie.
- The Japanese novel (and later anime series) Ai no Kusabi has within their caste system "Furniture", or eunuchs who act as servants to the highest social class. The character Katze was once Furniture, but now works on the black market.
- The comic strip Dilbert has used the word as a pun on Unix, the operating system.
- The character Naboo the Enigma from the British comedy act and television series The Mighty Boosh is a eunuch.
Sources and references