Eunuch

Photo post-card of the Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, photographed at the Imperial Palace. The Qizlar Agha, was one of the most powerful and sometimes the richest men in the Ottoman Empire until 1908. He supervised the Harem of the Sultan, and the princes, the financial affairs of the palace, the mosques of the capital and the mosques of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He served as the Chamberlain to the Sultan thus controlling access to him

We’ve all heard of FGM -female genital mutilation.  Or at least we should have. I’ve written a couple of posts on the subject, which I consider horrific, in that is still practiced in vast areas of Egypt, Eritrea, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen.  Some 30 countries in all according to UNICEF.

What about the history of eunuchs?  Not much is heard about them anymore yet historically the castration of young males was practiced as early as 2400 B,C,  from the Sumerians all the way to 20th century China and the Ottomans, obviously with serious hormonal consequences.

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 usually be servants or slaves who had been castrated 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.”

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 also  used as harem servants and guards.

How to make a eunuch?   There are two basic types of eunuchs in history, “clean-cut” (no penis or testicles) or just a removal of the testes. A simple removal of the testes is historically the most common sort.

Survival rates for clean cut eunuchs were very “iffy.”  It was required to keep the urethra open in order to permit urination after healing.  Usually the urethra was blocked for several days with a twig or piece of bamboo in order to hold it open.  If the eunuch could urinate after it was removed the “operation” was considered successful; if not the man would die.  Later a fine pewter tube was used to ensure urination.

Nice.

As for removal of just the testes, a number of options were used:

Crushing the testes inside the scrotum with no cutting, most likely used by Assyrians, reportedly used for young boys and infants in the Byzantine empire, and also reportedly used for Italian castrati.

Cutting the scrotum open and removing the testes. This is rather finicky but a method reportedly in use in Italy during the heyday of the castrati.

A full removal of the scrotum with testes inside.  This involved us of a sickle shaped knife, usually heated to cauterize the wound right off.

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.   Eunuchs were believed loyal and indispensable.  Under Justinian in the 6th century, the eunuch Narses functioned as a successful general in a number of campaigns including the reconquest of Italy from the Goths and putting down the Nika Rebellion in Constantinople.

In China, castration included removal of the penis as well as the testicles. Both organs were cut off with a knife at the same time.

Chinese eunuch of the Qing dynasty – 20th century -from Wikipedia

From ancient times Chinese castration was both a traditional punishment and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service.

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.”

While eunuchs were employed in all Chinese dynasties, their number decreased significantly under the Qing; yet at the beginning of the 20th century, there were still about 2,000 eunuchs working in the Forbidden City.

“The eunuchs at the Forbidden City during the later Qing period were infamous for their corruption, stealing as much as they could.  The position of eunuch at the Forbidden City offered such opportunities for theft and corruption and China was such a poor country that countless men willingly become eunuchs in order to live a better life.  However, eunuchs as the Emperor’s slaves had no rights and could be abused at the emperor’s whim. The last emperor Puyi recalled in his memoirs on growing up in the Forbidden City that: “By the age of 11, flogging eunuchs was part of my daily routine. My cruelty and love of power were already too firmly set for persuasion to have any effect on me…Whenever I was in a bad temper the eunuchs would be in for trouble.”

All of the eunuchs that lived in the Forbidden City had to carry their severed genitals in a glass jar full of vinegar around their necks at all times.

The last Imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in December 1996.

Black eunuch of the Ottoman Sultan – 1870

In the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were traditionally slaves from the outermost regions of the provinces or captives from outside of their domains.   These were of two categories: Black Eunuchs and White Eunuchs. Black Eunuchs were African slaves who served the concubines and officials in the Harem together with chamber maidens of low rank. The White Eunuchs were Europeans from the Balkans or the Caucasus, either purchased in the slave markets or were boys taken from Christian families in the Balkans who were unable to pay their taxes. They served the recruits at the Palace School and were from 1582 prohibited from entering the Harem.  Those who were not emasculated wound up in the Janissaries.

The act (emasculation) made Ottoman rule much hated by Christians in the Balkans.

Some members of the early Christian church practiced celibacy (including castration) for religious purposes,.    “The early theologian Origen (who castrated himself) 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.”

Ignatius of Constantinople (799–877): twice Patriarch of Constantinople during troubled political times, was the 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.)

Eunuchs castrated before puberty were also valued and trained in several cultures, including Italy, for their voices, which retained a childlike and other-worldly flexibility and treble pitch (a high-pitched voice). Such eunuchs were known as castrati. Unfortunately the choice was made by others at an age when the boy would not yet be able to decide for himself  whether to sacrifice his reproductive capabilities, and there was no guarantee that his voice would remain of musical excellence after the operation.

As women were forbidden to sing in Church, their place was taken by castrati. The practice remained popular until the 18th century and was known into the 19th century. The sole existing sound recording of a castrato singer documents the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, the last eunuch in the Sistine Chapel choir, who died in 1922.

These are the things humans have done to each other.

.

He never had a choice.

 

About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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6 Responses to Eunuch

  1. jfwknifton says:

    FGM still takes place in England, apparently. Parents originally from Somalia and that area of Africa apparently take their daughters to Ethiopia to have it done, according to newspaper reports I have read. Savagery, no more, no less.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Here too JF. The family takes a nice holiday back to the old country. Some of the girls are smarter now and refuse to go, seeking and getting protection from the authorities as the surgery has been criminalized. Regards.

      Like

  2. beetleypete says:

    I remember reading about Chinese men who elected to have this done, in order to achieve influential positions in the Imperial Court, but most of the history of eunuchs I am familiar with is centred on the Romans. Thanks for this detailed and informative piece, Frank.
    Even if I had to cross my legs whilst reading it. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Contrary to popular belief, castration doesn’t preclude a man having intercourse. Although it reduces testosterone levels and libido, many eunuchs retained the ability to engage in sex – and were happy to indulge their charges.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi doc = I knew that! Removal of the testes does not necessarily preclude the ability to have erections. I remember one particular Roman writer made the very point – Best regards.

      Like

  4. Jennie says:

    Yes, the things humans have done to each other.

    Liked by 1 person

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