The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagash in the 21st century BCE. 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 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.
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.
Eunuch comes from the Greek word eunoukhos, first attested in a fragment of Hipponax, the 6th century BC 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".
The earliest surviving etymology of the word is from late antiquity. The 5th century (AD) 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 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 came to be applied to castrated men in general because such men were the usual holders of that office. Still, Vossius notes the alternative 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").
By region and epoch
Ancient Middle East
Eunuchs were familiar figures in the Assyrian Empire (ca. 850 until 622 BC) and in the court of the Egyptian Pharaohs (down to the Lagid dynasty known as Ptolemies, ending with Cleopatra, 30 BC). Eunuchs sometimes were used as regents for underage heirs to the throne, as it seems to be the case for the Neo-Hittite state of Carchemish. 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 functionary 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).
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, Ahmed es-Sikeli, was prime minister.
Eunuchs have existed in China since about 4,000 years ago, were imperial servants by 3,000 years ago, and were common as civil servants by the time of the Qin dynasty. From those 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 such as the Ming dynasty official Zheng He. Self-castration was a common practice, although it was not always performed completely, which led to it 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 alternative political will of the bureaucracy. The clash between them would thus have been a clash of ideologies or political agenda.
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.
Near the end of the Han dynasty in 189, a group of eunuchs known as the Ten Attendants managed to gain considerable power at the imperial court, so that a number of warlords decided they had to be eliminated to restore the emperor's government. However, the loyalist warlord He Jin was lured into a trap inside the palace and killed by the eunuchs. The other warlords led by Yuan Shao then stormed the palace and massacred the Ten Attendants and many other eunuchs. In the wake of the fighting, Dong Zhuo seized power.
Indigenous tribals from southern China were used as eunuchs during the Sui and Tang dynasties.
The Khitans adopted the practice of using eunuchs from the Chinese and the eunuchs were non-Khitan prisoners of war. When they founded the Liao dynasty they developed a harem system with concubines and wives and adopted eunuchs as part of it. The Khitans captured Chinese eunuchs at the Jin court when they invaded the Later Jin. Another source was during their war with the 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. She personally led her own army defeated the Song in 986, fighting the retreating Chinese army. She then ordered the castration of around 100 Chinese boys she had captured, 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.
There were Korean, Jurchen, Mongol, Central Asian, and Vietnamese eunuchs under the Yongle Emperor,:36ff including Mongol eunuchs who served him while he was the Prince of Yan. Muslim and Mongol eunuchs were present in the Ming court,:14 such as the ones captured from Mongol-controlled Yunnan in 1381, and among them was the great Ming maritime explorer Zheng He,:14ff who served Yongle. Muslim eunuchs were sent as ambassadors to the Timurids. Vietnamese eunuchs like Ruan Lang, Ruan An, Fan Hong, Chen Wu, and Wang Jin were sent by Zhang Fu to the Ming. During Ming's early contentious relations with Joseon, when there were disputes such as competition for influence over the Jurchens in Manchuria, Korean officials were even flogged by Korean-born Ming eunuch ambassadors when their demands were not met. Some of the ambassadors were arrogant, such as Sin Kwi-saeng who, in 1398, got drunk and brandished a knife at a dinner in the presence of the king. Sino-Korean relations later became amiable, and Korean envoys' seating arrangement in the Ming court was always the highest among the tributaries. Korea stopped sending human tribute after 1435. A total of 198 eunuchs were sent from Korea to Ming. The Ming eunuch hats were similar to the Korean royal hats, indicating the foreign origins of the Ming eunuchs, many of whom came from Southeast Asia and Korea.
During the Miao Rebellions, the Ming Governor castrated thousands of Miao boys when their tribes revolted, and then gave them as slaves to various officials. The Governor who ordered the castration of the Miao was reprimanded and condemned by the Ming Tianshun Emperor for doing it once the Ming government heard of the event.:16
Zhu Shuang (Prince of Qin), while he was high on drugs, had some Tibetan boys castrated and Tibetan women seized after a war against minority Tibetan peoples and as a result was reprimanded after he died from overdose.
On 30 January 1406, the Yongle Emperor expressed horror when the Ryukyuans castrated some of their own children to become eunuchs to give them to the emperor. The Yongle Emperor said that the boys who were castrated were innocent and did not deserve castration, and he returned the boys to Ryukyu and instructed them not to send eunuchs again.
An anti pig slaughter edict led to speculation that the Zhengde Emperor adopted Islam due to his use of Muslim eunuchs who commissioned the production of porcelain with Persian and Arabic inscriptions in white and blue color. Muslim eunuchs contributed money in 1496 to repairing Niujie Mosque. It is unknown who really was behind the anti-pig slaughter edict.
At the end of the Ming dynasty, there were about 70,000 eunuchs (宦官 huànguān, or 太監 tàijiàn) employed by the emperor, with some serving inside the imperial palace. There were 100,000 eunuchs at the height of their numbers during the Ming.:34ff In popular culture texts such as Zhang Yingyu's The Book of Swindles (ca. 1617), eunuchs were often portrayed in starkly negative terms as enriching themselves through excessive taxation and indulging in cannibalism and debauched sexual practices.
The path to the occupation
In Ming China, the royal palace usually gets eunuchs in two ways: foreign supplies of eunuchs and domestic supplies of eunuchs.:126–138 On the one hand, the eunuchs in Ming China come from the foreign supplies, the enemies of Ming China are castrated as a mean of punishment when they are captured by Ming army as prisoners.:127 For example, the population of Mongol eunuchs in Nanjing increased significantly during Yongle's reign when there was a war between Ming China and the Mongols.:127 The foreign eunuchs also comes from the tributes from a lot of small countries around China.:127 On the other hand, the eunuchs also came from locals in China. In Ming China, many men castrated themselves in order to be hired in the palace, when the only way for these men to enter privilege was eunuchism.:128 Besides the royal palace, elites such as officials also hired eunuchs to be servants to their family.:131 With the demand, a lot of men were willing to castrate themselves to become eunuchs.
The daily functions of normal eunuchs
Eunuchs in Ming China also played a critical role in the operation of the imperial palace: their responsibilities varied in significance: their jobs include almost every aspect of the everyday routine in the imperial palace; their responsibilities also included procuring copper, tin, wood, and iron. Also, they had to repair and construct ponds, castle gates, palaces in major cities like Beijing and Nanjing, and the mansions and mausolea in the living place of imperial relatives.:131 They prepared meals for a great number of people in the palace. Taking care of the animals in the palace was also one of their jobs. In a word, the eunuchs' work was the cornerstone of the palace daily operation and the emperor and his relatives' comfortable life.:125
The relationship with other occupations in royal palace
The eunuchs also highly associated with other lower ranking occupations in the royal palace. For example, some eunuchs would have special relationships with serving women in the palace. Some eunuchs would form a partnership with serving women in order to support each other, called a "vegetarian couple" (Duishi).:43 In this kind of relationship, both eunuchs and serving women can be more secure when they encountered conflicts with the those of higher rank such as bureaucrats.:60
Power of eunuchs in the palace
The eunuchs also had opportunity to rise to higher ranks. The duties and jobs of eunuchs gradually changed in Ming dynasty: in Ming Taizu's time, the emperor decreed that the eunuchs were to be kept in small numbers and of minimal literacy in case the eunuchs seized power.:64 However, in later generations, the emperors began to train and educate the eunuchs and make them their personal secretaries.:65 The lack of the restriction allowed some eunuchs to rise to great power, for example, Wang Zhen, Liu Jin, and Wei Zhongxian especially. There are even eunuch-supervised secret police working for the emperor known as the Eastern Depot and Western Depot.:65 Also, Zhenghe, a very famous eunuch in China's history, became an early pioneer of seafaring and spread Chinese influence to the world.
The reputation of eunuchs in China
However, the reputation of eunuchs was controversial in Ming China. Chinese bureaucrat-scholars always depicted eunuchs negatively, as greedy, evil, cunning, and duplicitous.:121 Chinese people seemed to have a stereotypical view toward the eunuchs. This bad reputation may be explained by the fact that the eunuchs, in order to get employment in the royal palace or official houses, needed to be castrated. Castration gave the eunuchs the license to work in the palace or official houses in Ming China because the officials and emperor in Ming China usually kept many concubines.:133 However, In Chinese society, castration broke with conventional moral rules. A son who could not have male heir to carry on the family name contradicts Confician ideology.:132 The eunuchs, despite their awareness of losing ability to have children, would still get castrated in order to get better lives. Another stereotypical view of eunuchs in palace is that they exceeded their power in areas they didn't belong. Or that the eunuchs did some of the dirty work. For example, becoming spies for emperors or officials. The Yongle emperor gave the eunuchs the authority to be in charge in the implementation of political tasks. As eunuchs' presence and power grew, they gradually took over the duties of female palace musicians and become the dominant musicians in the Ming palace. When they came to power, eunuchs would even interfere in politics such as succession to the throne.:125
While eunuchs were employed in all Chinese dynasties, their number decreased significantly under the Qing, and the tasks they performed were largely replaced by the Imperial Household Department. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 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 emperor Puyi recalled in his memoirs that 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."
After the revolution of 1911–12 that toppled the Qing, the last emperor, Puyi, continued to live in the Forbidden City with his eunuchs as if the revolution had never happened while receiving financial support from the new Chinese republic until 1924 when the former emperor and his entourage were expelled from the Forbidden City by the warlord General Feng Yuxiang. In 1923, after a case of arson that Puyi believed was started to cover the theft of his Imperial treasures, Puyi expelled all of the eunuchs from the Forbidden City.
The sons and grandsons of the Tajik 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.
Eunuchs were the only males outside the royal family allowed to stay inside the palace overnight. Court records going back to 1392 indicate that the average lifespan of eunuchs was 70.0 ± 1.76 years, which was 14.4–19.1 years longer than the lifespan of non-castrated men of similar socio-economic status.
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 washed with pepper water and then cut off. A tube would be then inserted into the urethra to allow urination during healing. Many Vietnamese eunuchs were products of self castration in order to gain access to the palaces and power. In other cases they might be paid to become eunuchs. They served in many capacities, from supervising public works, to investigating crimes, to reading public proclamations.
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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 the Yongle Emperor'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 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 that 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 man named Wu Rui (吳瑞), were captured by the Vietnamese after their ship was blown off course while traveling from Hainan to Guangdong's Qin subprefecture (Qinzhou), causing them to end up near the coast of Vietnam during the Chenghua Emperor's rule (1447–1487). Twelve of them were enslaved as agricultural laborers, while Wu Rui, the only one still young, was castrated and became a eunuch attendant at the Vietnamese Imperial Palace in Thang Long. After years of service, upon the death of the Vietnamese ruler in 1497, he was promoted to a military position in northern Vietnam. There, a soldier told him of an escape route back to China through which Wu Rui then escaped to Longzhou. The local chief planned to sell him back to the Vietnamese, but Wu was rescued by the Pingxiang Magistrate, 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.
In the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were typically slaves imported from outside their domains. A fair proportion of male slaves were imported as eunuchs. 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 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 taken as boys from Christian families in the Balkans who were unable to pay the Jizya tax. 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 entire Devşirme system, where the children of Christian families in the Balkans unable to pay the onerous jizya tax were taken away, and, depending upon their sex, became either concubines, in the case of the girls, or, in the case of the boys, were conscripted into Janissary Corps or became eunuchs. The act (emasculation) made Ottoman rule much hated by Christians in the Balkans.
Edmund Andrews of Northwestern University, in an 1898 article called "Oriental Eunuchs" in the American Journal of Medicine, refers to Coptic priests in "Abou Gerhè in Upper Egypt" castrating slave boys.
Coptic castration of slaves was discussed by Peter Charles Remondino, in his book History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present, published in 1900. He refers to the "Abou-Gerghè" monastery in a place he calls "Mount Ghebel-Eter". He adds details not mentioned by Andrews such as the insertion of bamboo into the victim. Bamboo was used with Chinese eunuchs. Andrews states his information is derived from an earlier work, Les Femmes, les eunuques, et les guerriers du Soudan, published by a French explorer, Count Raoul du Bisson, in 1868, though the place does not appear in Du Bisson's book.
Remondino's claims were repeated in similar form by Henry G. Spooner in 1919, in the American Journal of Urology and Sexology. Spooner, an associate of William J. Robinson, referred to the monastery as "Abou Gerbe in Upper Egypt".
According to Remondino, Spooner and several later sources, 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, then, after slicing off their sexual organs, stuck a piece of bamboo into the genital area, and 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.
In the 16th century, an Englishman, Samson Rowlie, was captured and castrated to serve the Ottoman governor in Algiers.
Eunuchs in Indian sultanates (before the Mughals)
Eunuchs were frequently employed in Imperial palaces by Muslim 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. 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 and trustworthiness, allowing them 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
Hijra, an Urdu term traditionally translated into English as "eunuch", actually refers to what modern Westerners would call transgender women and effeminate homosexual men (although some of them reportedly identify as belonging to a third sex). The history of this third sex is emtioned in the Ancient Indian Kama Sutra, which refers to people of a "third sex" (triteeyaprakrti).
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 the primary form of their livelihood. They are a part of dance programs (sometimes adult[clarification needed]) 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, 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. Hijra often engage in prostitution and begging to earn money; the begging is accompanied by singing and dancing. 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, embarrassing 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. Eunuch priests also figured prominently in the Atargatis cult in Syria during the first centuries CE.
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. Tertullian even goes so far with the metaphor as to say St. Paul had been "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.
In the Bible
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.— Matthew 19:12
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 likely have 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 castrated 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.
The term eunuch has sometimes figuratively been used for a wide range of men who were seen to be physically unable to procreate. Hippocrates describes the Scythians as being afflicted with high rates of erectile dysfunction and thus "the most eunuchoid of all nations" (Airs Waters Places 22). In the Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, the term literally used for impotent males is spado, but may also be used for 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 (a high-pitched voice). 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, died in 1861. 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.
In popular culture
In chronological order.
First millennium BC
- Mutakkil-Marduk (8th century BC): Assyrian chief eunuch, eponym of the year 798 BCE in an Assyrian eponym chronicle.
- Yariri (8th century BC): regent of Neo-Hittite Carchemish thought likely to be a eunuch.
- Sin-shumu-lishir (7th century BC): Assyrian eunuch who attempted to usurp power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
- Aspamistres or Mithridates (5th century BC): 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 BC): prime minister of king Artaxerxes III of Persia, and his assassin (Bagoas is an old Persian 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 diffusion of Greek culture to the East.
- Batis (4th century BC): resisted Alexander the Great at the Siege of Gaza.
- Philetaerus (4th/3rd century BC): founder of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamum
- Sima Qian (old romanization Ssu-ma Chi'en; 2nd/1st century BC): the first person to have practiced modern historiography – gathering and analyzing both primary and secondary sources to write his monumental history of the Chinese Empire.
- Ganymedes (1st century BC): 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 BC): regent for pharaoh Ptolemy XII.
- Sporus (1st century BC): an attractive Roman boy who was castrated by, and later married to, Emperor Nero.
First millennium AD
- Unidentified eunuch of the Ethiopian court (1st century AD), 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 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.
- Dorotheus of Tyre (255–362): A bishop who attended the Council of Nicaea, was exiled by Diocletian and Julian, and was martyred.
- 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 reconquering 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 the Byzantine Empire.
- 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).
Second millennium AD
- 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 Khalji, 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 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 the 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: 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: 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 the Yongle Emperor.
- Yishiha: admiral in charge of expeditions down the Amur River under the Yongle and Xuande Emperors.
- Liu Jin: corrupt eunuch official of the Ming dynasty and de facto emperor, member of the Eight Tigers.
- Wei Zhongxian: eunuch of the Ming dynasty, considered the most powerful eunuch in Chinese history.
- Wu Rui: a Chinese eunuch in Lê Dynasty Annam (Vietnam).
- Li Lianying: a despotic eunuch of the Qing dynasty.
- Thomas P. Corbett/Boston Corbett (b. 1832; presumed dead 1894): killer of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who 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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