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Eunuch power in old Byzantium.

FOR MOST of the last 4,000 years, all major, long-running imperial regimes from one end of Asia to the other have had one common feature: the presence of eunuchs in management. Members of the castrated caste were key officials and advisors within the inner courts of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, China, Byzantium, various early Islamic societies, and the Ottoman Empire. Yet the image of an empowered eunuch--a diplomat, a chamberlain, an ambassador--is not the one that most people have of eunuchs today. To call someone a "eunuch" is to label him, in effect, an ineffectual wimp. In our erection-obsessed society, people tend to focus on the eunuch's penile impotence rather than on the political power or special skills he may have wielded in human resource management.

Granted, castration stands out as one of history's worst expressions of man's brutality toward man. But the modern stereotype assumes that this physical change could only produce a pathetic, mutilated creature, lacking family or legacy, a functionary whose sole task was that of impounding women for the carnal pleasure of powerful men. This image is clearly inaccurate in that it focuses on one small role that eunuchs have played in history. (This particular stereotype can be traced back to the early 16th century when the Turkish invasion of Europe brought the Ottoman Empire to the gates of Vienna.)

That most of what has been written about eunuchs casts them in a negative light is illustrated by two oftcited books separated by 35 years, each by an openly racist amateur classicist: N. M. Penzer's The Harem (1936) and T. Mitamura's Chinese Eunuchs (1970). The Penzer book had a second life in the popular 1960 book, The Eunuch and the Virgin, by Peter Tompkins, who lifted his account of eunuchs lock, stock, and barrel from The Harem. Mitamura's vilification of eunuchs is merely ludicrous: he somehow manages to blame eunuchs for the downfall of every dynasty in China, without acknowledging that the remarkable durability of these same dynasties would not have been possible without the administrative stability that the eunuchs provided.

AVERY DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE on eunuchs is offered by Kathryn Ringrose in The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium (2003), which goes well beyond justifying a "third sex" category for eunuchs. Ringrose shows how the special status of eunuchs as neither male nor female allowed them to fill a buffer role between a powerful potentate and the public at large. To be sure, the eunuchs did guard and isolate the ruler and his women from the riffraff. In so doing they enabled the ruler to maintain an elevated status whereby he was not just separate but sanctified. This quasi-deification of dynastic rulers was only possible through the service of a loyal bevy of eunuchs who did not have personal testosterone-fueled sexual or political goals of their own, goals that could have put them in competition with the ruler himself. In Byzantium, eunuchs ended up filling a staggering array of social roles beyond the harem's walls, including everything from prostitute to priest.

Indeed, many eunuchs were associated with the church, some as singers in church choirs more than a millennium before the castrati took on that role in Europe. Eunuch priests could rise through the ranks to become bishops and archbishops. Their genuine freedom from lust was seen to give them easier access to spiritual purity than was enjoyed by their uncastrated brethren in the early Christian church. Those in the religious life were often seen as holier than other Christians, a situation that occasionally provoked jealousy from others in the priesthood, who had to work that much harder (and still do) to maintain celibacy. A number of the early Christian saints, such as St. Ignatius were, in fact, eunuchs.

Ringrose puts forth the charming thesis that our image of angels was directly modeled on eunuchs in the pre-Christian and early Christian world. Paintings from the Byzantine court show the emperor flanked by beardless men, understood to be eunuchs. Angels in the religious art from about the same time show them as beardless entities, flanking God in a similar fashion. The prime task of angels in the Christian tradition is to sing the praises of the Lord. Angels are also emissaries of God, the Lord's trusted messengers, just as eunuchs were messengers for Byzantine emperors. Angels are non-reproductive. Often angels are depicted as taller than mortals. When we say that someone has an "angelic" voice, we think of a higher pitch and a softer voice than that of adult men. All of these traits characterize eunuchs who were castrated before puberty. If a successful kingdom on Earth could only be maintained with the help of eunuchs, isn't it logical that a kingdom in Heaven must have a similar class of citizens? Indeed, the link between eunuchs and angels was so strong that urban myths from Constantinople occasionally confused the two. Stories tell of an angel walking among humans and being mistaken for a court eunuch. Others recount how a court eunuch was mistaken for an angel.

The analogy with angels takes on added significance when considered in the light of modern science and the psychology of androgen deprivation. There is growing medical evidence of cognitive losses associated with the loss of male gonads, or hypogonadism. This can make working in a busy environment difficult for modern-day eunuchs (and there are many: see below). But the classic eunuch and, for that matter, angels, were not confronted by what now clutters our desks and days: the information overload from TV, telephone, and the Internet. Good managerial skills today require the ability to handle masses of simultaneous, complex, incoming data. On the other hand, good managerial skills in Byzantium required quite the opposite: maintaining a single resolute focus. For the eunuchs of, say, 9th-century Constantinople, their charges were to carry out single tasks such as delivering a delicate, detailed dispatch to a potentially hostile potentate, for which the journey alone could take weeks or months. The perfect servant back then did not need to multi-task; he just needed to accomplish his single task perfectly. And, coincidentally, it was the same for angels. Throughout the Bible the heavenly servants of God are never charged with more than one task at a time, despite their miraculous powers. Mortals from Moses to Jesus incarnate were not so lucky.

It's worth pausing here to note that eunuchs did not die out with the last emperor of China or Byzantium, but continue to exist in considerable numbers even today. By far the most common reason to emasculate a male nowadays is to treat prostate cancer. I estimate that each year over 40,000 men in North America are castrated either chemically or surgically to slow the progress of this disease. By my rough estimate, this is forty to 100 times more men than are castrated for sexual reassignment. Although most of these individuals might bristle at the label "eunuch," that is what they are. Perhaps they would find solace in the fact that it was people like them who gave us our predominantly positive perception of angels.

One modern misconception is that castration makes men incapable of fighting. But a neutered dog can still bite. Eunuchs in the Byzantium military rose to the rank of general. One of the most important military figures from Byzantium was the eunuch general Narses, who saved Catholicism 1500 years ago by driving the Ostrogoths out of Italy.

Another misconception is that eunuchs were completely asexual. Although the eunuchs in Byzantium could not marry, Byzantine eunuchs engaged in sexual activity with both men and women.

On the last page of Ringrose's book there's a fascinating note taken from a handbook used to interpret dreams during the latter half of the Byzantium Empire. As translated there, we learn that, "[I]f someone dreams that he had anal intercourse with a eunuch he knows, he will entrust both his wealth and secrets to that eunuch; but if the eunuch was a stranger, he [the eunuch] will do good to his enemy." It seems to me that such an interpretation of dreams from a thousand years ago was not solely descriptive but was also prescriptive. If a man had dreamed that he had sex with a eunuch he knew, then he presumably liked that eunuch. If he consummated that desire, then we may suppose that he cared about the eunuch and the eunuch cared about him. Just as in modern heterosexual society husbands generally can trust their money and secrets to their wives, eunuchs could be expected to have that same level of loyalty. Indeed, if there is one positive attribute of eunuchs that gets mentioned repeatedly by scholars, it is their loyalty. On the other hand, should a man have anal sex with a eunuch who is a stranger, the situation would be equivalent to rape. No surprise, then, that the abused eunuch would take his loyalty elsewhere and do what he could to get revenge.

The eunuch's role in guarding "wealth and secrets" sounds quaint to us, but we should remember that in Byzantium there were no banks to protect one's wealth, and no secure ways of transmitting information privately. Few people could read or write. Information, even secret intelligence, was transmitted orally. Thus the responsibilities of the eunuch to safeguard resources and relay messages were not inconsequential.

THE SEXUALITY of eunuchs was remarkably flexible and varied. Perhaps we would describe the typical eunuch in Byzantium as "bi." Today we tend to think of a bisexual as a person who's likely to be more rather than less sexually active than someone with a singular sexual orientation. Yet, as noted above, celibacy was easy and presumably common for eunuchs. Indeed, research on modern-day eunuchs demonstrates that without testicles pumping out testosterone, a male's libido plummets. Still, a low libido does not mean that one is incapable of having sex. A eunuch may not feel compelled to seek out sex for his own libido's gratification, but he can still satisfy that of other people--and serving others is what eunuchs do best.

Obviously eunuchs could be, and often were, passive partners to men. As for serving females, eunuchs would have been able to handle heterosexual women as well as lesbians. David Ayalon, in his 1999 book Eunuchs, Caliphs, and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships, which discusses eunuchs from just outside the borders of Byzantium, finds "repeated evidence about love affairs between eunuchs and women of the harem." Dildos have supposedly been found associated with harem settings from both Chinese dynasties and the Ottoman Empire. By being neither male nor female, eunuchs could travel in the world of women as well as the world of men. In Ayalon's formulation: "A man would love a eunuch because he resembled in some way a woman, and a woman, by contrast, would love him because of his resemblance to a man."

From a cross-cultural standpoint, eunuchs consistently present an intriguing blend of male and female characteristics. This is demonstrated in the extreme by the eunuchs of the Mamluk warrior societies that were contemporaneous with the late Byzantine Empire (and often a threat to it). In that culture, the eunuchs ran the military schools for young boys, supervising and training them. They also kept their proteges safe from the homosexual advances of the adult males by serving as the receptive partner in sexual encounters. The eunuchs of the time, according to Ayalon, "are described as being womanly and docile in bed, and manly and warlike by day." Arabic sources note that eunuchs "served as a major target of pederasty, which they also enjoyed."

Ayalon and Ringrose discuss the role of eunuchs in roughly the same time frame but from opposite sides of the shifting border between early Islam and Christianity. They reach similar conclusions with respect to the nature of the sexual service eunuchs provided. They also find eunuchs serving in the same set of social roles: as advisors, military leaders, diplomats, chamberlains, and so on.

What's sad about the eunuchs of Byzantium and the neighboring regions is that they didn't write their own history. Like women throughout most of history, eunuchs lacked the resources (or perhaps the desire) to tell their own stories. Thus the best we can do to decipher how they thought and felt is to consult secondary and tertiary sources, which are fraught with bias. In The Harem, Penzer assumed that eunuchs grieved for the loss of their genitals and would, if ever the opportunity arose, take revenge on whoever castrated them. Although Penzer cites a classic story from Herodotus as evidence, there is nothing in the historical annals to suggest that eunuchs in general wallowed in self-pity or carried such grudges. But how they felt about their situation is largely a mystery.

Patrick Barbier in his 1997 book on The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon explores that same issue for the castrati of Europe. "[H]ow can we adopt an attitude towards emasculation," he asks, "when no great castrato has confided his deepest feelings to us? Was the operation inflicted on him felt as a tragedy?... We know, for example, that when people expressed pity for them, the castrati Carestini and Salimbeni burst out laughing: were they exceptional or fairly normal?" Why Carestini and Salimbeni laughed, we will never know. You can trust eunuchs to keep their secrets.

MAIN SOURCES

Kathryn Ringrose, The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium. University of Chicago Press, 2003.

David Ayalon, Eunuchs, Caliphs, and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships. Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1999.

Richard Wassersug teaches in the Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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Title Annotation:Essay
Author:Wassersug, Richard
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:2286
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