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Infertile Monks: Castrati Monks

While thousands of castrated boys provided singers, the role of ruling eunuchs is less well known.


To better understand the concept of the fertile monk, one could examine the fertile monk's opposite, the eunuch monk. Though infertile in the genetic sense, many must be considered as very fertile when their contribution to life is viewed from a cultural perspective. The historical role of eunuchs and castrated monks (men who as boys had their testicles removed before puberty) is incontrovertible. A brief and undocumented list has been compiled by Tucker Lieberman in his essay When I Stop Naming Eunuchs.

Here is a sample:
Every religion, it seems, has a eunuch myth. When Ouranos was castrated, Aphrodite was born. Shiva cut himself in frustration and the world was born. Odin, the Norse "hanged god," spent nine days suffering in a tree. The infertile, masculine-leaning hermaphrodites in the Dine (Navajo) Native American creation myth taught industry to humanity. Duke Clinchsor in the Arthurian myth became a better magician after his mutilation. Adonis was gored by a boar. Dionysus was scattered. Osiris became a god after he was killed by his brother. Attis was driven mad by his jealous mother. Jesus, by a few maverick interpretations, was part of the expansive brotherhood.

Romans—and later, Muslims—forbade castration of their own kind but adored foreign slaves. Greeks trafficked in eunuchs in the ports of Ephesus and Sardis. Persian kings kept concubines like Bagoas who was passed from Darius to Alexander the Great, and servants, some of whom, like Artaxares with his artificial beard, aspired to the throne. Greek-ruled Egypt saw eunuch regents. Coptic Christian monks in Egypt castrated African boys who had been dragged through the Sahara or ferried up the Nile or Red Sea to be sold in Arab lands. European Jews sold Slavs (the origin of "slave") to Muslim Spain.

Castrati monks were often not ascetic monks, and Tucker Lieberman names many eunuchs known for their power and influence on the course of history. China is a prime example, with admiral Cheng Ho perhaps being the most famous of a great many powerful eunuchs. Greece had the castrated god Attis and Rome's famous eunuchs include Sporus, Eutropius and the general Narses, who built the eunuch monastery of the Katharoi. Hundreds of royal Byzantine and Ottoman eunuchs join history's extensive list of important castrati.


Next: Celibate Monks


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