Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A brief history of eunuchs in Reay Tannahill's 'Sex in History' (1980)

In her 1980 book Sex in History, Reay Tannahill has a part called "Asia until the Middle Ages, and the Arab World," within which is a chapter called "Islam," within which is a section on "The Eunuchs" (pp. 246-254) The section is a world overview and has hardly any information on Muslim societies, so its placement under "Islam" is a little confusing. Since the history ends in the 1930s and she is writing a half-century later, she uses a lot of old material (not in the original languages of these cultures, but primarily in English) and puts a hint of second-wave feminist spin on it. Among her sources:

  • Stent, G. Carter. "Chinese Eunuchs." Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series XI, 1877, pp. 143-84.
  • Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. London, 1954.

She writes: "The eunuch of popular imagination is often a repellent, sinister figure, high of voice and flabby of flesh, with a taste for sweet-meats, bright colors, and strong rhythms, and a disposition that is acquisitive, cruel, and vengeful." She comments that these character traits seem more likely as a response to involuntary, rather than voluntary, castration. (p. 252) She proposes that "their emasculation made of the quicker-witted eunuchs far more effective officials than they would otherwise have been, for they owed no clemency to the people with whom they dealt." (p. 253) This statement is unclear: Does she believe that they were angry about their castration and therefore felt they had the right to take collective revenge on anyone they met, or that kidnapping, castration, and enslavement severed their previous social ties so that they generally had no need to play favorites with people at court?

Her world history is paraphrased below. This is already commonly known information for those who have read any significant amount about eunuchs.

Assyrian laws as far back as the 15th century BCE allowed a married man to castrate another man found having sex with his wife. "That this punishment was inflicted with a degree of frequency is suggested by the fact that there were a number of eunuchs among Assyrian royal officials, while others were employed in the harem to guard the four royal wives, 40 concubines 'and others' incarcerated in it, being forbidden to approach them more closely than seven feet, or to speak to them at all if they were inadequately clothed." When the Persian empire replaced it, Cyrus in the 6th century BCE believed that eunuchs could perform physical military service on par with other men and that they were ambitious, and that they had the further advantages of being incapable of committing sexual violations and tending to devote their loyalty to their king rather than to families they did not have. Tannahill says that the Persians were likely "the first to castrate prisoners in cold rather than hot blood" and that Herodotus reports that attractive boys were chosen for castration. Darius, after Cyrus, asked for 500 eunuch boys as tribute from Babylon and Assyria. Later, the practice was known in China, where eunuchs were employed in the imperial harem and as "private executioners." A slave trade in eunuch boys was known in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was known that some eunuchs had sexual desire and some women preferred them as sexual partners. The Roman Emperor Domitian banned castration in the first century CE but nevertheless, later, in the Byzantine empire, eunuchs served as imperial "ministers and even Church patriarchs" and "eight of the chief posts of the empire were reserved for them." Eunuchs were not generally known in the West "where women had some degree of freedom" and where leaders connected more directly with their people. "It seems that the original Hebrew attitudes [as in Deut 23:1] may have traveled to India with the Aryan invaders, for the Vedic and Hindu faiths regarded eunuchs as utterly unclean, an opinion that rubbed off even on the later Muslims (the Mughals) who ruled India from 1526 until 1806. The Indian zenana was guarded by elderly men and armed women, and eunuchs were few and far between." In the Turkish sultan's seraglio, the white and black eunuchs were mutilated differently. She talks about different procedures for castration and the fact that Chinese eunuchs preserved the tissue. Since the Turkish harem eunuchs "left no memoirs," if we want such first-hand accounts we must turn to Ssu-ma Ch'ien (1st century BCE) and Peter Abelard (12th century CE). "Both men were intellectuals, and both, after the first shock of pain and revulsion, had some escape into the private refuge of the mind. But the eunuchs of the harem were trapped in the mesh of social intercourse, with no way out. Whatever they may have felt for their fellow sufferers, to others they were over-sensitive — sometimes excessively affectionate, more often withdrawn and hostile." (p. 253) Thousands of eunuch slaves were still being taken annually into "Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey," but following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, N. M. Penzer could locate only a couple individuals in Turkey. In the early 1930s there were still a number of retired palace servants at the Refuge for Distressed Eunuchs near the Pa Pao Shan Golf Club; Osbert Sitwell spoke with them.


Reay Tannahill. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

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