Why were (are) Eunuchs a "thing"?

I don’t get it: It seems like a reading of history shows that Eunuchs keeps popping up all the time, but it seems bizarre and unlikely that anyone would think it would be a good idea to chop off their naughties.

Temple of Cybele, and the ones in the Chinese state and even the Vatican lasted until the 20th century. They showed up again in the Heaven’s Gate cult. All over the world.

So what makes humans keep doing this? And I’m not even starting with the regular though less extreme mutilation that still goes on.

There were three main types/reasons:

  • having sopranos that were adult males. Why this was considered necessary, rather than the eventual solution of having female singers, is one of those things that make my head try to turn itself inside-out, I don’t think I’ll ever get it.
  • men in positions of very high political power. By making these positions eligible to eunuchs only, nepotism was supposedly reduced and the growth of bureau-dynasties avoided. The requirement that RCC priests not marry was in part aimed to the same goal, without the surgical procedure.
  • harem guards. For obvious if yucky reasons.

That’s pretty much it. Not sure why there is confusion on this.

The fourth reason was keeping the slave population under control. Castrated male slaves couldn’t breed. You’ll note that the Middle East / Islamosphere does not have the slavery-related race problems that the US does, and that’s in part because male slaves - not just blacks - were routinely castrated. This was often done by the enslavers, not the Ottomans et al.

I’ve read speculation that people first found out about castrated animals from accidental castrations of bulls and other animals – they get caught on things (I’m amazed at how low and long the testicles on bulls can be) and inadvertently ripped off, or they lose them to disease, or whatever. Once you have your castrated bulls, you realize the advantages – they’re not as belligerent, they don’t try to assault your cows, they’re more docile and easily trained and handled. So you have people starting to deliberately castrate bulls to create oxen – useful for hauling big loads, without much fuss. People experiment and find advantages to castrating other animals.
So eventually, inevitably, somebody’s going to try this with humans. You get some of the same results as with bulls – less belligerence, more docility. You get other physical changes. And, of course, the obvious things noted above – you can use them as harem guards and the like, because they’re not going to get your females pregnant, or have much interest in sex. You can make castrati for the vocal qualities. Castrati voices were supposed to have a weird quality you don’t get from other types of singers. the last castrati survived long enough to make a recording.
There have, of course, been suggestions that people have been effectively chemically castrated for their vocal qualities. There have been suggestions that Michael Jackson was effectively chemically castrated (see here, for instance – https://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-03-michael-jackson-chemically-castrated-child.html ).
It’s also been suggested that Walter Tetley, 1940s voice actor (better known these days as the voice of Sherman from Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Sherman and Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History) was deliberately castrated by his mother, rather than having his childlike voice the result of a hormonal problem.

I think it’s pretty obvious why. Just remember, humans are animals. As animals, we have a desire to reproduce and spread our genes far and wide. Men have very little assurance that the little niblet that they are providing for is actually their own since their breeding partner could be running around with anyone. For particularly high status men, making sure that their breeding partners were only surrounded by eunuchs solves the issue. They are no longer a threat.

As for singing, castrati do not sound the same as women singers. Women also experience some deepening of the vocal chords and their chest cavities are smaller. Castrati had a much higher falsetto and a larger range overall than a female soprano. Unfortunately, we only have one castrato recorded and he was in his 40s at the time of the recording and a fan of grace notes and the sobbing style popular at the turn of the century which grates on modern ears, so we’ll likely never really know how good they really were.

Rereading the OP, it appears he thinks most eunuchs underwent the process voluntarily. That might explain the confusion.

My understanding is that many did undergo the process voluntarily in some cultures, e.g. China as a way to gain employment in the Imperial service.

Back in the day, before the discovery of germ theory, and before antiseptics, having any kind of surgery was chancy at best. So why didn’t these men often die from infection? Assuming they had some kind of sutures they certainly didn’t do it in sterile conditions.

Google for “the last eunuch” there are a number of news articles on this person, a journalist gained his confidence, and was over time, able to get him to give his story.

Briefly, economic desperation drove his father to do it to him as a young boy, and the specifics are either interesting, somewhat squicky, or horrifying. Anyway, packing the area with clean gauze, he survived and was sent to the Chinese emperors palace – just before the Communist revolution. D’oh.

The sad thing for this guy was, during the Cultural revolution, his family threw away “his treasure” to avoid being outed as Imperial holdovers. They were supposed to keep the jar of what was taken so he could be buried with it and be intact in the afterlife. Double D’oh.

You do realize this process is routinely done to animals, and yes there’s some loss, but if it were impossible, or extremely risky to achieve, why would we risk doing it to our food source?

Not a farmer huh? Castration has been safely practiced on farm animals for thousands of years. The old days it was just a razor blade, a needle and some thread. You heat the blade and the needle and it’s a quick procedure. If you were more budget minded, a string tied around them will cut off the blood supply and they’ll just drop off. I would assume that humans wouldn’t be as keen on that method though.

I guess I need to read up on the history of surgical procedure. I had assumed that performing surgery prior to the mid-1800’s was extremely risky, but perhaps it really wasn’t all that risky after all. Ignorance fought.

I also assumed that eliminating the source of testosterone would cause other medical issues besides just a lack of libido, but apparently the Castrata from the past were relatively healthy compared to non-castrated males. I doubt they were given these guys testosterone replacement therapy 1,000 years ago…

For one example of someone who supposedly DID do the deed himself for his own (religious) reasons, look up Origen. I think.

But most had it done TO them, and the reasons usually came down to economics or politics. Or sex, obviously.

Stage mothers today get their kids into TV and movies by all kinds of nasty methods; castrating them went out of style, or the stage mothers would still be arranging for it.

Jealous men now have surveillance cameras, so the extra step of getting the guards fixed is unnecessary.

Back in the day people got cuts and scrapes all the time, and although infections were a much larger danger than today, people regularly grew to old age with multiple scars. As surgeries go castration is fairly simple, it’s not like cutting the body cavity open and rooting around in it, which was not a safe choice before antiseptics and antibiotics.

I knew a prisoner who castrated himself. He also started a fire which burned down a good portion of the prison.

I’m not a medical professional but it was my suspicion that he may have had mental health problems.

Does “eunuch” connote only castration, or were there situations where eunuchs were consistently subjected to the removal of the you-know-what as well?

The other medical issues were mostly desired, and any underlying issues were less known, but hardly put the larger group at risk. Think of the millions of people today who do things that isn’t exactly adding years to their lives… but football players keep bashing their skulls together.

Anyway, castration is hormone therapy. Not sure why anyone would seek to replace the hormone they performed a castration to eliminate.


Going inside the body cavity* was extremely *risky.

But a simple amputation was usually safe. For millennia field surgeons were able to amputate limbs with a reasonable chance of success.

That was the tradition of the Imperial Chinese eunuch, they lost testicles and penis. According to the anecdote, this process caused them to constantly leak urine. I don’t really understand how this happened. Somehow, this weakens the bladder sphincter? At any rate, it bemused people – Why would the Chinese Emperor want to be surrounded by the smell of urine? The answer is that just happened to be the traditional way the maintained their dynasty.

Internet anecdote tells me the harem guards for the Ottoman emperors only lost testicles, and the women of the household really liked a chance to get a eunuch to give them a ride – sex was effectively endless, since the eunuch doesn’t ejaculate. Again, that’s not how I understand the plumbing to work. Anyway, eunuchs with penises (penii? a penis?) can have intercourse, and do want to … sometimes. Its all about not being able to reproduce and found your own dynasty. Just like no one really cares if a “fixed” animal occasionally mounts another. Just so long as we’re not up to our elbows in kittens.

I think it was Robert Heinlein in one of his books who related the anecdote that removal of the testicles after puberty did not stop performance, just reproduction. (And perhaps lessened desire). Not sure about pre-pubescent castrations; but you can be pretty sure that historically, a child who was castrated did not come up with the idea or the initiative himself.

I guess the question about the Ottomans would be at what age were most of their eunuchs “initiated”?

Plus, since the male organs are the end-all and be-all of male identity, I suspect there’s a certain domination/humiliation aspect to castrating your male enemies or inferiors, at least the ones who would not be too dangerous after being “processed”. After all, some cultures had a tradition of killing all the menfolk and enslaving the women when they conquered an opponent - castrating the lesser males would be a logical extension of that idea.

The bible, for example, has a prohibition against “incomplete” men entering the Temple, although it specifically mentions “those whose testicles have been crushed”? WTF.