Section 1: Eunuchs are able to procreate


      In the section of the ancient Roman Digest of Laws dealing with women's claims on their dowries, the Roman jurist Ulpian faces the issue of marriages between women and eunuch slaves. He says: "If a woman marries a eunuch, I think that a distinction must be drawn whether he has been castrated or not, because in the case of a castrated man, there is no dowry; if the person has not been castrated, then there can be a marriage, and so there is a dowry, and a claim on it."21  I suppose the reason a non-castrated eunuch can get married is because he can procreate.

     As helpful as this statement is, Ulpian ultimately provided an even more explicit, in fact indisputable, proof of the first point of my argument, namely that eunuchs had complete genitals. Two sentences of Roman law, by themselves, prove that typically eunuchs were able to procreate; they prove that they were not missing any "necessary parts." This was the proof I was looking for. It took me seven years to find, yet it is available on any law school library's reference shelf.

     In a discussion of defects in slaves that must be reported to buyers in advance by slave dealers, Ulpian states that "to me it appears the better view that a eunuch is not diseased or defective, but healthy, just like a man with one testicle who is also able to procreate."22  The issue here is whether a eunuch slave is capable of performing all the normal functions, in this case producing offspring. Ulpian states that a eunuch's imperfection, like that of a man with one testicle, does not prevent him from procreating. Just to make sure everything is perfectly clear, another jurist Paulus states right afterward: "If someone is a eunuch in such a way that he lacks a necessary part of his body, even internally, then he is diseased."23 Therefore, the undiseased, undefective form of eunuch mentioned by Ulpian, who is able to procreate just like a one-testicled man, is not missing any necessary parts of his body.

     These distinctions reflect the fact that, as Ulpian states, "eunuch is a general designation: the term encompasses eunuchs-by-nature, then thladiae and thlibiae, and any other kind of eunuch."24 Thladiae and thlibiae are derived from words for crushing or abrading,25 so those words are standing in for the man-made eunuch. Then in another section on murderers, Paulus states that "those who make thlibiae are in the same position [i.e. subject to the penalty for murder] as those who castrate."26  So Ulpian has listed the three types of eunuchs almost exactly in parallel to the way Jesus did: born, man-made, and other, with the typical -- born -- eunuch being able to procreate.

     Despite the misinterpretations of Western historians, the eunuch type, considered impotent and safe with women, has been known nonetheless since earliest times to be technically capable of procreating.

     Three provisions in the Code of Hammurabi refer to adoption involving "the son of a girsequ" (eunuch) or "the son of a salzikrum" (a compound word "male woman", probably signifying a butch lesbian).27  Geoffrey Driver28 and D.D. Luckenbill29  both interpret this to mean the adopted son of a eunuch or male woman. But while the word for adoptee (tarbitum) is used in adjacent legal provisions, the standard word for son (dumu) is used for the child of the eunuch and the child of the male woman. Therefore the child is the natural child of the eunuch or of the male woman, which means the eunuch and the male woman are able to procreate. The law states that, unlike the case for some other children, the adoption of a son of a eunuch or male woman is irreversible, and it places severe corporal punishments on adoptees who attempt to circumvent these laws by contesting their adoptions. This is likely because the social roles of the eunuch and the male woman hinged on their not having families.

     In the Kamasutra and the Laws of Manu, a type of man is mentioned who is said to be a "member of the third sex."30  He is called a klibá. In the index to her translation of the Laws, Wendy Doniger defines a klibá as "a sexually dysfunctional man, who might be, according to the context, impotent, homosexual, a transvestite, or, in some cases, a man with mutilated or defective sexual organs."31 In Laws IX, 201-203, a klibá is excluded from inheritance rights, although a wise father is encouraged to provide clothing and food for a son who is a klibá, in order to keep him from "falling." However, it is said that if a klibá "should somehow desire" a wife, then "the children of those of them that produce offspring have a right to an inheritance." Here Doniger adds a note: "Unless kliba is taken to mean 'homosexual,' 'somehow' might indicate appointing another man to produce a child in the husband's field."32  I find it implausible that a stranger's child would have a right to an inheritance that a man's own son was excluded from. The klibá has to be a homosexual: capable of procreating, but unlikely to desire a wife. The Kamasutra provides evidence that klibá status could be denied and thus was not verifiable by inspection, that it connoted non-male status, and that klibás enjoyed performing oral sex on men.33 Moreover, klibás came in two varieties, effeminate and masculine, with the effeminate klibás imitating women in everything including clothing and speech, while the masculine klibás "kept their practices secret."34 Klibás were known to have intercourse with female prostitutes if they wanted to "pass for male."35

     In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer asserts that eunuchs by nature (saris chmeh) can be cured, as opposed to man-made eunuchs (saris adam), who cannot.36  This would seem to rule out an anatomical birth defect. The later rabbis discuss how a natural eunuch can be identified, and the discussion is really quite funny. Lateness or absence of pubic hair, the fact that his urine does not form an arch, the absence of a beard, the softness of his hair, the smoothness of his skin, the lack of froth in his urine, the wateriness of his semen, the lack of fermentation of his urine, the fact that his body does not steam after bathing in the wintertime, and finally the fact that his voice is so abnormal that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or a woman: these are all the characteristics of a natural eunuch the rabbis could think of.37 None of their tests involves checking for the presence of anatomical defects in reproductive organs. In fact, the eunuch is said to produce semen, albeit watery. Moreover, the tests seem calculated to prevent the identification of any natural eunuchs. After all, whose body does not steam after a bath in the wintertime?

     The Greek fabulist Babrios relates the story of a eunuch who went to a fortune teller to ask about his prospects for having a child. The fortune teller examines the sacrificial liver and scoffs: "When I look at this, it tells me you'll be a father; but when I look into your face, you seem to be not even a male."38 The point of the fable is that eunuchs, even though effeminate, can become fathers -- in spite of popular misconceptions.

     Clement of Alexandria warned Christians against the evils of eunuch servants being placed in charge of women, because they will act as pimps for the women, and moreover, "the true eunuch is not unable, but unwilling to have sex."39 In other words, the women might get the eunuchs to sleep with them, as seen in Juvenal40  and Martial41 and at the beginning of the Arabian Nights.42

     The astrologer Firmicus Maternus said that "if the Moon is with Venus in earth signs, and Venus exchanges terms with Saturn, still with the influence of Jupiter lacking, eunuchs will be produced, but they will have intercourse with women."43

     Japanese author Taisuke Mitamura mentioned that some Chinese eunuchs tried to regain their male powers:

               "There were also bold eunuchs who tried to regain sexual potency. Eunuch Lao Ts'ai
               whose name was cursed by the people of Fukien Province because he was extremely
               harsh in collecting taxes, illustrates this. At the advice of a necromancer, he reportedly
               killed virgin boys and ate their brains in a desperate attempt to reproduce his genitals.
               This method was apparently popular among eunuchs of high rank, for ... arch-villian
               Wei Chung Hsien did the same after executing seven criminals."

Such a practice is bizarre enough without the characterization of its motive, namely that he wanted to "reproduce" his genitals. This may be more an illustration of ignorance, either on the part of Mitamura or of Pomeroy the translator, about what constituted a eunuch. If I could look at the original text, I might well find it says something like "in an attempt to enliven his genitals" or something similar. To a believer in magic, a mysterious affliction like impotency would seem much more amenable to cure than an anatomical mutilation. For example, the Atharvaveda gives various methods using herbs and incantations for curing impotency or causing it in a rival.45

     Citing a late nineteenth century article on Chinese eunuchs by G. Carter Stent, Mitamura also notes that:

               "There was a distinction between those who were deprived of their sex in childhood and
               those who gave it up in their manhood. The latter were called ching or cheng, both words
               meaning 'pure of body,' and the former were called t'ung cheng, which meant 'pure from
               birth.' Favored by the court ladies, the t'ung cheng had no work assigned to them and
               behaved like young girls."

If the t'ung cheng were castrated little boys, then far from acting like young girls, I would think they would behave like depressed trauma victims. I also fail to see why they would be called pure from birth. Modern mistranslations and misinterpretations in texts involving eunuchs are rampant, as I discovered in my research. This is why I always look at primary source texts whenever possible. What is most interesting here is that the Chinese also conceived of a born eunuch.

     In his article "Chinese Eunuchs" (p. 177), Stent says the t'ung cheng are "boys who are made eunuchs when under ten years of age." Accordingly, he translates t'ung cheng as "thoroughly pure" rather than "pure from birth." I do not speak Chinese and cannot judge which translation is more literally correct, but I do give Mitamura more credit than the late nineteenth-century British colonialist, who had claimed at the start of his essay that "eunuchs are only to be found in eastern despotic countries, the enlightening influence of Christianity preventing such unnatural proceedings being practiced in the countries which profess it." His perhaps willful ignorance of Christian history shows Stent to be unreliable as an interpreter. In any case, even Stent notes that the t'ung cheng "are supposed to be free from the least licentiousness -- even in thought; -- in fact, they are considered to be devoid of all feeling of that kind whatever."

 Go on to Section 2: Eunuchs Have No Lust for Women -- Table of Contents -- Home



21 Digest, Book XXIII 3.39.1. Latin: "Si spadoni mulier nubserit, distinguendum arbitror, castratus fuerit necne, ut in castrato dicas dotem non esse: in eo qui castratus non est, quia est matrimonium, et dos et dotis actio est." For English translations of Roman and Byzantine laws, see Samuel Parsons Scott, The Civil Law, 17 volumes in 7, New York: AMS Press, 1973; or Theodor Mommsen, Paul Krueger, and Alan Watson, eds., The Digest of Justinian, Philadelphia, 1985.

22 Digest, Book XXI 1.6.2. Latin: "Spadonem morbosum non esse neque vitiosum verius mihi videtur, sed sanem esse, sicuti illum, qui unum testiculum habet, qui etiam generare potest."

23 Digest, Book XXI 1.7. Latin: "Sin autem quis ita spado est, ut tam necessaria pars corporis et penitus absit, morbosus est."

24 Digest, Book L 16.28. Latin: "Spadonum generalia appellatio est: quo nomine tam hi, qui natura spadones sunt, item thlibiae thlasiae, sed et si quod aliud genus spadonum est, continentur."

25 Maass, ibid., pp. 450-452.

26 Digest, Book XLVIII 8.5. Latin: "Hi quoque, qui thlibias faciunt ... in eadem causa sunt, qua hi qui castrant."

27 Code of Hammurabi, §§ 187, 192, 193.

28 G.R. Driver and John C. Miles, eds., The Babylonian Laws, with translation and commentary, Vol. II, Oxford: Clarendon, 1955, pp. 74-77, 245. (Driver uses the word epicene, which is an intersexed person, for salzikrum. But I will use the phrase "male woman", as a more literal and unprejudicial translation.)

29 "Appendix 2: The Code of Hammurabi," tr. by D.D. Luckenbill, edited by E. Chiera, in John Merlin Powis Smith, The Origin and History of Hebrew Law, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931, 1960 printing.

30 Kamasutra, II 9. The German translation by Leiter and Thal, p. 78, gives: "...dieser Angehörigen des dritten Geschlechts." English: "...of these members of the third sex."

31 Doniger, ibid., p. 328.

32 Doniger, ibid., p. 220, note 203.

33 Kamasutra, II 9. "Eunuchs get particular pleasure from oral sex, as well as their livelihood." German: "Die Eunuchen finden an dem Mundkoitus ein eingebildetes Vergnügen wie ihren Lebensunterhalt."

34 Kamasutra, II 9. "Eunuchs of the masculine type keep their practices secret." German: "Die Eunuchen männlichen Typus halten ihre Praktiken geheim."

35 Kamasutra, VI 1. "Men with whom a courtisan should have intercourse only for money are the following: ... A eunuch who wants to be considered a male." German: "Männer mit denen eine Kurtisane nur wegen des Verdienstes Umgang haben soll, sind diese: ... Ein Eunuche, der für einen Vollmann gelten will."

36 Yebamoth, VIII 79b. The translation I referred to was Yebamoth, tr. by Dr. Israel W. Slotki, vol. II, London: Soncino Press, 1936.

37 Yebamoth, VIII 80b. The parallel to the saris among females is the ailonit. Her identifying marks, according to the rabbis, are: lateness or absence of pubic hair growth, lack of breasts, pain during copulation, lack of a mons veneris, and finally, the fact that her voice is so deep that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or a woman.

38 Babrios fable 54, in Babrius and Phaedrus, newly edited and translated into English by Ben Edwin Berry, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. 70-71. Greek: "hotan men taut' idô, patêr ginê, hotan de tên sên opsin, oud' anêr phainê."

39 Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, III 4.25. Greek: "Eunouchos de alêthês, ouch ho mê dunamenos, all' ho mê boulomenos philêdein." See the translation by Simon P. Wood in Christ the Educator, New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954. Anyone interested in reading some hilarious ancient expressions of homophobia will get a kick out of Clement. In Chapter 3 of Book III, Clement castigates the customs and morals of effete men who try to beautify themselves by, among other things, shaving their beards. For Greek texts of early Christian writers, see Jean Paul Migne, Patrologia Graeca. The sections of Clement which I quote herein are in volume VIII.

40 Juvenal, Satires, VI 366-380. English: "There are women who like the ineffective eunuchs because their kisses are always soft and they don't have beards and because an abortive drug is not necessary." Latin: "Sunt quas eunuchi inbelles ac mollia semper oscula delectent et desperatio barbae et quod abortivo non est opus." These stereotypes about eunuchs (and gay men) as being beardless and sterile persist to this day. A biology teacher in high school told me and my classmates that a lack of male hormones would make a man "fruity."

41 Martial VI 67. English: "You ask, Pannychus, while your Celia has so many eunuchs? Celia wants to have sex without appearing to." Latin: "Cur tantum eunuchos habeat tua Caelia quaeritis, Pannyche? Futui velut Caelia nec parere."

42 In the first chapter of the Arabian Nights, the brother of a king witnesses from a window twenty slaves in women's clothing, ten white and ten black, remove their clothing to reveal ten black men and ten white women, who begin having sex; meanwhile the king's wife begins having sex with a black slave as well. The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1990, p. 5.

43 Julius Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, VII 25.17. Translated in Ancient Astrology: Theory and Practice = Matheseos libri VIII, translated by Jean Rhys Bram, Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1975.

44 Taisuke Mitamura, Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics, tr. by Charles A. Pomeroy, Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle Co., 1970, p. 123.

45 Book VI 138. Atharva-Veda Samhita, tr. by William Dwight Whitney, vol. I, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962, p. 384. "Thou art listened to, O herb, as the most best of plants; make thou now this man for me impotent (klibá), opaça-wearing.  [The opaçá is some head-ornament worn distinctively by women.]" Also in VII 90: "Hew on, after ancient fashion, as it were the knot of a creeper; destroy the potency of the barbarian. We, by Indra's aid, will share among us that collected treasure of his. By Varuna's law, I enfeeble the vigour of thy member. So that the penis may go off, and may not be enjoying among women, of one who is not at ease, confounded with trouble, peg-like, penetrating. What is stretched up, that do thou stretch down." And for regaining virility, see IV 4 : "Here we dig thee, a penis-erecting herb! For Varuna whose virility was lost the Gandharva dug thee. Let the Dawn be up, up be the Sun, and let these words of mine be up. Let the virile Creator, the bull, be up with invigorating energy. As art thou [the patient] being healed up, forsooth this (penis) stirs as if heated (with passion) -- more full of energy than that let this herb make for thee. Let it (the penis) be up, (in the name of) the potency of herbs -- the quintessence of bulls; O Indra, do thou put together in this person the virility of men. Thou art (the plant) the first-born sap of the waters, likewise of the forest tress; also Soma's brother art thou; also virility art thou of the stag. I make thy penis taut, like a bow-string on a bow; ride, as thou wert a stag a doe, always unrelaxingly. Now, Agni! now, Savitar! now, goddess Sarasvati! now, Brahmanaspati! make (this) member taut like a bow. O body-charming (herb)! do thou put in this person the vigours what are of the horse, of the mule, of the he-goat and of the ram, moreover of the bull." The translations of the last two citations came from Dr. P.K. Agrawala, tr., The Unknown Kamasutras, Varanasi: Books Asia, 1983, pp. 219-223.

46 Mitamura, p. 37. The article is G. Carter Stent, "Chinese Eunuchs," in Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series No. 11, Shanghai, 1877, pp. 143-184.