Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 246-248
[Access article in PDF]
Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History. By Piotr O. Scholz. Translated by John A. Broadwin And Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton: Marcus Weiner Publishers, 2001. xii + 327 pp. $44.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).
German cultural historian Piotr O. Scholz has written an interesting and unusual book documenting the presence and contributions of a little regarded group of historical figures. In Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, Scholz seeks to provide his audience with more than a titillating read on the sexual practices of the ancients. Rather, the author intends to bring to light a previously disregarded and shrouded group of people who, he says, represent "a multiplicity of human behavioral patterns that reflect every aspect of good and evil" (p. x). In light of their historical absence, Scholz wishes to acquaint his readers with an array of human sexualities—homosexuality, androgyny, transsexualism, and transvestism, for instance—placing them within their historical, religious, and social contexts, or "life settings" as others have termed such contexts. Undeniably, however, as the title of the book makes clear, this work situates a particular group of men, eunuchs and castrati, at the center of a primarily religious and political life within a more global context than perhaps previously considered. Bringing to bear an innovative set of methodologies used to interpret art and archaeology, ancient biblical and mythological texts, Scholz's work ultimately attests to the existence of a richer and more complex set of social systems at play in the ancient and modern worlds.
At the outset, Scholz seeks to clarify the distinction between men called eunuchs from those termed castrati. Although the two terms are often equated, there is, as Scholz explains, "no inherent reason why a eunuch has to be a castrato" (p. vii). Indeed, we learn that in the ancient Middle East, as well as in Islamic Ethiopia and in Muslim India during the Mughal Empire, eunuchs were not always castrati. Rather, eunuchism is first understood within a political context of sacred kingship and is derived in ancient Semitic or biblical culture, at least—and thus in Western thinking—from those courtly administrators who may or may not have been castrated. As a precaution against such men of high rank or against other royal "pretenders" usurping the reigns of ultimate power, Scholz finds that a more "humane" solution than death was to castrate the would-be usurpers in return for their lofty appointments. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably even in Scholz's work, the two do not necessarily share the same meaning, especially as they are found in more modern contexts.
In the opening chapters on sexuality and emasculation, mythological texts, and the religious and political contexts of the ancient Mediterranean [End Page 246] world, Scholz clearly sets out his project and vividly captures an ancient world replete with the many complex meanings of human sexuality and practice. In addition to the chapter on emasculation in China, these are his strongest sections. Scholz reaches back to the ancient religious beliefs and rituals of the peoples of "great civilizations" (Egypt and China, for instance) and of the more "primitive" (nonspecific shamanic cultures) to discover how and why castration became an important expression of human transcendence. However, Scholz is sure to include some of the more mundane uses for the painful practice. From the very beginning, castration was also used as a form of criminal punishment, especially for rape. Men were also castrated for political crimes and for the unfortunate consequence of ending up on the losing side of wars. Castration was even used in treating certain medical conditions. Most compelling in these early chapters is Scholz's discussion of the often self-inflicted castration of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods. Reading ancient iconography, statuary, and fragmentary creation and other mythologies, he suggests several ways in which the ideological underpinnings of the erotic, devotional, ecstatic, and sacrificial rites of castration reveal attitudes representing the connection between the divine and the human.
A vigorous trade in eunuchs and castrated boys grew up from China...