They’re a strange bunch of guys, eunuchs. You don’t come across many these days. At least I don’t, in fact, I don’t come across any. But historically, I’m told, there were lots of them. Enough for eunuchs to be a cultural group, to have their own community.
So I search the Web, and what the hell do I know? There’s a whole subculture out there. Men who have been surgically castrated; not because anyone forced it cruelly upon them, but because it’s what they wanted. Some sites claim it’s a fetish. (The Eunuch Archive), others that it’s BME. Body Modification Ezine. This can be anything from tattoos and simple piercing, to castration.
It’s strange to me. But that doesn’t mean to say it’s wrong.
I’m recalling reading Mary Renault’s wonderful book; THE PERSIAN BOY. Must be 30 years since I took it off the shelf. Renault writes beautifully about Bagoas, a boy taken, during a raid on his home, and castrated. Bagoas’ sublime beauty is his salvation, and eventually he becomes Alexander’s (as in Alexander the Great) boy. Okay it’s a romanticized version of a barbaric practice, but it works because of Renault’s dedicated research into the period, her convincing delineation of character and her driven narrative. She knows how to tell a story.
Then recently, I came across Anne Rice’s CRY TO HEAVEN. This is set in 18th century Venice; a time of decadence and opulence. Tonio is the mysterious singer with the beautiful voice. He serenades Venice in the moonlight. One day his voice will crack and break; Tonio knows this. It is what he expects. But his life changes when he is taken from his home and he is castrated. It is Tonio’s voice that is his salvation and he becomes the most famous Castrati of his day. All right, another romanticized version of cruel events, but like Mary Renault, Anne Rice, diligently researches her subject. Her carefully crafted images, of Tonio’s haunting voice fill the pages. The loss was worth it for Tonio, as he takes vengeance on the man responsible for his brutalisation.
I listened to some castrati singing the other day. It’s chilling and haunting; quite, quite beautiful. It’s available on cd. Alessandro Moreshi. Born 1858. The only Castrato singer to make a sound recording.
A eunuch is a castrated man, in particular one castrated early enough to have major hormonal consequences; the term usually refers to those castrated in order to perform a specific social function, as was common in many societies of the past. The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagash in the twenty first century BC. Over the millennia since, they have performed a wide variety of functions in many different cultures such as: courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, government officials, military commanders, and guardians of women or harem servants. In some translations of ancient texts, individuals identified as eunuchs sometimes historically included men who were impotent with women, as well as those who were celibate.
A castrato is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voice produced by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.
Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice, as well as higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male.