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Kuelfer: The Practice of Self-Castration in Early Christianity

[Dr. Matt Kuelfer. This is posted without permission because it is no longer online. If Dr. Kuelfer objects, I'll gladly remove it. See Information on Re-publishing. See also our section on Eunuchs.]

Note: the information for this paper was taken from my book, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago, 2001). For notes on sources and further detailed discussions, please refer to the book, especially chapter 8.

Let me begin with an exegetical problem: what did Jesus mean when he recommended to his followers that they "make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"? For most, the solution seems simple enough: self-castration here means avoidance of marriage, particularly, the sexual aspects of marriage. This is entirely possible, since the recommendation comes at the end of a lengthy set of problems related to marriage, problems troubling enough that one of the disciples pronounces in desperation: "Then surely it is better to avoid marriage altogether," which prompts Jesus' reply that:

There are eunuchs born that way from their mother's womb, there are eunuchs made so by men and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.

Now I'm not going to attempt to argue biblical interpretation with a group of scholars and students far more skilled in it than I am. Let me simply say — as I say to those of my students who tell me that they believe only in a literal interpretation of the Bible — that Christians have for so long favored a metaphorical interpretation of the passage that its literal meaning seems absurd, far-fetched, improbable. What I am going to argue today, using my skills as a historian, is that early Christians — many? a few? — understood the passage literally, and castrated themselves as followers of Jesus, because they understood it as a religious imperative: a difficult one, a radical one, but an urgent one nonetheless. "Let anyone accept this who can."

Beyond that simple historial argument, I will try to demonstrate three additional things. First, that those who interpreted this recommendation of Jesus literally condemned during the patristic period, when conservative intellectuals took control of the Christian religion and adapted it to their own cultural concerns. Second, that a "eunuch theology" such as that which might be reconstructed historically from the fragmentary evidence of the practice might still be used by Christians as part of a queer theology of gender erasure. And third, that the image of self-castration remained a popular one, and continued in the Christian tradition long after its official condemnation.

So let's begin. On the one hand, the statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew seems like so many other hyperbolic statements recorded there: "let the dead bury their dead," "if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off," "do not worry about tomorrow," "call no man father," and so on. The Matthean community obviously remembered a frankly spoken Jesus. The hyperbole behind "castrating oneself for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" — and the Greek here is clear, using eunuchizo — can be placed alongside these other instances. But the other two types of eunuchs — those born that way and those castrated by men — seem intended to be understood literally, so it seems odd that the third type should be understood in a different way; already in the second century Origen of Alexandria pointed out this discrepancy.

Perhaps it might help to consider the immediate context of the statement, although we all know that Matthew felt free to improvise in rearranging incidents from the life of Jesus. What does it mean that the recommendation follows on a discussion of marriage? The Mishnah, the origins of which can be dated roughly to the time of Jesus, preserves similar debates about the obligations of marriage, and includes lengthy discussions of the propriety of eunuchs marrying, as well as on the judging of sexual maturity and sufficient sexual development in males. So the avoidance of marriage by "eunuchs born that way from their mother's womb" and "eunuchs made so by men" is remarkably close to the early rabbis' concerns. But no mention is made in the Mishnah of voluntary eunuchs, nor in the Talmudic extensions of the Mishnah's commentary, so it seems that Jesus' proposal was one not shared by the other teachers of his day.

Perhaps other Biblical passages might shed some light on how to understand or at least contextualize the statement. There are many references to eunuchs in the Bible. For example, there are several brief mentions of eunuch servants acting as administrators in the royal households of the ancient kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean. The famous Potiphar, whose servant Joseph was in Egypt, was called a eunuch (saris in Hebrew), a fact which perhaps somewhat excuses the behavior of his wife. There are lots of others mentioned. More interesting is a passage from Isaiah:

Let no eunuch say: "And I, I am a dried-up tree." For Yahweh says this: To the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths, and resolve to do what pleases me and cling to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall never be effaced.

Again, I am no Biblical scholar, but these words would seem comforting indeed to a people returning from exile in Babylon, where male slaves were regularly castrated. It is interesting that the Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in Acts was said to have been reading Isaiah just before he was baptized by Philip: a figure of some interest and to whom I will return later.

I'm not sure that there is enough to go on, to really make sense of this passage. So let's turn to the historical context, to the Roman Empire and the place of eunuchs in it, as discussed in my book. Eunuchs were commonplace throughout the Roman Empire, it is clear from numerous sources. Noble households had "crowds of eunuchs," "armies of eunuchs," and "troops of eunuchs," according to the Christian writer Jerome. Now Jerome was writing in the fourth century, but I have seen little to indicate that the situation was much different in earlier centuries. Already in the third century, according to another source, the emperor Aurelian had "limited the possession of eunuchs to those who had a senator's ranking, for the reason that they had reached inordinate prices" because of their popularity. In the noble households of Rome, as in the imperial household and in the royal households of the kingdoms absorbed by Rome, eunuchs served as personal attendants to men and women. A sampling of comments describes their roles: of the imperial eunuchs, it is said that "they are go-betweens, often delivering messages"; of one eunuch slave to a noblewoman, it is said that he "would comb his mistress' locks or stand... holding a silver vessel wherein [she] could wash herself... [or] fanning her with bright peacock feathers." Eunuchs might act as investigators of a potential bride's virginity, or carry noblewomen about in public on litters. But they might also be promoted to high political office, and indeed, a eunuch was made consul in 399. Again, most of the sources I used in my book were third- to fifth-century sources, but I saw little in the evidence I read that the situation in the eastern Mediterranean had been much different two centuries earlier. So depending on how cosmopolitan were the circles in which Jesus traveled, he might have known eunuchs; he almost certainly knew of them, and drew on them when referring to "eunuchs made so by men."

More interesting for our discussion today were those eunuchs "who made themselves eunuchs for the sake" — well, not of heaven in a Jewish sense, but of heaven in the form of a goddess. I am referring to the galli or galloi, known also from countless historical sources, the eunuch followers of a range of fertility goddesses in the ancient Mediterranean. Countless sources, yes; transparent sources, no. The sources we have for the self-castration of the galli come from a variety of independent accounts, so they are reliable in a general sense, but some of the accounts are hostile and others are ignorant, so they are not so reliable in specific details. Here is what I have reconstructed from the records I have used and from the work of other scholars: the galli, whose name is given several different origins, were men who castrated themselves in honor of a fertility goddess. That goddess is most often referred to as Cybele/Kubala, a Phrygian goddess who may have Hittite origins, but she is also referred to by a host of other names, including as the Mother of the Gods (Mater Deum), as the Great Mother (Magna Mater), and as the Heavenly One (Caelestis). She was identified with many goddesses, especially Aphrodite and Isis. She had a consort: often named Attis, but also called Adonis and Osiris. In the syncretic religious atmosphere of late antiquity, it was common to associate gods and goddesses of different cultural origins together as variant names for the same beings, which probably explains the confusion of names.

The earliest detailed reference to the eunuch priests is from Syria in the second century C. E. Its author, called Pseudo-Lucian, says that the goddess worshipped might be Aphrodite, or Rhea, or Isis, or Hera, an uncertainty that does not inspire confidence in what he has to say. Still, he describes what he saw:

On appointed days, the crowd assembles at the sanctuary while many galli ... perform the rites. They cut their arms and beat one another on the back. Many stand about them playing flutes, while many others beat drums. Still others sing inspired and sacred songs ... On these days, too, men become galli. For while the rest are playing flutes and performing the rites, frenzy comes upon many, and many who have come simply to watch subsequently perform this act. I will describe what they do. The youth for whom these things lie in store throws off his clothes, rushes to the center with a great shout and takes up a sword ... He grabs it and immediately castrates himself. Then he rushes through the city holding in his hands the parts he has cut off. He takes female clothing and women's adornment from whatever house he throws these parts into. This is what they do at the Castration.

Other sources confirm the frenzied rituals of self-castration. If any historical pattern fits better the context for "eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," I don't know it. Had Jesus witnessed similar rituals and been impressed by the radical self-sacrifice of the galli? Had the Matthean author? We'll probably never know, although Eusebius complained in the early fourth century that the galli had a shrine at Bethlehem. Even if there was no shrine, however, the galli were known as itinerants, wandering from town to town, spreading their religious message — not unlike Jesus' own followers.

It isn't necessary to accept my view that Jesus' statement is a reference to the galli. Whatever the original meaning, the fact remains that some of the followers of Jesus, living in an environment where men castrated themselves as a religious sacrifice, interpreted the words of Jesus as a command to do the same. Again, the records are plentiful. The earliest reference to self-castration by Christians come from Justin Martyr in the mid-second century. Writing at Rome, Justin mentioned without further comment an unnamed Alexandrian Christian who sought government permission to have himself castration. (Such permission was officially necessary, since castration was illegal within the Roman Empire, although the rituals of the galli seem flagrant violations of the law, as do the "swarms" of eunuchs even in the imperial household.) The Traditio Apostolica attributed to Hippolytus of Rome and dating from the early third century also mentioned Christian men who castrated themselves but ordered them to be removed from the community of Christians, a statement that assumed them to be already present in the community. At the ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, the first official declaration ordered the removal from clerical office of men who castrated themselves. (Note that the canon assumed that such men existed; note also that it did not prohibit self-castration to all Christian men but only to priests.) Probably the most famous self-made eunuch in early Christianity was Origen of Alexandria. Eusebius wrote that

He committed an act characteristic of an immature and youthful mind, yet, notwithstanding, including abundant proof of faith and self-control. For he took the words, "There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven," in too literal and extreme a sense, thinking ... to fulfill the words of the Savior.

Jerome wrote of Origin: "So much did he flee from pleasure, that, with zeal for God but not with proper understanding, he cut off his genitals with a knife."

All of this is evidence perhaps of individuals understanding the words of Jesus in a literal sense, but there also a record of larger numbers of men practicing self-castration. Epiphanius of Salamis, who was instrumental in the posthumous disrepute of Origen, condemned a group of Christian men, whom he called Valesians, for the practice of self-castration. Augustine of Hippo repeated the sect in his listing of Christian heresies, without providing further details except to say that they "wrongly thought they served God in this way." More curious is the group called the Naassenes mentioned by Hippolytus of Rome, who were said to worship Attis, the god of the galli, alongside Christ, although castration is not mentioned. It has even been suggested by one scholar that the Montanus, the founder of the Montanist Christians, was a converted gallus — and Tertullian, who converted to Montanism, is the only patristic writer who ever referred to Jesus as a eunuch.

There is even perhaps indirect evidence of a more general practice of self-castration. In the third century, Minucius Felix wrote: "He whose shameful parts are cut off, how greatly does he wrong God!" but added with regret that "the very multitude of those who err affords to each of them mutual support." In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan also condemned self-castration, oddly enough in a treatise on Christian widowhood. Among his comments:

There are eunuchs who have castrated themselves ... [but] by will and not by necessity; and therefore great is the grace of continence in them, because it is the will, not incapacity, which makes a man continent. For it is seemly to preserve the gift of divine working whole ... [Again:] The case is not the same of those who use a knife on themselves, and I touch upon this point advisedly, for there are some who look upon it as a state of virtue to restrain guilt with a knife ... but then consider whether this tends not rather to a declaration of weakness than to a reputation for strength ... [Or again:] No one, then, ought, as many suppose, to mutilate himself ... [And finally:] How can [a man] through courage of soul castrate himself?

Despite Ambrose's rejection of the arguments for self-castration, he had to admit that "many suppose" it to be a holy action. The words of both men are intriguing: did the "many" and "the multitude of those who err" refer to "many in the general population" or "a multitude of Christians"? Did "many suppose" and "the multitude who err" mean widespread support for those who castrated themselves, or widespread practice?

Patristic writers also conceded the existence of the practice when commenting on other Biblical passages. John Cassian in fifth-century Gaul argued against a literal interpretation of Matthew's "if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off": "The blessed Apostle is not forcing us by a cruel command to cut off our hands or our feet or our genitals; He desires, rather, that the body of sin ... be destroyed as quickly as possible by a zeal for perfect holiness." Valerian of Cimelium, also in fifth-century Gaul, used a different tack: to castrate oneself was to violate God, because it was "to maim a human body, which He made to His own image." Even Biblical passages that referred to "girding the loins" were explained to avoid interpreting them as advocating castration. Jerome wrote:

"With your loins girt," Scripture says, and to the Apostles Christ gives the command: "Let your loins be girt about..." John [the Baptist], too, wore a leather girdle about his loins; and there was nothing soft or effeminate in Elijah either, but every bit of him was hard and virile (he certainly was a hairy man); he, too, is described as having worn a girdle of leather about his loins.

All of these writers, it might be argued, were responding to now lost interpretations that supported the practice of self-castration among Christians.

Every one of the Church fathers who spoke on self-castration spoke to condemn it. As I argue in my book, they were working hard to demonstrate the manliness of Christianity within a traditional Roman framework, for the purpose of attracting converts from the male aristocracy, and self-castration did not support that agenda. Nonetheless, most betray a begruding admiration for the goals of self-made eunuchs: after all, virtually all of the Church fathers were also encouraging men to renounce sex, even while they preferred that it was done, as Ambrose said, "by will" rather than "by necessity." Tertullian, in the same treatise, could both ridicule self-castration by saying: "Can anyone ... be called abstinent when deprived of that which he is called to abstain from?" but also praise those persons, "both men and women, whom nature has made sterile, with a structure which cannot procreate," seeing them as a foretaste of the absence of sexual desire in Heaven. Jerome, while discounting the "girding of the loins" as support for castration, also wrote that "all the Devil's strength is in the loins." In each, an awkward support for the end of castration is joined to a condemnation of the means.

The ambivalent position of the Church fathers is seen especially in a story told by John Cassian to his monastic community in southern Gaul, part of his recollections to the monks of the time he spent in Egypt, wandering among the early monks there, and the lessons he learned. He told of a monk, named Serenus, who claimed to have been castrated by an angel sent by God:

There came to him an angel in a vision of the night. He seemed to open his belly, pull out a kind of fiery tumor from his bowels, cast it away, and restore all his entrails to their original place. "Behold," he said, "the impulses of your flesh have been cut out, and you should know that today you have obtained that perpetual purity of body which you have faithfully sought.

Cassian seemed uncomfortable with the story: "Let it suffice to say briefly," he added, "that this came from the grace of God, which was bestowed on the man in question in a remarkable way." Even then, Cassian added that what was most praiseworthy about the man was that he had not acted on his own to effect such a transformation, "believing that God could far more easily uproot the urges of the flesh that human skill is unable to draw out either by potions or medicines or surgical instruments." In the hands of Cassian, then, a legend that might have lent support to the practice of self-castration was used to argue against it.

Even through the universal disapproval of self-castration, glimpses can be seen of what might have been an articulated defence of the practice. By reassembling these fragments, I believe that it might be possible to reconstruct a "eunuch theology" of sorts. Certainly such a theology would have made frequent appeal to the Biblical passages that presented eunuchs in a positive light: Matthew and Isaiah, foremost, but perhaps also the "girding of the loins" of John the Baptist and Elijah, and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.

Beyond that, advocates of Christian self-castration might have relied on a range of metaphors, drawn from their contemporary society, to augment that positive image. Eunuchs served as servants in imperial and noble households; and that service might be used to paint a brighter picture of eunuchs. Peter Chrysologus, in fifth-century Italy, used that very metaphor when talking about chastity. "As unwilling chastity is called to the court of the king," in physical eunuchs, so too is called "voluntary and vowed chastity to the glory of the heavenly court" in spiritual eunuchs. Had he borrowed this image from advocates of self-castration? The image of the faithful servant might also have called to mind numerous Biblical passages, and all patristic writers had developed the related themes of humility and servitude as being the appropriate attitude of all Christians.

The voluntary castration of the galli might also have been used in developing a Christian theology of castration. Prudentius, writing in the fifth century, made disdainful references to the pagan cult:

There are rites in which you mutilate yourselves and maim your bodies to make an offering of the pain ... and it is the barbarity of the wounds that earn heaven. Another makes the sacrifice of his genitals; appeasing the goddess by mutilating his loins, he unmans himself and offers her a shameful gift; the source of the man's seed is torn away to give her food and increase through the flow of blood.

Interestingly, Prudentius placed these words in the mouth of the Christian martyr Romanus. But martyrdom was a sacrifice of blood, too, one in which "the barbarity of the wounds" was felt to "earn heaven," and one greatly admired by all Christians, even if few were brave enough to undergo it. Prudentius implied a sharp contrast between the pagan sacrifice of castration and the Christian sacrifice of martyrdom in these words, but it is possible that others noted the similarities rather than the differences between the two.

The final and by far the most common metaphor used when talking about Christian eunuchs in late antiquity, however, is one of gender ambiguity. In part, this stems from a profound belief in Mediterranean societies that eunuchs has ceased to be men. The fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, for example, described castration as "laying violent hands ... upon nature and wresting her from her ordained course." The author of the Historia Augusta referred to eunuchs as "a third sex" or "third type of human being." The poet Claudius Mamertinus elegantly described eunuchs as "exiles from the society of the human race, belonging neither to one sex nor the other." More rancorously, the poet Claudian called one eunuch "you whom the male sex has discarded and the female will not adopt." This belief in eunuchs' gender ambiguity explains why they were so often used in households and were able to associate freely with both men and women.

This gender ambiguity was especially used to understand the nature of the galli. Recall that Pseudo-Lucian thought that the galli adopted women's clothing and women's roles. Countless other writers, both pagan and Christian, make the same point. Apuleius, the second-century author of The Golden Ass, had the galli call each other "girl" when by themselves. Augustine ridiculed the "amputation of virility" that occurred in the cult, since "the sufferer was neither changed into a woman nor allowed to remain a man." The most hostile source was Firmicus Maternus, a fourth-century convert himself from paganism, who denounced the cult of Caelestis at length:

Tell me, is air a divinity if it looks for a woman in a man, if its band of priests can minister to it only when they have feminized their faces, rubbed smooth their skin, and disgraced their manly sex by donning women's regalia? ... They nurse their tresses and pretty them up woman-fashion; they dress in soft garments; they can hardly hold their heads erect on their languid necks... What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is all this? They say they are not men, and indeed they aren't; they want to pass as women, but whatever the nature of their bodies is, it tells a different story.

Again, these are definitely hostile sources, but I do not think that the attribution of gender ambiguity comes only from the opponents of self-castration.

There was a lengthy if somewhat unclear tradition of gender ambiguity from earliest Christianity in the east, as is increastingly well known. It begins among the earliest Christian statements recorded, attributed to Paul but perhaps only quoted by him: "All baptized in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus." It seems that already by the second century some communities of Christians were elaborating the theme of the genderless life in Christ through complex cosmologies of divine androgyny and gender ambiguity. The loss of primordial androgyny may have also been part of early Christian interpretations of the legend of Adam and Eve, when a single human being was split into two sexes. Often, it must be said, femininity is particularly linked to a loss of original innocence and to sin, not only in the story of Eve but in the Gnostic myth of Sophia and elsewhere. Still, given the prevailing gender ideology that understood women's nature as weakness and vice, the possibility that women might abdicate their feminine identity might be understood as an attractive one. In any case, the many legends of women who entered monasteries disguised as men — or rather, often disguised as eunuchs — if true, offered an opportunity for women to surmount the restrictions placed on them by their limited roles, and if not true, at least offered an opportunity to imagine the surmounting of them. One legend, that of Eugenia, relates: "So great is the virtue of His name, that even women ... might obtain a masculine dignity. Not that either sex can be said to be superior in faith, since the apostle Paul ... says that with the Lord there is no difference between male and female, but all of us are one in Christ."

Much scholarly work has been done in understanding the advantages that such a genderless ideology presented to women, as well as its disadvantages. But little has as yet been done in advancing the advantages and disadvantages presented to men. Mostly ignored, for example, were the legends of men who dressed as women, such as that told by Ambrose: A soldier entered a brothel in which a Christian virgin had just been imprisoned. When he went into her cell, though, he revealed that he was a Christian and they exchanged clothing so that she could escape. The next man to arrive exclaimed: "I had heard but believed not that Christ changed water into wine; now He has begun also to change the sexes!" The martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, sentenced to public humiliation by being paraded through the streets in women's clothing, recited this prayer: "Putting off the form of the old man ... we rejoice in you, Lord, because you have clothed us with the garment of salvation, and have covered us with the robe of righteousness; as brides you have decked us with women's gowns."

What I believe is that Christian eunuchs made full use of this tradition of a genderless ideal in understanding themselves. Some might have seen themselves as reflecting a cosmic androgyny. "At the resurrection men and women do not marry," Matthew had Jesus say, but "are like the angels in heaven." Jerome replied: "Just as among angels there is neither male nor female, so let us also, who shall be as angels, begin to be right now on earth what has been promised shall be in heaven." Jerome meant chastity when he said that, but others might have felt that they lived the vita angelica through self-castration. Some, expanding upon the myth of Adam and Eve, might have seen themselves as helping to restore humanity to a primordial integrity, before its loss and before the fall into sin. Above all, eunuchs might have felt that they embodied the Pauline phrase of unity in Christ, not only bearing in themselves the "no more male or female," but, since most eunuchs were slaves, the "no more slave or free," and since circumcision was precluded for a man without genitals, also the "no more Jew or Greek." The Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip may well have figured prominently in such an understanding of self, since his status as a eunuch, as a royal official, and as an Ethiopian offered an example of each type of the unity promised by Paul.

This reconstruction is speculative, to be sure, and there are no indications, except in the mouths of opponents, that such a eunuch theology ever existed. But in a treatise addressed to monks, Augustine offered an intriguing rebuttal to what can only have been a developed exegetical tradition. Here the issue is not self-castration, although the metaphor is used, but the wearing of long hair by monks, in defiance of Paul's precept that it was a disgrace for a man to have long hair:

How lamentably ridiculous is that other argument, if it can be called such, which they have brought forward in defense of their long hair. They say that the Apostle forbade men to wear their hair long, but, they argue, those who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven are no longer men. O astonishing madness! ... They have heard, or at least have read, what was written: "For all you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female." Yet they do not know that this was said according to the concupiscence of carnal sex ... Therefore, let them not deny that holy people are men because they do nothing of a sexual nature.

Augustine added that the monks willingly assumed the disgrace of long hair as penance for their sins. Was this group of men truly relinquishing their masculine identity as part of their entrance into monastic life? Augustine seems clearly to denounce an articulated position: "how ... ridiculous is that other argument, if it can be called such, which they have brought forward." If masculine renunciation formed part of the understanding of this group of Christian men, could it have done so for others, as groups or as individuals?

Might a masculine renunciation have formed part of the consciousness of even conservative intellectuals in late ancient Christianity? This is part of what I argue in my book: that the image of the "bride of Christ," borrowed from Jewish commentary on the Song of Songs, offered such an opportunity. The first known Christian use of the bridal metaphor, notably, comes from the eunuch Origen of Alexandria's treatise on the Song of Songs. The most famous proponent of the bridal metaphor was Ambrose of Milan, however, who referred to it in practically all of his extant writings. His use of the image was often strikingly erotic; in his treatise on the soul, he wrote: "She [the bride of Christ, the soul] either rested in Christ or reclined upon Him or even — since I am speaking of marriage — ... she was led to the bridal bed by the bridegroom." "Open to me," Christ said to his bride, "and I will fill you." Frequently, though, Ambrose identifies himself as that same bride; indeed, many others of the Church fathers also represented themselves as the brides of Christ. Augustine regretted in his Confessions not waiting for "the bridegroom of my soul" when he abandoned the Catholic religion of his mother for heresy. And Jerome wrote of himself: "I used to lie at Jesus' feet; I bathed them with my tears, I wiped them with my hair," comparing himself to the repentant prostitute, already identified in late antiquity with Mary Magdalen, who was also often mentioned in the "bride of Christ" descriptions.

That even the most conservative of patristic writers — and here I place Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome — might view themselves as brides of Christ says something of the power of the genderless ideal in early Christianity. Each of these writers also identified himself as a eunuch, borrowing the metaphor even while condemning the practice. "Necessity makes another man a eunuch," Jerome stated in one letter, "my will makes me one." In the same passage, he added: "My seed is a hundred times more fertile," relating his childlessness both to the parable of the sower, but also reminding his readers of the effects of his spiritual castration.

So strong was the image of castration in the early Christian tradition that, even after the practice of self-castration was eliminated — and I have found no evidence for it after the fifth century — the metaphor remained. It is seen in Byzantine writings especially, where even the highest churchmen might be eunuch servants and officials who had worked their way up through the ranks. In the west, the ordination of eunuchs was prohibited by church law by the twelfth century, on the Deuteronomic precedent that "no man with crushed testicles may serve before the Lord." But in the writings of churchmen, the image remained. Guibert of Nogent repeated a legend, found in other sources, that told of a man who decided to go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to do penance for his sins of lust. On the way, the devil appeared to him in the form of St. James, and recommended to the man that he castrate himself, which he did, only to learn that he had been deceived. Interesting that by the twelfth century, self-castration had become diabolical rather than divine. But even in the earliest life of St. Thomas Aquinas, from the late thirteenth century, the idea of castration continued. Thomas is said to have been visited by angels in the night, who bound his loins so tightly that he cried out, but was never again troubled by lust. There are at least a dozen such eunuch stories in medieval saints' lives.

Even after the Middle Ages, self-castration returned from time to time. Men of the skoptzy movement of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russia castrated themselves, believing still to fulfill the command of Jesus. And most of the male members of the Heaven's Gate cult, found dead in their San Diego home in 1995, had been surgically castrated. Their leaders seem with clothing and hairstyles to have encouraged a genderless existence.

There are lots of other things about eunuchs and the Christian tradition I might say. For example, I believe that the passage in Paul's Letter to the Romans where he condemns same-sex sexual activity is a reference to the galli, since they also engaged in sacred prostitution, and that the "recompense in their own bodies" refers to castration. I also believe that the ancient Hebrews had a cultic practice similar to the galli, in the qedeshim or "holy ones," mentioned in several texts, and that the Deuteronomic prohibition on eunuchs "serving before the Lord" is a response to that practice. I might add that these cultic eunuchs were also known as "dogs," (kelebhim in Hebrew, kynes in Greek) and that this is why the Book of Revelation lists "dogs" among those who would be denied entrance into heaven, and why Paul tells the Philippians to "beware of dogs!" in a discussion of circumcision. I go into greater detail on these subjects in my book, and on all that I have talked about today, but would be happy to talk a bit about them here, if you are interested. But I am curious to find out what your reaction to my words is, and so perhaps I'll end now so that we have lots of time to discuss. And I thank you again for listening to me.


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