Thesis: Eunuchs are Gay Men
(with a listing of secondary sources)
by Faris Malik
One day I read in the Bible that Jesus said there were eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb.1 To my knowledge, a eunuch was a man who had been castrated, so how could he be born that way? As a translator by profession, I was aware that ideas are sometimes distorted in translation, and that this was particularly a problem in the Bible. In this case, the context was about men’s obligation to marry, and these and other kinds of eunuchs were said to be exempt. As a proud gay man and, at that time, a Christian, I was intrigued by this. Since I firmly believed (and still do) that I was born gay and that, on this basis, it would be a bad idea for me to marry a woman, it occurred to me that a so-called born eunuch might mean a gay man like myself.2
The common denominator in gay men and castrated men, which could be the basis for categorizing both groups under the term eunuch, is that neither one is suitable for marriage. This indeed was the point of the gospel verse. But in order to prove beyond a doubt that born eunuchs were gay men, I had to prove that, like gay men:
(1) born eunuchs could have complete genitals,
(2) they had no lust for women, and
(3) they had lust for men.
There is little agreement nowadays about what causes sexual orientation and what it consists of. Some say it is a matter of genetics, others that it is caused by psychological influences in early childhood. Still others say that it is fluid and changeable over the course of a person’s life. To my mind, the best way to accommodate all of these ideas within one system is to say that most people are born bisexual, but a few are not. Most of the born bisexuals learn to avoid homosexual interaction. Europeans and Americans are raised to suppress homosexual erotic impulses, and direct their sexual attention exclusively to the opposite sex, so their so-called straight orientation is a result of environmental factors, which can change over time. Some resist the indoctrination and express both sides of their sexual nature freely — these are what our society calls bisexuals. But a small percentage of people genetically just don’t have the capacity to feel attraction to the opposite sex. These are the people who say they were born gay. I am one of them. By the same token, just as few people lack the capacity to feel attraction to their own sex. In this culture, these people simply blend in with the majority.
A bisexual in my terminology is anyone who genetically is able to feel lust for men and women. This describes the majority of people. What we call a “straight person” is, in most cases, a bisexual who has been conditioned to avoid acting on his or her homosexual side. Gay people are monosexuals who are genetically unable to feel lust for their respective opposite sex. A few straights are monosexual like gays, in that they are genetically unable to feel lust for people of their own sex. I believe this inability has something to do with some people lacking sexual pheromone receptors for one sex or the other. The argument I am making in this essay is that men who were genetically unable to feel lust for women, i.e. what we call gay men today, were called eunuchs by our pre-Christian ancestors.
Almost all current dictionaries define a eunuch as a man missing a crucial part of his reproductive anatomy, either due to castration orbirth defect. But I will show in Section 1 of this essay that most so-called “eunuchs” in the ancient world were not anatomically deprived and were able to procreate. Moreover in Section 2, I show that one of the central defining characteristics of a eunuch in the ancient world was his lack of a sexual drive for women, something which is not true of castrated men. Men who lust after women will continue to do so even if they are genitally mutilated. Castration may prevent a straight man from impregnating a woman, but it will not change his desires. In Section 3, I show that eunuchs were stereotyped as lustful sex objects for men.
When I began my research back in 1991, I set out to define the category Jesus had called the “born eunuch,” which was something different from a castrated man, or “man-made eunuch.”
The oldest available version of Matthew is a translation probably from Aramaic or Hebrew into Greek,3 and the word used in the Greek translation is eunouchos, from which we get our word eunuch. The word eunouchos comes from eune (bed) and echein (to hold), and most scholars accept that it means “one who guards the bed.” But Jesus would not have used the Greek word, since he spoke Aramaic. The Hebrew and Aramaic word for eunuch is saris, an Assyrian loan word that has been interpreted to mean “at the head.”4 Neither of these etymologies ruled out my hypothesis that born eunuchs were, in general, anatomically whole like gay men. Later I learned that an ancient Syriac translation of the Bible used the word mu’omin for eunouchos and saris. Mu’omin means “person of faith” or “person of trust.”
I began a search lasting several years to find proof, either that a born eunuch was born missing some male reproductive parts, or that he simply lacked desire for women. The field of evidence I had to search through consisted of dozens, even hundreds, of ancient texts in which eunuchs were mentioned. By analyzing what each author or text said about an individual eunuch or about the category of eunuchs, I could put all the texts together and observe the common trends in the way ancient authors defined eunuchs.
An ancient Roman novel I had read in college, Petronius’s Satyricon, raised an initial theoretical problem for my thesis, however. TheSatyricon is a comic novel about two men lusting after a teenage boy. Most people today, at least in Europe and America, would identify them as gay men because of their homosexual lifestyle, but none of the main characters called themselves eunuchs. In fact, there are scads of homosexually active men throughout Greek and Roman literature who are not called eunuchs. This can be explained in two ways.
First, homosexual behavior, though disapproved of particularly for the passive partner, was tolerated a lot more in ancient Greece and Rome than it has been in modern Europe and the United States. Significant numbers of Greek and Roman men appear to have been actively bisexual: having sex with other men, but also fulfilling their marriage duties. I hear that is still the custom today in those countries. So it is possible and even likely that many younger Roman men, without actually being born gay, avoided the responsibilities of marriage by pursuing a wholly homosexual lifestyle. This would certainly fit the carefree character of the protagonists in the Satyricon. Nothing prevents bisexuals from getting married, though, so they would not be eunuchs.
On the other hand, unless you wanted a job as a domestic servant for women or at the imperial court, being known as a eunuch in Rome entailed no special advantage. On the contrary, eunuchs were ridiculed in ancient Greece and Rome like gays are today. Xenophon, the Greek historian of the fifth century BCE, wrote: “There is not a man in the world who would not think he had the right to overreach a eunuch.” So even if a man was a born eunuch (and the first-person narrator of the Satyricon does betray some anxiety about his own ability to perform with women), he might very well not want to carry that label.
The first place I looked for evidence about born eunuchs was a religious reference work called the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The article on the word eunouchos by Johannes Schneider stated that the Greek word appeared in two chapters in the New Testament, and the Hebrew word saris occurred 40 times in the Old Testament5 (which latter figure I later discovered was an underestimate). Moreover, Schneider asserted that many men were called saris in the Old Testament who were not actually eunuchs, by which he meant to say they were not castrated. Schneider also mentioned a discussion in the Talmud concerning differences between born versus man-made eunuchs.6 Of course, this was just the kind of source text I was looking for: ancient scholars arguing over what a born eunuch was. I will present and analyze the evidence that I found below, but for now I am merely retracing my steps in my research.
From Schneider I learned of an article published in Germany just before World War I, concerning the attitudes of the early church fathers to eunuchs, and their interpretations of Matthew 19:12.7 On the “eunuch” shelf at the library, I found a recent German book on eunuchs in classical Greece and Rome which provided a list of names of eunuchs. That book cited another German article concerning the wordeunouchos and related terms in secular Greek and Latin sources.8 This article referred me to a still another German article on eunuchs, with extensive references to ancient sources, in a nineteenth-century encyclopedia of classical Greek and Roman historical figures and literature.9 I compiled a list of over 500 classical references to eunuchs from these German secondary sources, and I determined to look up as many as I could get hold of.
Thank goodness, German is my second language. I could never have gotten off the ground with this project if I did not know German. Whatever else you might say about Germany, it has produced some thorough and conscientious scholars. I am grateful that some of them chose to direct their attention to eunuchs. Thank goodness, too, that I took Greek and Latin in college, and that my alma mater is U.C. Berkeley, which has one of the world’s greatest libraries and grants borrowing privileges to its alumni.
I collected references to eunuchs in the Bible using Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, finding forty-five rather than forty Old Testament verses containing the word saris,10 in addition to the two New Testament chapters referring to eunuchs.11 Later I also found eight apocryphal verses using the word eunouchos.12 I had to learn a little Hebrew to look up the Old Testament references.
None of the Bible verses indicated that eunuchs were castrated. And a verse about castration, Deuteronomy 23:1, said nothing about eunuchs. What’s more, looking in the concordance, I discovered something very strange. The King James Version translates saris variously as chamberlain, eunuch, officer, or as a proper name Rabsaris (literally “chief eunuch”). As a translator, I was appalled at the inconsistency, which to me smacked of a cover-up of some kind. I checked Martin Luther, who translated the German Bible. He was more consistent in his mistranslation, using Kämmerer or Erzkämmerer (chamberlain or head chamberlain) in every single case except Isaiah 56:3-5 and Matthew 19:12. In Matthew, Martin Luther translates the born eunuch category as “es sind etliche verschnitten, die sind aus Mutterleibe also geboren” or in English, “there are some cut (!) who are born so from their mother’s womb.” Ouch!
Schneider’s article offered an explanation, albeit somewhat implausible, for the inconsistency in translation. He said that the term sarishad a dual meaning, with the other being “palace official.” Apparently, sarisim had participated in religious rites (Jeremiah 34:19), which would be impossible if they were castrated. Deuteronomy 23:1 says castrated men cannot enter the congregation of the Lord. Therefore, modern religious scholars, assuming all eunuchs were castrated, concluded that a saris must not necessarily be a eunuch. But Isaiah 56:3-5 and Matthew 19:12 clearly imply that the procreative ability of a saris is compromised somehow. It sounds unlikely to me that a term that implies one is not fully male would also be used to cover ordinary men, especially when there were other perfectly good words for palace officials. I see no reason why those sarisim participating in religious rites could not be uncastrated, born eunuchs.
A friend of mine who studies ancient Egypt turned me on to a book about the Egyptian mythical figure Seth,13 which provided several references to articles about homosexuality and eunuchs in ancient Egypt.
Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women provided references to ancient astrologists who wrote about eunuchs and other homosexuals.14
David Greenberg’s The Construction of Homosexuality referred to a French-language article on homosexuality in an encyclopedia about the Sumero-Babylonian and Assyrian cultures.15 That and another article from the same encyclopedia, on eunuchs,16 provided important references. Greenberg’s book, an exhaustive cross-cultural history of homosexuality, also contained references to eunuchs and third-gender roles in traditional African communities which paralleled the understanding of eunuchs in ancient Middle Eastern cultures.17 [Since composing this website, I found a great new book on Africa edited by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.]
In addition, while studying circumcision rituals (which I have come to believe are derived from a primeval association between holiness and a diminished capacity for sexual pleasure), I came across an anthropological report of a spiritual role reserved for unmanly men among the Mbo people of Zaire.
[Also since first posting this website, I was introduced to the work of Malidoma and Sobonfu Somé, a married couple who both come from the town of Dano in Burkina Faso and write about Dagara rituals and spirituality for a broad audience. Sobonfu Somé’s book The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships contains a chapter on “Homosexuality: The Gatekeepers,” in which she writes, “Gatekeepers are people who live a life at the edge between two worlds — the world of the village and the world of the spirit.”]
Murray and Roscoe’s Islamic Homosexualities and Shaun Marmon’s Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society, as well as theEncyclopedia of Islam, provided references to eunuchs in Islam.
Zia Jaffrey’s recent study of eunuchs currently living in India,18 and a psychological study called The Life Style of the Eunuchs,19provided insight into the lives of contemporary Indian eunuchs as well as references to traditional Indian sources.
An early twentieth-century book by Richard Millant, entitled Les Eunuques à travers les Ages or “eunuchs across the ages,” gave some juicy anecdotes, but not enough references to primary sources. Like most modern scholars, Millant was operating from an assumption that being a eunuch meant being castrated. Without being able to check his sources for myself, I could not challenge his interpretations. Eventually, though, I found many of Millant’s sources through the German articles and other secondary sources.
Taisuke Mitamura’s Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics was also stingy with footnotes, and anyway I could not check its references for lack of translations of the original sources into European languages. Mitamura did mention a nineteenth-century article on Chinese eunuchs by a European named 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), who, like Millant, provides lots of interesting references, but also assumes that eunuchs are defined by castration.
From these works, I have gathered several hundred ancient references to eunuchs, and over the course of seven years, I have assiduously looked up the primary sources in order to determine whether eunuchs, or born eunuchs, met my three definitive criteria for gay men. I checked primary sources in their original languages whenever my language skills permitted, that is in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and to some extent Egyptian and Akkadian. For ancient Indian sources, I relied on translations,20 but they supported my findings in Middle Eastern and Western sources.
Most of the references neither proved nor disproved my hypothesis. The pre-Christian ancient writers were never specific in defining a eunuch as lacking a penis and/or testicles. Many of them made vague allusions to an imperfection, lack of power, femininity, or impotence, which did not exclude either genital deformity or a gay man’s kind of impotence with women. A lot of them merely mentioned that a particular person was a eunuch, period. Although I was sometimes discouraged during the first few years because of not finding definitive proof that eunuchs and gay men shared the same characteristics, the very fact that hundreds of references did not exclude my hypothesis was cumulatively encouraging. With the overwhelming number of sources failing to specify that eunuchs were castrated, it seemed that I only needed to find one eunuch with a full set of genitals to throw the burden of proof off of my hypothesis and onto the opposite view.
The evidence I eventually found was tailor-made to prove my hypothesis. Eunuchs as a category were able to procreate (except “if someone is a eunuch in such a way that he lacks a necessary part of his body”), and they had a sexual aversion to women and an attraction to men. Moreover, the early Indo-European cultures attacked them with the same kind of negative stereotypes that are inflicted on gay men today. But even more interesting was the reverence and appreciation enjoyed by eunuchs in many non-Indo-European ancient cultures, for which eunuchs/homosexuals assumed priestly roles.
In the following I will bring the citations that were most relevant to proving my thesis. First, I will present quotes from ancient works indicating — and even stating categorically — that eunuchs could procreate. Then I will present quotes to the effect that eunuchs avoided sexual interaction with women or were impotent with them. This abstinence with respect to women was actually what defined the eunuch in the ancient mind, so the category covered not only gay men but any man who was unable or unwilling to have sex with women. Thirdly, lest the religious homophobes try to insist eunuchs are simply impotents and sexual abstainers, I also bring quotes demonstrating that eunuchs were known for sexually pursuing and accommodating other men. Thus eunuchs are gay men, and gay men are eunuchs.
Think about it. Jesus spoke specifically about gay men in Matthew 19:12. He even said people might become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He did not anywhere say eunuchs should avoid their own kind of sexual expression. The church’s condemnation of gay sexuality thus falls into the same category as its former hatred of straight sexuality, namely the category of irrelevance. In fact, you could even call it complicity in genocide, given the number of gay people who have been tortured and killed, either by the church or with its condonation.
A lot of the ancient authors and works mentioned on this website are unfamiliar even to well-educated people who are not specialists in religious history, the Greek and Roman classics, and ancient multicultural literature. I would like for this research to be meaningful to a broad spectrum of people, and for that to be possible, it has to be easy for people of all walks of life to follow. The argument I am making is dividing into three sections. As stated above, the first section includes quotes that show their authors felt eunuchs could procreate. The second section contains quotes showing that their authors felt eunuchs were impotent with or sexually turned off to women. The third section includes quotes from authors attesting to the frequent sexual interaction between eunuchs and other men.
What I intend to prove with these quotes is that people living thousands of years ago all across Europe and Asia acknowledged a certain category of men as different from the norm; that their difference consisted in the fact that they had no sex drive toward women, while they did enjoy sex with other men; and that their difference was conceived of as natural and inborn. I will bring also evidence that some cultures recognized that there were women who by nature had no lust for men. In sum, I intend to prove that gay men and women existed in the ancient world as categories distinguished from the norm.
I welcome any questions that readers may have. You can direct them to my email address at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Please read on!
1 Matthew 19:12. “For there are some eunuchs who are born so from their mother’s womb, and some eunuchs who are eunuchized by men, and some eunuchs who eunuchize themselves for the sake of the kingdom of the heavens. Let him who is able to receive it, receive it.” Greek: “Eisin gar eunouchoi hoitines ek koilias mêtros egennêthêsan houtôs, kai eisin eunouchoi hoitines eunouchisthêsan hupo tôn anthrôpôn, kai eisin eunouchoi hoitines eunouchisan heautous dia tên basileian tôn ouranôn. ho dunamenos chôrein chôreitô.”
2 During my research I found that John J. McNeill had put forth the same idea in a book which ultimately resulted in his expulsion from the Catholic priesthood. He said about Matthew 19:12: “The first category — those eunuchs who have been so from birth — is the closest description we have in the Bible of what we understand today as a homosexual.” (John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, Fourth edition, Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, p. 65. First edition: 1976.) Later in the spring of 1996, in the midst of a scandal at my mainstream Baptist church when some gay members came out, I finally wrote out a version of my thesis to show to some of my ministers. They were intrigued but not convinced. Within a couple months, I came across a book by Rev. Nancy Wilson of MCC-LA that put forward almost exactly the same arguments as I had put in my essay at the time (Rev. Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).
3 For the Greek text of Matthew, I used The NRSV-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, with interlinear translation by Alfred Marshall, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990. This book uses the Greek text of the 21st edition of Eberhard Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece.
4 Bruno Meissner and Wolfram von Soden, Akkadisches Handwörterbuch, Vol. II, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1965, p. 973b, under the word resu. This is a dictionary of Akkadian, the parent language to Assyrian and Babylonian.
5 Johannes Schneider, “Eunouchos, Eunouchizo,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, Gerhard Kittel, ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley, tr., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, 1985, p. 766.
6 Yebamoth VIII, folios 79b-84a. Yebamoth is one of the books of the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of legal pronouncements, called the mishnah, made by certain authoritative ancient Jewish rabbis, as well as interpretations of these pronouncements, called the gemara, made by later rabbis.
7 Walter Bauer, “Matth. 19:12 und die alten Christen,” in Neutestamentliche Studien Georg Heinrici zu seinem 70. Geburtstag (14. März 1914) dargebracht, Leipzig: J.C. Hinrick’sche Buchhandlung, 1914, pp. 235-244. Available in translation on this website by clicking here. Use “back” button to return here.
8 Peter Guyot, Eunuchen als Sklaven und Freigelassene in der griechisch-römichen Antike, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1980. Ernst Maass, “Eunouchos und Verwandtes,” in Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 74 (1925), pp. 432-476.
9 Arnold Hug, “Eunuchen,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopaedie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Supplement III, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1958, cols. 449-455. Available in translation on this website by clicking here. Use “back” button to return here.
10 Robert Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 42 of Index-Lexicon (saris), p. 791 of Analytical Concordance (Rabsaris). The forty-five verses are: Genesis 37:36, 39:1, 40:2, 40:7; 1 Samuel 8:15; 1 Kings 22:9; 2 Kings 8:6, 9:32, 18:17, 20:18, 23:11, 24:12, 24:15, 25:19; 1 Chronicles 28:1; 2 Chronicles 18:8; Esther 1:10, 1:12, 1:15, 2:3, 2:14, 2:15, 2:21, 4:4, 4:5, 6:2, 6:14, 7:9; Isaiah 39:7, 56:3, 56:4; Jeremiah 29:2, 34:19, 38:7, 39:3, 39:13; 41:16; 52:25; Daniel 1:3, 1:7-11, 1:18. Available on this website by clicking here. Use “back” button to return here.
11 Matthew 19:12; Acts 8:26-39.
12 Judith 12:11; Additions to Esther 12:1, 12:3, 12:6; 3 Maccabees 6:30; Wisdom of Solomon 3:14; Wisdom of Sirach 20:4, 30:20.
13 H. Te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of his Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967, especially Chapter 2: Seth, the Enemy and Friend of Horus.
14 Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996, especially Chapter 4: Predetermined Erotic Orientations: Astrological Texts.
15 J. Bottero and H. Petschow, “Homosexualität,” in Erich Ebeling and Bruno Meissner, eds., Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Vol. 4. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975, pp. 459-68. Although the alphabetization of this encyclopedia is in German, this particular article is in French. Available in translation on this website by clicking here. Use “back” button to return here.
17 David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988. The reference to the article by Bottero and Petschow is on page 126. Greenberg discusses Assyrian and Babylonian eunuchs in Chapter 3: “Inequality and the State: Homosexual Innovations in Archaic Civilizations” and Chapter 4: “Early Civilizations: Variations on Homosexual Themes.” He discusses homosexuality in Africa on pp. 60-62 in Chapter 2: “Homosexual Relations in Kinship-Structured Societies.”
18 Zia Jaffrey, The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India, New York: Pantheon, 1996. This is a very interesting book by an Indian-American woman from New York who went to live and study in India for a period of time. One day at a wedding there, she became intrigued by some strange men dressed in women’s clothing who showed up on the doorstep of the reception and sang songs for money. She began researching their lives and cultural heritage, and wrote this book about what she discovered.
19 Yogesh Shingala Vyas, M.D., The Life Style of the Eunuchs, New Delhi: Anmol Publications; Delhi: Distributed by Anupama Publishers and Distributors, 1987. This is a study intended to inspire social policy initiatives to help Indian eunuchs, who are called hijras. Hijras are gay men and transgenders usually from rural areas, who join or are brought by their parents to houses of eunuchs in nearby urban areas. By tradition they let themselves be castrated, which is a holdover from the requirement of medieval royal courts that all eunuchs be man-made eunuchs. Both this book and Jaffrey’s book indicated that the younger generation of hijras has grown resistant to the castration tradition, and it is being done less and less.
20 The Laws of Manu, with an introduction and notes, translated by Wendy Doniger with Brian K. Smith, New York: Penguin, 1991. Vatsyayana, Das Kamasutram des Vatsyayana, Dr. Ferdinand Leiter und Dr. Hans H. Thal, eds., Vienna: Verlag Schneider & Co., 1929. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin and an early leader in the German gay rights movement, wrote a foreword to this “first complete German edition” of the Kamasutra.