We defend ourselves not against castration anxiety but against death, a far more absolute castration.
—Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
The university library at my medical school was shared with students of veterinary medicine. Sometimes I’d find myself at a desk opposite one of the vet students; we’d glance at one another’s textbooks with curiosity, occasionally open at the same subjects—hematology, say, or orthopedic surgery. It was reassuring to see how much common ground there was between medicine for humans and medicine for animals.
One day, I was revising prostate cancer: the appearance of its malignant cells under a microscope, the stages of its spread, the radiotherapy, brachytherapy (embedding of radioactive pellets into the tumor), and standard chemotherapies used to treat it. In health, the prostate gland stores semen and mature sperm; it has strong muscular walls that squeeze during ejaculation. Exposure to a lifetime of testosterone increases the growth of the gland as well as its susceptibility to cancers. Many treatments for prostate cancer work by blocking testosterone’s generation within the testicles—with no testosterone, the growth of the tumor slows.
“All that for prostate cancer?” asked one of the vet students, glancing over at my notes.
“Sure,” I said.“What do you guys do to treat it?”
“One word,” he laughed, “castration!”
As a boy I’d see farmers castrating spring lambs in the fields near my home. They’d take a tiny rubber O, the diameter of its hole almost as wide as the rubber was thick, and with a pair of special pliers spring it over the lamb’s scrotum. The rubber squeezed off the blood supply to the testes, and a few weeks later they’d drop off. The first time I saw farmers gelding lambs I asked one of them, “Doesn’t it hurt?”
He shrugged. “It’s better this than the old way,” he replied. “A century ago, shepherds used their teeth.” After an afternoon spent gelding, the men’s beards would be clotted with blood.
Gelding animals takes testosterone out of their development, making them less aggressive and more biddable, but also bigger (sex hormones accelerate the closure of the growth plates of bones, so without testosterone, animals’ bones grow longer before fusing). Low testosterone levels also encourage the accumulation of fat. You can leave castrated animals grazing alongside females without fear they’ll reproduce. Agricultural societies used it long before written records: castrated oxen take a yoke more easily and will pull a plough with less whipping. Castrated dogs are simpler to train and will more readily round up the castrated sheep put out to fatten in the fields. Early Assyrian and Chinese civilizations transposed this knowledge to humans: boys born in poverty would be castrated and sent to work under the yoke of the state in the imperial household. (In China, both penis and testicles were removed—these “three treasures” were pickled in a jar, brought out for special occasions, and buried with the eunuch.) Eunuchs were often taller, sometimes stronger than average, and were frequently employed as the core of an imperial guard. They could work in the imperial harem without fear that they’d cuckold the emperor.
When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he was struck by the utility of such eunuch slaves and adopted the custom—eunuchs were also considered sexually desirable. The Romans copied it from the Greeks: the emperor Nero had a eunuch called Sporus (whom he dressed as a woman and married) and the emperor Domitian had a favorite eunuch called Earinus. There’s usually an element of voyeurism in the Roman accounts, a curiosity about ambiguous gender and genitalia that’s still visible in media coverage of the phenomenon today. Eunuchs were high-class slaves, the most expensive in the market; in losing testicles they were believed to have lost family loyalty and to have become faithful only to their masters and to the empire.
Around the time that Christianity began to spread into the Roman Empire there was already a cult of a eunuch god called Attis, who was celebrated in springtime and was believed to have died three days before being resurrected. His priests committed self-castration in honor of a fertility goddess, and they did it on the hill in Rome where Vatican City now sits. The practice survived the Christianization of the Roman Empire: one of the early church fathers, Origen, is famous for committing self-castration. Castration continued in Byzantium (where gelded boys were trained as choristers) and into the twentieth-century Russian Orthodox church, where the Skoptsy sect encouraged self-castration as late as the 1920s. Saint Paul’s advice that women should keep quiet in church was taken to its logical conclusion during the Italian Renaissance: God’s glory was sung in soprano by castrated men from the mid-1500s. The Jesuit Tommaso Tamburini, active in the early seventeenth century, sanctioned castration only “provided there is no mortal danger to life and that it is not done without the boy’s consent.” How much choice they had in the matter is hard to assess, though reports throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries describe boys “pleading” for the honor of being castrated, to bring both prestige and financial security to their families. The complex, high-pitched melodies for which castrati were most in demand by the Vatican were those sung around Easter week—the same time of year that the priests of Attis celebrated castration.
The Vatican didn’t ban the castration of boys for its choirs until the late nineteenth century, and the last castrato of the Sistine Chapel, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. But twenty years before he died, with his voice already fading in quality, he made a series of recordings for the “Gramophone and Typewriter Company” that would become “His Master’s Voice” or HMV. You can find the recordings online, Moreschi’s voice a wavering, ghostly soprano that makes every song an elegy.
Through the late 1980s, Anatole Broyard, an editor at The New York Times, wrote a series of short, brilliant essays about being diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. The essays were collected and published by his widow following his death from the illness. Broyard had for many years been a literary critic, and he brought to the essays an immense breadth of reference, humor, a ferocious intellect, and prose as luminous as an arc light. “What goes through your mind when you’re lying, full of nuclear dye, under a huge machine that scans all your bones for evidence of treason?” he wrote of one scan, undertaken to see if cancer had infiltrated his skeleton. “There’s a horror-movie appeal to this machine: Beneath it you become the Frankenstein monster exposed to the electric storm.”
Broyard experienced his own diagnosis as a storm of anxiety and fear, but also, paradoxically, a liberation—life became as colorful as a “paisley shawl draped over a grand piano.” As a critic he turned to books to help him come to terms with his cancer but complained that too many memoirs were humorless, too respectful, and soaked in Romanticism, “so pious they sound as if they were written on tip-toe.” He admitted that a part of him felt exalted by the diagnosis, as if in hearing some of the worst news anyone can hear—a diagnosis of terminal illness—he’d been granted a great blessing by the universe. There was an element of gratitude for some aspects of his illness: it had given him a deeper and more intimate appreciation of the glory of being alive, as well as license to give in to a long-suppressed desire to be more impulsive.
In an essay called “The Patient Examines the Doctor,” he spells out the kind of physician he’d prefer—someone with a “furious desire to oppose himself to fate … intense enough or willful enough to prevail over something powerful and demonic like illness.” Broyard often felt that he had to put on a stoical front for his friends, who’d congratulate him on his bravery, but knew that a good doctor should see through the bravado and recognize his loneliness, even act as a guide through the inferno of cancer therapy. He didn’t want a doctor that relied on bluster or phony confidence tricks. His ideal doctor would be schooled in poetry, or be at least familiar with the possibilities of metaphor:
I would like a doctor who is not only a talented physician, but a bit of a metaphysician, too. Someone who can treat body and soul … To get to my body, my doctor has to get to my character. He has to go through my soul. He doesn’t only have to go through my anus.
Broyard refused the physical castration his first surgeon offered (“my urologist, who is quite famous, wanted to cut off my testicles, but I felt that this would be losing the battle right at the beginning”), but he accepted that most treatments for his prostate cancer might make him impotent or affect his libido. He advised against thinking of sex as physical, rather than an intimate extension of the imagination, and accepted the diminution of his sex life as a reasonable bargain in the hope of gaining more years of life. “In my own case,” he wrote, “after a brush with death, I feel that just to be alive is a permanent orgasm.”
Some perceive the loss of testosterone as a punishing humiliation. Castration has long been exploited as punitive: the Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty in China, carved around 1500 and 1400 B.C.E., list castration as a sentence for prisoners of war, and an Egyptian pharaoh who lived a couple of centuries later boasted of having castrated more than six thousand soldiers of an invading Libyan army. More recently, the Janjaweed militia in Sudan perpetrated the same on their prisoners. Some western jurisdictions today order chemical castration as a combined punishment and “treatment” for convicted sex offenders.
Given the cultural hinterland of castration as punishment, it’s a mystery as to why, historically, many young men and boys volunteered for such an ordeal. In The Castrato, a comprehensive examination of the phenomenon, the historian Martha Feldman explores some of the reasons why they did so. She proposes that we think of the exchange as much more than a bargain, but rather as a sacrifice—the transformation being in some sense sanctifying or sacralizing. The castrato was offering something precious as a gift to celebrate the greater glory of God but also in the hope of receiving something precious in return. Castrati, says Feldman, were “sacralized creatures,” in a way comparable to kings. In Confucian China that sacrifice was made to the state, and in Renaissance Italy, the church. It was seen as a kind of rebirth, much as Broyard felt that his life was given back to him when he received his terminal diagnosis.
Sir Thomas Browne noticed that after undergoing castration, males seemed to increase their chances of a long life—in part because diseases of the prostate had been neutralized. The Roman poet Lucretius, in The Nature of Things, describes sufferers of the plague sacrificing their testicles in the hope that they’d avoid the disease. Matthew’s Gospel reads:
There are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.
And there are some who choose castration in the hope of prolonging their lives.
Gavin Francis is a physician and the award-winning author of four books, including Adventures in Human Being, Empire Antarctica and True North. A regular contributor to the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and The New York Review of Books, Francis lives in Edinburgh.
Adapted excerpt from Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body, by Gavin Francis. Copyright © 2018.