Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Neurohormonal Wars

Old questions and dubious debates in the psychology of gender.

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Because gender relations among the élite were organized primarily around male honor codes, with the concomitant obligation to produce and rule over a legally recognized family, non-reproducing eunuchs were alternately demonized as less than male (yet not quite female) and lauded as "perfect servants": unencumbered by family or geographic ties and unpredictable passions, and thus able to assume trustworthy roles as domestic administrators, courtiers, imperial officers, and mediators between the worlds of men and women—even between sacred and secular. Kuefler and Ringrose never question the physiological effects of male castration. But they are concerned to demonstrate that, just as for intact males and females, stereotypes about eunuchs' "essential" traits—not to mention their deliberate training to express such traits—varied too much over time and place for anyone to draw facile conclusions about the "inevitable" effects of biology on personality and behavior. As just one example, in some versions of the Roman Mater Deum (Mother of the Gods) fertility cult, the founding myth included the castration and death of the goddess' consort as a punishment for his infidelity, and his subsequent resurrection (but not genital restoration) after she belatedly forgave him. During the cult's annual spring rites, some male acolytes castrated themselves in order to become special priests to the goddess. This included adopting women's dress—which, according to one source, they acquired by throwing their severed genitals in front of Roman households, whose women were then expected to relinquish some of their clothing.

Needless to say, early Western church leaders did not see such practices as examples of "perfect servanthood"—especially when accompanied by temple prostitution on the part of the Mater Deum eunuchs, as well as females recruited to the cult as virgins. Church leaders were repelled by the practice of testicular mutilation, and mindful of Old Testament strictures against admitting such men to worship spaces. But then there were biblical texts like Isaiah 56, which welcomes both eunuchs and foreigners who profess allegiance to Israel's God, and Acts 8, which records Philip's baptism of someone who was both: a eunuch and a high official of the Ethiopian queen. And what were they to do with Matthew 19? There Jesus distinguishes among eunuchs who have been born so, those that have been made so by other people, and those who "have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"—followed by the weighty words: "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." Apparently there were enough men taking this literally in the early church (Origen was reported to be one) for it to merit deliberation at the Council of Nicaea, which ordered priests who had castrated themselves to be removed from office—though exceptions were made if castration had been done by barbarians, or for medical reasons. The aspiring "perfect servant" of Christ was admired if he renounced sexual pleasure as an intact man. But self-made eunuchs were seen as unfairly gaming the system, since most didn't have to struggle as much to attain the celibate state required for high-level sanctity.

In Kuefler's account, the Western church's real coup was to declare Jesus' words about self-made eunuchs to be metaphorical rather than literal, then to make the war against the flesh needed to attain priestly celibacy a substitute for the Roman honor code, which treated family, military, and political power as the marks of hegemonic masculinity. Of course, clerical life did require "unmanly" submission to God as a metaphorical bride of Christ. But after the Constantinian legalization of Christianity, and in the wake of the later barbarian invasions, such initial submission conferred a lot of power, especially on bishops. They wielded spiritual authority over emperors, who were mere laymen by comparison, as well as over priests and laity in their own territories. They participated in church-wide council decisions that affected people of all stations. They prospered financially from tithes and donations instead of imperial taxes. In the 5th century, the church took over many civic duties as the Roman Empire collapsed, with bishops often assuming the symbolic power previously accorded secular magistrates. As spiritualized "manly eunuchs," Western churchmen successfully exploited the language of male castration even as they renounced its actual practice.

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