The Power of the Eunuchs

With an eye to updating one of my lectures, I have been reading the Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, an Italian who disguised himself as a Muslim and made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1503.  From there, he pressed on to India and the Spice Islands, only turning back when he had seen the famous clove trees of Ternaté.  While ashore on Java, he notes that his companion purchased . . .

“two little children who had no sexual organs; for in this island there are a kind of merchants, who follow no other trade excepting that of purchasing little children, from whom they cut off in their childhood everything, and then they remain like women.”

Eunuchs had been a valued commodity throughout south Asia for thousands of years, as attentive readers of the Old Testament well know— black eunuchs from Ethiopia being especially sought after.  Herodotus tells us of a merchant of Chios, in the Aegean Sea:

“who maintained himself by the most infamous of all traffic: whenever he met with youths whose person were handsome, he castrated them, and carrying them to Sardis or Ephesus, disposed of them at a prodigious price.”

On Java the price was not so prodigious, Varthema’s companion paying by my rough reckoning about $500 for each boy (by today’s prices).

Herodotus tells us that eunuchs were “esteemed of greater value than other slaves, from the presumption of their superior fidelity.”   What he means is greater docility. Emasculated males were preferred as house servants because they were less likely to steal one’s goods, rape one’s daughters, or slit one’s throat.

And, of course, fastidious pederasts prized eunuch boys as beardless receptacles of their mos Graeciae, or Greek Love.  As the great geographer Richard Burton explained in his long-suppressed Sotadic Zone, there were not a few fastidious pederasts hunting through the markets of south Asia, in search of smooth-skinned Javanese boys.

Varthema is, on the whole, a very reliable reporter, but has often been doubted when it comes to another anecdote from the island of Java.

“The people in this island who eat flesh, when their fathers become so old that they can no longer do any work, their children or relations set them up in the marketplace for sale, and those who purchase them and eat them cooked.”

It should be evident from the quote that this practice was not common in Java, but restricted to the semi-savage anthropophagi of the mountainous interior, these being, presumably, the same people who sold their sons to those gelding merchants and (at one remove) fastidious pederasts.

If my presumption is correct, I must say those worn-out geezers in the marketplace got what was coming to them.  If age will not pay what it owes to youth, then youth will not pay what it owes to age.

But we should, perhaps, pity the poor savages and look to the fastidious pederasts, prowling the markets of south Asia in search of  beardless boys, or to those miserly potentiates who sought to surround themselves with docile geldings.  In his Decline and Fall, Gibbon tells us,

“If we examine the general history of Persia, India, and China, we shall find that the power of their eunuchs has uniformly marked the decline and fall of every dynasty.”

“The power of the eunuchs” is a haunting phrase, isn’t it?  This is, obviously, a vengeful power of resentment, and it is just as obviously the morbid opposite of masculine vigor.  Eunuchs are whisperers, conspirators, and whores, and their aim is to put their civilization on the auction block, where it can be sold and afterwards eaten.

And that’s just what a civilization overrun by eunuchs deserves!

3 thoughts on “The Power of the Eunuchs

  1. Pingback: The Power of the Eunuchs | Reaction Times

  2. As a schoolboy in the 1950s, I knew an elderly lady who was the widow of a man who had served as the British Resident in a number of the Indian Native States.

    Now, the lady had been born in India and lived there for some 8 0r 9 years, before being sent to boarding school in England and she was fluent in a number of dialects, including Urdu and the Persian spoken in the princely courts.

    It was the task of the Resident’s wife to visit the zenana or harem of the palace. From her observations, she told me that the effective rule of most of the Native States was in the hands of a shifting coalition of the favourite wife, the ruler’s mother and the chief eunuch.

    She was a modest, unassuming woman and many people were surprised at her funeral to see cushions, bearing the collar and star of the Orders of the Indian Empire and Star of India on her coffin; recognitions of her services by a grateful government. One concludes they deemed her a reliable source of information.

    • Persia may have been the home of the Eunuch, in both his political and sexual usages. I seem to recall on writer saying that it was Cyrus who first observed that gelded animals became tractable without loosing their power to work, and then thought to do the same to men. It might have been Plutarch who said that pederasty came from Persia. Your anecdote would seem to fall into line with Gibbon’s observation that the power of the eunuchs is a mark of decline (not to mention the power of Residents). A price with a eunuch, a resident, and a mother-in-law is, I daresay, not much of a prince.

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s