Sarah Bond: Gird Your Loins: The Archaeology of Castration in Antiquity

You probably guessed I like Game of Thrones. It is not just the parallels with the early medieval world that pull me in, it is the characters. One of particular interest is Varys, a eunuch and Master of Whisperers on the king's council. He grew up a slave and was then sold to a sorcerer who castrated him. In Game of Thrones, Varys is constantly mocked by his peers, yet privy to
Varys the eunuch from Game of Thrones. 
special information; something that struck a note of truth. Much as in the fictive world of the Starks and Lannisters, eunuchs in antiquity existed in a simultaneously marginal yet elevated realm in society.

The Greeks often considered the use of eunuchs to be a characteristic of the Persian court. Afterall, Xenophon went to great pains when explaining the use of eunuchs as bodyguards, to note that he was presenting Cyrus' views and not his own (Xen. Cyr. 7.5.59-65). Surely the Greek audience would have remembered the threat (which was perhaps carried through) by the Persians during the Ionian revolt to turn young Greek boys into eunuchs if the Ionian Greeks did not stay loyal. Much has been written on the gender dynamics and perception of eunuchs in ancient society--particularly the fabulous The Manly Eunuch by Mathew Kuefler--and so, today I am more interested in looking at the archaeological evidence for eunuchs and castration.

So how, then, does one become a eunuch? There was always the accidental case. Hippocrates notes a boy who became a eunuch "from hunting and running" (Ep. 7.122). One could even be "eunuch-like" if born with genitals that were mutilated. A more intentional way of getting castrated was with a blade. There was the familiar mythological tale of Uranus' castration with an iron scythe (or flint) by his son, Cronus. Cronus was then commonly depicted with a scythe in his hand; a symbol of his victory over his father. In Rome, the priests of Cybele called galli (probably due to the fact that within
"The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn" by Giorgio Vasari (16th c.).
Galatia, the Gallus River ran beside the original temple for Cybele) were supposed to be eunuchs. They castrated themselves on March 24 using primitive instruments--sometimes a flint, but as Pliny (35.165) and others note, often with jagged pottery sherds (though highly prize Samian pottery!). This was in imitation of the castration of Attis, the consort of Cybele/Magna Mater, a subject which Catullus wrote on extensively in poem 63 (See Beard et al. [1998], 164-166 for analysis). When Roman citizens were allowed to become galli in the first century,
Funerary relief of an archigallus 
(head gallus) from Lavinium.
Now at the Capitoline
Museum in Rome. 
they were forbidden to castrate themselves. In accounts of the priests, the primitive nature of the castration was certainly emphasized, but there were other methods for castration in antiquity besides scythes, flints, and jagged sherds.

Just as today, animals were castrated in antiquity. Columella's De re rustica notes the use of cleft fennel to remove the testicles of calves. It has been alleged that this means that the testicles and spermatic cords were put between two pieces of wood that then inhibited the blood flow. Alternately, horses had a different type of castration involving tying ligatures around the scrotum and the use of a knife. Tools were used by farriers to aid in castration, some of which survive in the archaeological record. You will notice that there is a hole in the tool pictured below, from Roman Chichester, that allows the penis to be put through so as not to be accidentally snipped.

Farrier tools from Sussex. The top one was
for horse hoof trimming, the lower
was for castration.
Probably the most well known and broadly published upon archaeological evidence for castration are the bronze castration clamps found along the Thames in 1840. They are now housed in the British Museum. The two shanks are joined with a hinge at the end, so as to take on the look of a (forgive the imagery here) a nutcracker. There are bronze heads of horses and cattle, as well as deities. It appears to be Cybele at the top of the shank. She is wearing her  mural crown and is joined by Attis. This perhaps indicates that not all galli went about slicing themselves with jagged pottery, but, well, bronze shanks make for a much less sensational ritual than the former. The other busts perhaps represent the days of the week. Moreover, a few years ago, an alleged gallus was found in Yorkshire, buried in full ritual regalia. He was a third century eunuch, and osteologists say he died in his early 20s, indicating that perhaps his castration contributed to his death. Note the effects of becoming a eunuch on one's skeleton, as pointed out by Kathryn Reusch, and further remarks by Kristina Killgrove, who has analyzed the interpretation of castrated skeletons.

Bronze clamps found in the Thames and displayed at
the British Museum in London. 
This is not a complete catalog of the archaeology of castration in antiquity, rather it is just a small window into the practice. I do think it shows us how important it is to investigate Roman ritual and religion in terms of the material evidence, however. In this case, there is strong literary evidence for the role of eunuchs in Roman antiquity, and material evidence that helps us to better understand the various ways that castration was carried out. As usual, the outlandish has been emphasized over the more mundane techniques for castration, but I would posit that clamps were likely much more regularized in the castration of galli than the literary sources would have us believe.


P.S. Thanks to Jim O'Hara for pointing the Catullus passage out to me!

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