The Castrati—Mutilation in the Name of Religion
The castrati—they were male singers with the power of a man’s body but with a boy’s voice. The era of the castrati was indeed a sad one. Who were they? The answer has to do with a shocking practice—mutilation in the name of religion.
EUNUCHS can be born as such, but many are made so by men. In body form and stature, they are males, yet they cannot procreate. At some stage in their physical development or even later in life, either by choice or by force, they have been castrated.
Why would males choose to mutilate themselves or other males in this fashion? Often, they have done so in the name of religion.
Eunuchs in Ancient History
Thousands of years ago, castration was used as a form of punishment by the Assyrians. In Egypt it was the penalty for adultery. A robber found stealing from a temple in ancient Friesland, now part of the Netherlands, was emasculated before being put to death.
In Rome castration was prohibited during the reigns of Emperors Domitian and Nerva in the first century C.E. but was restored in the declining years of the empire. Laws enacted in the ninth century by England’s king Alfred the Great called for punishing a servant in this way if he raped a female servant.
Eunuchs also featured prominently in religious rites. Eunuchs as well as virgins served the goddess Artemis in the city of Ephesus. Men castrated themselves in frenzied ceremonies to honor the Syrian Astarte of Hierapolis, after which they wore women’s clothing for the rest of their lives.
“He who castrates himself or another does not belong to my followers,” Muhammad proclaimed. Despite this prohibition, however, eunuchs were prized as slaves in Muslim countries, as guardians of harems and sanctuaries. As a result, this slave trade was perpetuated. Young men drawn from Sudan and neighboring North African countries provided enormous profits for the slave traders.
Early in the 19th century, Johann L. Burckhardt visited Upper Egypt, where he saw castrated boys prepared to be sold as slaves. The operations were performed on boys between 8 and 12 years of age. The operators were two monks of the Coptic Church. “Their profession,” commented Burckhardt, “was held in contempt.”
This prompts the question, To what extent has Christendom been involved in this practice, and for what reasons?
Eunuchs in Christendom
Origen—best known for his Hexapla, versions of the Hebrew Scriptures arranged in six columns—was born about 185 C.E. By the age of 18, he was already well-known for his lectures on Christianity. Yet, he was concerned that his popularity among women should not be misconstrued. So, taking literally the words of Jesus, “there are eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs on account of the kingdom of the heavens,” he castrated himself. (Matthew 19:12)a It was an immature, impulsive act—one he deeply regretted in later years.
Interestingly, the very first canon of the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 C.E. expressly excluded from the priesthood men who had emasculated themselves. Dr. J. W. C. Wand says of this resolution: “It is possible that some had shown a desire to follow the example of Origen in this respect and to make themselves eunuchs . . . , and it was essential that Christians should not be encouraged to follow a custom that was much more characteristic of the devotees of some pagan religions.”
By making such an important decision, the religious leaders of Christendom sought to banish for all time the abhorrent issue of castration. As we shall see, it turned out otherwise. Consider first the following well-known account.
In the year 1118, Peter Abelard, a philosopher and theological student, fell in love with Héloïse, a young girl he was privately tutoring. Abelard was not yet ordained and therefore not under a vow of celibacy, so they married secretly and had a son. But because her uncle, Fulbert, a canon in the Roman Catholic cathedral of Paris, felt Héloïse had been seduced, he had Abelard forcibly castrated. This barbarous act, conceived by such a high-ranking church official, led to two of its perpetrators being punished similarly in retribution.
Thus castration was still acceptable as a punishment in certain circumstances. However, this ungodly practice was soon to be promoted in the Roman Catholic Church on account of church singing.
Singing has played an important role in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgy, the mainstay of a church choir being boy sopranos. A boy’s voice, though, breaks in his early teens. How could the church overcome the constant change in personnel and the training it entailed? True, a somewhat colorless higher range of voice known as falsetto was often employed, but this was not an acceptable replacement for the boy soprano.b
Women sopranos were the obvious alternative, but from early times the pope had forbidden women to sing in church. An added problem was that church singers could be called upon to assist their priest, a duty reserved exclusively for men. So women could not be used to augment church choirs.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V banned women from singing on stage in any public theater or opera house. This ban was reiterated by Pope Innocent XI about 100 years later. “The disapproval of female theatrical performers and the coupling of their name with that of prostitution and licentiousness was an ancient tradition, going back to the days of St Augustine and even earlier,” observes researcher Angus Heriot. By taking this inflexible stand, however, the church opened up the way to another, more serious problem—castrati!
Who were the castrati, and how did Christendom become involved with them?
Mutilation for the Sake of Music
Opera and public theaters needed sopranos, but so did the papal choir. What could be done? It had long been known that if a boy was castrated, his voice would not break. The vocal cords grow only a little, whereas the chest and diaphragm grow normally. As a result, the castrato has the power of a man’s body but has a boy’s voice—“the kind of voice angels were imagined as possessing,” comments Maria Luisa Ambrosini in The Secret Archives of the Vatican. It is also possible to regulate to some extent the type of voice by varying the age at which the child is castrated.
The Greek Church had employed castrati as choristers from the 12th century onward, but what would the Roman Catholic Church do? Would it now also sanction and employ castrati?
Padre Soto, a singer in the papal choir in 1562, is listed in the Vatican records as a falsetto. But Soto was a castrato. Thus at least 27 years before 1589, when the bull of Pope Sixtus V reorganized the singers of St. Peter’s Basilica to include four castrati, the Vatican had quietly set aside the authority of the Council of Nicaea.
From 1599 the existence of castrati in the Vatican was acknowledged. Once the highest authority in the church had openly sanctioned the practice, castrati became acceptable. Gluck, Handel, Meyerbeer, and Rossini are among those who composed both sacred and secular music specifically for castrati.
Popularity, Parents, and Public Opinion
Castrati rapidly gained popularity. Pope Clement VIII (1592–1605), for example, was greatly impressed with the flexibility and sweetness of their voices. Even though anyone known to have connection with the act of castration was supposed to have been excommunicated, a steady influx of young boys became available as the musical needs of the church prevailed.
Shops were said to advertise, “Qui si castrono ragazzi (Boys are castrated here).” One barbershop in Rome proudly proclaimed: “Singers castrated here for the papal chapel choirs.” It is claimed that during the 18th century, some 4,000 Italian boys may have been castrated for this purpose. How many died in the process is not known.
Why did parents permit their sons to be mutilated in this way? Generally, castrati were born of poor parents. If a son showed any aptitude for music, then he could be sold, sometimes outright, to a musical institution. Others were drawn from the choirs of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and similar church academies. The parents naturally hoped their castrato would become famous and provide well for them in their old age.
So often, however, tragedy ensued when it became apparent that the boy had no voice to train. Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, writing A Picture of Italy in the late 18th century, explained that such outcasts, along with any surplus of castrati, were “allowed to take [holy] orders” and were permitted to say Mass. This followed the extraordinary precedent set in St. Peter’s itself when, in violation of church canon, two castrati were admitted as Roman Catholic priests in 1599 and others subsequently.
Pope Benedict XIV himself referred back to the Council of Nicaea’s decision and acknowledged that castration was unlawful. But in 1748 he firmly rejected a suggestion from his own bishops that castrati be banned, for he feared that churches would become empty if he did. Such was the appeal and importance of church music. So castrati choristers continued to sing in Italian church choirs, in St. Peter’s, and in the pope’s own Sistine Chapel.
In 1898 with the buildup of public opinion against castration, Pope Leo XIII discreetly pensioned off the Vatican’s castrati, and his successor, Pope Pius X, formally banned castrati from the papal chapel in 1903. But the bull of Pope Sixtus V that introduced them has never been formally repealed.
The last professional castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. Recordings of his singing were made in 1902 and 1903 and can still be heard. On the labels of these recordings, he is described as “Soprano della Cappella Sistina (Soprano of the Sistine Chapel).” “The voice,” writes music critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor, “unquestionably a soprano, resembles that of neither boy nor woman.”
Thus ended the wanton mutilation of boys for the sake of art. An “abominable practice,” says The Encyclopædia Britannica, yet one condoned by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.
Castration—In the 1990’s?
So the castrati are no more. But does that mean castration in the name of religion has ended? Sadly, no! The Independent Magazine reports that India has as many as one million eunuchs, living in religious communities. Who are they? The hijras.
Most hijras are Muslims by birth—although there are many Hindus among them—and all worship Bharuchra Mata, a Hindu goddess from Gujarat. Even though the majority choose to be castrated, it is claimed by some that each year as many as one thousand Indian males are forcibly emasculated to coerce them to join the hijras, after which they are auctioned to the highest bidding guru.
The hijras are controlled by a hierarchy of gurus, different hijra clans dividing cities into territories. The hijras live by temple begging and prostitution. They are generally despised, but they are also feared because they are thought to possess a sinister magic. For this reason people will pay them to bestow blessings on babies and newlyweds.
It is said that some hijras do run away. But “the hijra mafia which reportedly controls the castrations,” reports India Today, “operates under a veil of secrecy and terror.”
Will the world ever be free of such evils? Yes, because the sins of the world empire of false religion—identified in the Bible as a harlot, “Babylon the Great”—“have massed together clear up to heaven.” How faith-strengthening it is to learn that all such God-dishonoring practices will soon come to a dramatic end! Why not read this for yourself in the concluding book of the Bible, Revelation, chapter 18? Check particularly Re 18 verses 2 and 5.
a Regarding Jesus’ words, the footnote to the Roman Catholic Westminster Version of the Sacred Scriptures: The New Testament explains: “Not physically by carnal mutilation, but spiritually by purpose or vow.” Likewise, A Commentary on the New Testament, by John Trapp, states: “Not gelded themselves, as Origen and some others in the primitive times, by mistake of this text . . . but live single, that they may serve God with more freedom.”
b Falsetto begins where the more natural tones leave off and is said to be produced by the mere edges of the vocal cords.
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The Highest Standard
No eunuch was allowed to become part of the congregation of Israel, as the Law of Jehovah clearly stated. (Deuteronomy 23:1) Under this Law castration was not allowed. “Jewish law,” notes the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “abhorred such operations.” As a result, no Israelites or alien residents were made eunuchs for service in the palace of Israelite kings, as they were in other royal courts, such as that of the Persian king Ahasuerus.—Esther 2:14, 15; 4:4, 5.
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A decision by Pope Sixtus V opened the way for castrati
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