What do transsexuals want? If I may propose an answer from my experience, it would be: To be respected as members of our chosen gender, as plausible objects of desire, and as reasonable people. Of course, transsexuals are not the only ones who harbor such concerns. As a young transsexual man, pondering my inability to become what I considered “fully male” and attractive to myself and others, I became interested in ancient eunuchs, who I perceived as long-lost spirit brothers. They, too, may have felt their simple wishes frustrated by a lack of medical procedures or social revolutions that could answer their prayers.
The very word “eunuch” with its brutal lack of privacy shows that the person who was so labeled knew what it was to be marginalized and painted as less than fully male. Men and women perceived him as “damaged” as opposed to “intact.” He was qualified as “not a real man,” “less than a man,” or “neither man nor woman.” If a particular eunuch did not volunteer to be castrated out of an abiding desire to feminize his body or to nullify his male characteristics, then, I wondered, might he have felt the same discomfort, grief, and anger that I felt about my body? If so, how did he cope with his distress? If there was a powerful cache of eunuch prayers and attitude, I wanted to tap the secret.
I still hear the name “eunuch” as the sound of a human being colliding with the brick wall of inarguable reality and surviving the crash. What did this person think as he walked away from the scene of the accident? Did he wail or did he whistle? Now, here I am, passing by, causing a curiosity delay. What will I feel when I see the victim who was driving in a vehicle much like my own? Horror? Admiration? Is he unfortunate or has he received a backhanded blessing?
I wondered: What did these ancient eunuchs feel? Just as I cannot remake myself as a male, they cannot have hoped to regain their maleness, so what motivated them to rise every morning? Whatever wisdom they had, I hoped to absorb so that I might be able to interpret my own experience and to feel part of their collective meaning.
To Whom Did Eunuchs Pray?
Some of the oldest reports of eunuchs are in the Bible. Our Jewish ancestors feared castration at the hands of enemy tribes:
Ask and see:
Surely males do not bear young!
Why then do I see every man
With his hands on his loins
Like a woman in labor?
Why have all faces turned pale?
and “And some of your sons, your own issue, whom you will have fathered, will be taken to serve as eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (Isaiah 39:7; 2 Kings 20:18) Our Jewish ancestors saw eunuchs as participants in palace intrigues, as when several servants of the Baal-worshipping Princess Jezebel threw her from a window (2 Kings 9:32-33) or when Esther successfully made the case for the execution of two traitorous chamberlains. (Esther 2:21-23) The fiasco with the golden calf during the escape from Egypt (Exodus 32:2-4) is a clear historical reference to the worship of the Egyptian god Osiris, whose mythological life story featured his thorough dismemberment and who was worshipped by castrated priests.
Given that a man’s castration invited the suspicion of his association with foreign gods such as Baal or Osiris, it is not surprising that the involvement of eunuchs in Jewish life is restricted. “No one whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:2) In Leviticus, castration is categorized simply as a physical defect among other possible handicaps: “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified [to offer the food of his God]: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes.” (Lev. 21:18-20) But I believe that eunuchs are marginalized in the Bible not primarily because they are viewed as disabled, nor even because they deviate from the sexual norm, but because they were typically not Jewish. The passage in Deuteronomy continues, bolstering this hypothesis: “No one misbegotten [mamzer, traditionally interpreted in Jewish law as an illegitimate child] shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord… No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord… You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live.” (Deut. 23:2-6) The Moabites and Ammonites worshipped a god named Chemosh (Num. 21:29 and Judges 11:24), whose sacred horses were kept by a eunuch (Hebrew saris, 2 Kings 23:11). The Deuteronomic passage’s close association of castrated men with children of disrespectable parentage or people from other tribes hints that these three categories may have been rolled together in ancient Jewish thought.
A curious Talmudic discussion re-opens the question of castration as a foreign practice. The rabbis distinguish between a “man-eunuch” (saris adam), a male who was deliberately castrated by other men, and a “sun-eunuch” (saris chamah), on whose manhood the sun never shone because he was born infertile. (Tractate Yevamot 75a, 79b and 80a) While the distinction between eunuchs born and made is important, it does not seem to match up intuitively with the provided labels. To me, it seems like a rationalization of pre-existing folk terms. A more common-sense meaning of “man-eunuch” would be a eunuch slave who serves a human master, contrasted with a “sun-eunuch” who castrates himself in devotion to a solar deity. The latter especially may have been too offensive or threatening even to acknowledge.
And yet, what are we to make of the blessing of the eunuchs in Isaiah? Once again, we see the connection between eunuchs and foreigners, but this time the message is positive. Contrary to the message in Deuteronomy, we are explicitly informed that the eunuchs will be recognized “within my temple and its walls” and that the foreigners’ “sacrifices will be accepted on my altar”.
Let not the foreigner say,
Who has attached himself to the LORD,
“The LORD will keep me apart from His people”;
And let not the eunuch say,
“I am a withered tree.”
For thus said the LORD:
“As for the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
Who have chosen what I desire
And hold fast to My covenant –
I will give them, in My House
And within My walls,
A monument and a name
Better than sons or daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name
Which shall not perish.
As of the foreigners
Who attach themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him,
And to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants –
All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it,
And who hold fast to My covenant –
I will bring them to My sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
Shall be welcome on My altar;
For My House shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples.”
Thus declares the Lord GOD,
Who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
“I will gather still more to those already gathered.”
According to Isaiah, although a eunuch’s “tree” may have run dry, his legacy among the Jewish people will not be (pun intended) “cut off.” Especially when taking this striking passage into consideration, it is a challenge to generalize about the treatment of eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible. This section of Isaiah is so unusual that one scholar, Jon Berquist, argued in Judaism in Persia’s Shadow that the text may have been written and promoted by King Cyrus to coax the exiled Jews to embrace the Persian people and culture, eunuch servants included.
Even attempting to identify individual eunuchs in the Bible is confusing. The word saris is a helpful tag, but we cannot assume that everyone who was castrated is identified as a saris, and furthermore, saris can be a general term for a government functionary or high-level servant who is usually, but not always, castrated. So I prefer to examine the individual stories of Biblical characters to consider whether they resemble eunuchs.
To begin with, the Persian palace corps who tended to the new Jewish arrivals Daniel (in the city of Babylon, 6th century BCE) and Esther (in the city of Susa, 4th century BCE) were certainly castrated men; so, by implication, Daniel and his Jewish male cohorts were likely castrated, too, when they were welcomed into the royal ranks. The aforementioned devotee of the sun-god Chemosh, a eunuch named Nathanmelech, lost his sacred horses to slaughter by the army of King Josiah. (2 Kings 23:11) A eunuch named Ebedmelech interceded with the Babylonian king for permission to personally lift the prophet Jeremiah from a squalid dungeon. (Jer. 38:7-13) Joseph’s life story bears some resemblance to that of a eunuch, insofar as he was sold into slavery as a youth and his master, an important Egyptian man, regularly left him alone in the house with his wife. (Joseph did, however, eventually marry and have children.) A yet looser connection is that Jacob, after fathering twelve children, experienced what might be interpreted as a “spiritual castration” at the hands of a violent angel on a riverbank. The angel wrenched the “hip” or “thigh” (Hebrew kaf-yerech, Gen 32:26) that was the symbolic source of his fertility (the same Hebrew root is used in Gen 46:26). Thus references to castration are vague at best.
Daniel, perhaps the only Jewish eunuch in the scriptures, prays frequently and gives thanks to God. After he was able to interpret the king’s dream, he credited God:
“He reveals deep and hidden things,
Knows what is in the darkness,
And light dwells with Him.
I acknowledge and praise You,
O God of my fathers,
You who have given me wisdom and power,
For now You have let me know what we asked of You;
You have let us know what concerns the king.”
This prayer can take on special significance as a eunuch’s prayer if it is understood as Daniel’s claim to special knowledge and divine favor that compensates for, and was possibly given in exchange for, the sacrifice of his male characteristics.
A Eunuch’s Brand of Magic
Biblical eunuchs, particularly the story of Daniel, should interest transsexuals as a point of inspiration. It shows that we do not have to feel unique in our struggles as people who have modified our physical sex. It shows that other people have managed to be strong and successful with robustly magical connections to the God of Israel.
The Bible doesn’t give clean and consistent answers to any deep question. Not only are answers not instantly imparted to the reader, but often the characters in the stories don’t seem to have had the answers to begin with. Pious Job never learned why his family was decimated. Stuttering Moses didn’t understand why he was picked to lead a stiff-necked people. The eunuchs of the Bible didn’t know what great cosmic plan required them to be captured and injured, what strange wisdom they acquired from the experience, and what they might become. They could not explain themselves any more than any of us today can explain our secret and terrible wounds.
Contrary to the modern rationalist hope of comprehending anything and everything, it can be soothing and reassuring to accept what is, at least for the moment, beyond our ability to grasp. We can feel horrified by the violence these men and boys endured, during their castration and slavery and afterwards due to their ethnic or religious affiliation, their politicking, or their third-gender social status. But we can also admire them. By their holy existence and by their actions, they demonstrate that we all have knowledge and skill we are too often afraid to claim as our own brand of magic.
Transsexuals sometimes feel pressured to perform our genders as if they were liberation strategies and even pressured to enjoy the process of this presumed rebellion, yet the reality for many is that we struggle to feel comfortable, safe, and lovable, never mind liberated, powerful, and happy. In this area, the word “eunuch” and its historical layers of meaning may be helpful, at least on a symbolic level, for transsexuals interpreting their experience. The man in the Bible called “eunuch” may have very well been unhappy because the castration may have been done without his consent. When other people heard the word, they may have felt revulsion or sympathy. The cultural meaning embedded in “eunuch” may feel more authentic and accurate for some transsexuals than the cultural meaning embedded in “transsexual.”
As a transsexual man, I have my own experience of feeling castrated against my will. For me, there was no moment of castration; it was not an actual event, but a vivid Freudian concept that offers a passable metaphor and a mythic narrative for my feelings about my adult body. When, in the course of my reading, an ancient eunuch walks across the stage, I identify with him in solidarity. I listen and wait for him to whisper magic words. The Biblical eunuchs are like angels on my shoulder.
Author, poet, photographer and artist Tucker Lieberman is the author of Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty (2020), Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains (2018), Bad Fire: A Memoir of Disruption (2018), and the blank journal Flip the Finger at Despair (2019). His essays have been published in anthologies including the 2011 Lambda winner “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community” and the 2012 Lambda nominee “Letters for my Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.” He studied philosophy at Brown University and journalism at Boston University. He lives with his husband, the science fiction writer Arturo Serrano, in Bogotá, Colombia.