Apollonius of Tyana on eunuchs’ passion

Most eunuchs today are either men who have have castrated themselves for career advantage, or men who have been made eunuchs by castration culture. Both groups have been poorly understood. Even the revered first-century neo-Pythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana wasn’t able to reason coherently about eunuchs. Failure of reason regarding castration culture and eunuchs shows general patterns of reason’s failure.

Apollonius discussed the passion of eunuchs with his disciple Damis. Their pseudo-Socratic dialogue lacked even superficial reason:

In the evening, Apollonius said, “Damis, I am pondering within myself why barbarians think eunuchs chaste, and admit them into their women’s quarters.” “Why, a child can see that,” said Damis. “Castration takes away their ability to have sex, and that is why they have access to harems, even if they would want to sleep with the women.” “What then do you think has been excised from them, erotic feelings or the ability to sleep with women?”

{ Ὁ δὲ ἑσπέρας ἤδη “ὦ Δάμι,” ἔφη “θεωρῶ πρὸς ἐμαυτόν, ἐξ ὅτου ποτὲ οἱ βάρβαροι τοὺς εὐνούχους σώφρονας ἡγοῦνται, καὶ ἐς τὰς γυναικωνίτιδας ἐσάγονται.” “ἀλλὰ τοῦτο,” ἔφη “ὦ Ἀπολλώνιε, καὶ παιδὶ δῆλον. ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἡ τομὴ τὸ ἀφροδισιάζειν ἀφαιρεῖται σφᾶς, ἀνεῖνταί σφισιν αἱ γυναικωνίτιδες, κἂν ξυγκαθεύδειν ταῖς γυναιξὶ βούλωνται.” “τὸ δὲ ἐρᾶν” εἶπεν “ἢ τὸ ξυγγίγνεσθαι γυναιξὶν ἐκτετμῆσθαι αὐτοὺς οἴει” }[1]

If eunuchs might want to sleep with women, then erotic feelings haven’t been excised from them. Apollonius’s question suggests that he didn’t listen well to what Damis just said. Perhaps Apollonius didn’t listen well because he was offended that Damis suggested that his mind was inferior to that of a child. But Damis didn’t even listen well to himself, for he replied:

“Both,” he said, “since if the organ that throws the body into frenzy has been done away with, no one can have sexual passion.”

{ “ἄμφω,” ἔφη “εἰ γὰρ σβεσθείη τὸ μόριον ὑφ᾿ οὗ διοιστρεῖται τὸ σῶμα, οὐδ᾿ ἂν τὸ ἐρᾶν ἐπέλθοι οὐδενί.” }

Even today’s college sex police feel sexual passion. Damis’s statement is nonsense. Moreover, it contradicts his earlier indication that eunuchs might want to sleep with women.

sculpture of wandering philosopher, probably Apollonius of Tyana

Events soon demonstrated that eunuchs want to sleep with women. Arranging incredibly for peace with the Eretrians and Parthians, Apollonius and the Parthian king Vardanes conversed:

They were conversing among themselves in this way when a shout of eunuchs and of women together rose from the royal quarters. A eunuch had in fact been caught in bed with one of the king’s wives. The eunuch was doing everything seducers do. The guardians of the harem were dragging him along by the hair. That’s how the king’s slaves are summoned. The senior eunuch said he had long since noticed that this one was in love with the woman. He had warned him not to talk to her, or to touch her neck or her hand. Among all the women in the harem, he was forbidden to dress only this one.

{ Τοιαῦτα δὴ λαλούντων πρὸς ἀλλήλους, κραυγὴ τῶν βασιλείων ἐξεφοίτησεν εὐνούχων καὶ γυναικῶν ἅμα· εἴληπτο δὲ ἄρα εὐνοῦχός τις ἐπὶ μιᾷ τῶν τοῦ βασιλέως παλλακῶν ξυγκατακείμενός τε καὶ ὁπόσα οἱ μοιχοὶ πράττων, καὶ ἦγον αὐτὸν οἱ ἀμφὶ τὴν γυναικωνῖτιν ἐπισπῶντες τῆς κόμης, ὃν δὴ ἄγονται τρόπον οἱ βασιλέως δοῦλοι. ἐπεὶ δὲ ὁ πρεσβύτατος τῶν εὐνούχων ἐρῶντα μὲν τῆς γυναικὸς πάλαι ᾐσθῆσθαι ἔφη, καὶ προειρηκέναι οἱ μὴ προσδιαλέγεσθαι αὐτῇ, μηδὲ ἅπτεσθαι δέρης ἢ χειρός, μηδὲ κοσμεῖν ταύτην μόνην τῶν ἔνδον, νῦν δὲ καὶ ξυγκατακείμενον εὑρηκέναι καὶ ἀνδριζόμενον ἐπὶ τὴν γυναῖκα }[2]

King Vardanes judged the eunuch to deserve to die for seeking to have sex with a royal wife.

Nonetheless, the king asked Apollonius for advice on punishing the eunuch. Apollonius declared that the eunuch’s punishment should be to live. Vardanes was astonished:

“So you don’t think he deserves to die many times over for creeping into my bed?” “I spoke as I did,” Apollonius replied, “not to get him a pardon, but a sentence that will waste him away. If he lives diseased and grasping at impossibilities, neither food nor drink will please him, nor the sights that cheer you and your attendants. His heart will pound, he will often start from sleep (that is said to be the most frequent symptom of sexual passion), and no consumption will waste him so much, no hunger will so gnaw his stomach. But if he is not the sort of man that clings to life, Your Majesty, he himself will one day beg you to kill him, or he will kill himself, bitterly regretting this present day in which he did not suffer instant death.” That was Apollonius’s advice, so wise and mild, which led the king to spare the eunuch’s life.

{ “εἶτα οὐ πολλῶν” ἔφη “θανάτων ἄξιος, ὑφέρπων οὕτως τὴν εὐνὴν τὴν ἐμήν;” “ἀλλ᾿ οὐχ ὑπὲρ ξυγγνώμης” ἔφη “βασιλεῦ, ταῦτα εἶπον, ἀλλ᾿ ὑπὲρ τιμωρίας, ἣ ἀποκναίσει αὐτόν. εἰ γὰρ ζήσεται νοσῶν καὶ ἀδυνάτων ἁπτόμενος, καὶ μήτε σῖτα μήτε ποτὰ ἥσει αὐτὸν μήτε θεάματα, ἃ σέ τε καὶ τούς σοι συνόντας εὐφρανεῖ, πηδήσεταί τε ἡ καρδία θαμὰ ἐκθρώσκοντος τοῦ ὕπνου, ὃ δὴ μάλιστα περὶ τοὺς ἐρῶντάς φασι γίγνεσθαι, καὶ τίς μὲν οὕτω φθόη τήξει αὐτόν, τίς δὲ οὕτω λιμὸς ἐπιθρύψει τὰ σπλάγχνα; εἰ δὲ μὴ τῶν φιλοψύχων εἴη τις, αὐτός, ὦ βασιλεῦ, δεήσεταί σού ποτε καὶ ἀποκτεῖναι αὐτὸν ἢ ἑαυτόν γε ἀποκτενεῖ, πολλὰ ὀλοφυρόμενος τὴν παροῦσαν ταύτην ἡμέραν, ἐν ᾗ μὴ εὐθὺς ἀπέθανε.” τοῦτο μὲν δὴ τοιοῦτον τοῦ Ἀπολλωνίου καὶ οὕτω σοφόν τε καὶ ἥμερον, ἐφ᾿ ᾧ ὁ βασιλεὺς ἀνῆκε τὸν θάνατον τῷ εὐνούχῳ. }

Apollonius essentially proposed a punishment worse than death: perpetual lovesickness. For that punishment to be effective, the eunuch couldn’t be capable, as other men are, of being cured of lovesickness. Castration culture lessens the possibilities for women and men to enjoy satisfying love. But being castrated doesn’t necessarily prevent satisfying love or overcoming lovesickness.[3]

Hebrew scripture provides more sophisticated thinking about eunuchs and love. Writing perhaps about 200 BGC, the Jewish scribe Ben Sira of Jerusalem stated:

Like a eunuch lusting to violate a young women is the person who does right under compulsion.

{ ἐπιθυμία εὐνούχου ἀποπαρθενῶσαι νεάνιδα οὕτως ὁ ποιῶν ἐν βίᾳ κρίματα }[4]

Drawing upon deeply rooted disparagement of men’s sexuality, the meaning of “violate” here is best understood to mean to have sex of reproductive type. A eunuch with an intact, sexually functioning penis could have penis-in-vagina sex with a women. But all eunuchs had at least their testicles removed. Men without testicles cannot provide semen necessary for new life. As a castrated man, a eunuch is incapable of generating new life. A person who does right under compulsion similarly cannot receive moral credit for choosing to do right.

Ben Sira recognized a eunuch’s grief in not being able to create life sexually. Ben Sira observed:

Good things poured out upon a closed mouth are like offerings of food placed upon a grave. Of what use to an idol is a food sacrifice? An idol can neither eat nor smell. In such a position is the one punished by the Lord. He sees with his eyes and groans as a eunuch groans when embracing a young woman.

{ ἀγαθὰ ἐκκεχυμένα ἐπὶ στόματι κεκλεισμένῳ θέματα βρωμάτων παρακείμενα ἐπὶ τάφῳ τί συμφέρει κάρπωσις εἰδώλῳ οὔτε γὰρ ἔδεται οὔτε μὴ ὀσφρανθῇ οὕτως ὁ ἐκδιωκόμενος ὑπὸ κυρίου βλέπων ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς καὶ στενάζων ὥσπερ εὐνοῦχος περιλαμβάνων παρθένον καὶ στενάζων }

Men’s seminal blessing has great importance in Hebrew scripture. The groan of the eunuch embracing a young woman is the grief of love without the Lord’s seminal blessing.

According to Hebrew scripture, God’s love embraces faithful eunuchs. God creates every person in mind, body, and soul. Faithful persons respect all this work of the Lord:

Blessed also is the eunuch whose hands have done no lawless deed, and who has not devised wicked things against the Lord. Special favor will be shown to him for his faithfulness, and a place of great delight in the temple of the Lord.

{ καὶ εὐνοῦχος ὁ μὴ ἐργασάμενος ἐν χειρὶ ἀνόμημα μηδὲ ἐνθυμηθεὶς κατὰ τοῦ κυρίου πονηρά δοθήσεται γὰρ αὐτῷ τῆς πίστεως χάρις ἐκλεκτὴ καὶ κλῆρος ἐν ναῷ κυρίου θυμηρέστερος }[5]

Not being able to reproduce sexually doesn’t necessarily separate eunuchs from the Lord’s blessing:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold strongly to my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. [6]

{ לַסָּֽרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְרוּ
אֶת־שַׁבְּתוֹתַי וּבָֽחֲרוּ בַּאֲשֶׁר חָפָצְתִּי וּמַחֲזִיקִים
בִּבְרִיתִֽי׃
וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחֽוֹמֹתַי יָד וָשֵׁם טוֹב
מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן־לוֹ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵֽת׃ ס }

Life isn’t punishment for faithful eunuchs. Although part or all of their genitals have been cut off, eunuchs aren’t necessary cut off from God. They don’t have to die from lovesickness. They can live and love as good and faithful servants of God, just as all persons can.

Apollonius of Tyana had an unreasonable and cruel view of a eunuch’s passion. Persons can make life into punishment for themselves through lovesickness. That’s as true for eunuchs as for persons who aren’t eunuchs. The cure for lovesickness is the same for both: attainable love.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana {Τὰ ἐς τὸν Τυανέα Ἀπολλώνιον} 1.34, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Jones (2005). The subsequent quotes from Life of Apollonius of Tyana are similarly sourced. The subsequent one above is also from Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Philostratus probably wrote his Life of Apollonius of Tyana about 230 GC. The translation of Conybeare (1912) for the Loeb Classical Library is freely accessible online. Here are more textual resources about Apollonius of Tyana.

For “κἂν ξυγκαθεύδειν ταῖς γυναιξὶ βούλωνται,” Jones translated “even if they want to sleep with the women.” Conybeare has “no matter how far their wishes may go.” I’ve highlighted the subjunctive in the Greek by inserting “would” before “want” in Jones’s translation.

[2] Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1.37. The subsequent quote above is also from id.

[3] Apollonius elsewhere disparaged Spartan men for appreciating their own bodily beauty and enjoying luxurious clothing. Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.27. The ancient regime in Sparta included mothers horrifically devaluing their sons’ lives. Apollonius’s support for Sparta’s ancient regime lacks compassion and wisdom, just as did Apollonius seeking punishment worse than death for the eunuch in love with one of the king’s wives.

In some instances, Apollonius showed admirable concern for men’s lives. For example, Apollonius in Corinth saved Cynic philosopher Demetrius’s student Menippus from being devoured by a female vampire (a lamia). Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.25. Apollonius in Cnidus cured a man madly in love with a statue of Aphrodite. Life of Apollonius of Tyana 6.40.

[4] Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 20:4, Greek text from the Septuagint, my English translation benefiting from widely available translations. The Hebrew text for this verse hasn’t survived. Here’s information on the complex textual history of Sirach. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Sirach 30:18-20.

[5] Wisdom of Solomon (Wisdom) 3:14, Greek text from the Septuagint, English translation based on the Revised Standard Version.

[6] Isaiah 56:4-5, Hebrew text from the Westminster Leningrad Codex, via Blue Letter Bible, English translation based on the Revised Standard Version.

[image] Ancient wandering philosopher, probably Apollonius of Tyana. Sculpture made in second century GC and found in Gortyn, Crete. Source image thanks to Christian Vandendorpe and Wikimedia Commons.

Reference:

Jones, Christopher P., ed. and trans. 2005. Philostratus. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Loeb Classical Library 16 and 17. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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