Source: “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets”
by Barbara G. Walker [Harper & Row, 1983]
All mythologies suggest that, before men understood their reproductive role, they tried to “make women” of themselves in hope of achieving woman-like fertility. Methods included couvade or imitation childbirth; mock death and rebirth through artificial male mothers; ceremonial use of red substances to imitate menstrual blood; and transvestism. Another method was ceremonial castration. its primitive object was to turn a male body into a female one, replacing dangling genitals with a bleeding hole.
Many gods became pseudo-mothers by this means. Egypt’s solar god Ra castrated himself to bring forth a race called the Ammiu out of his blood. The phallus of the Hindu “Great god” Mahadeva, was removed and chopped to pieces by priestesses of the great goddess. The pieces entered the earth and gave birth to a new race of men, the Lingajas (men of the lingam, or phallus). In a Chukchi variant, the great god Raven acquired feminine secrets of magic for men by pounding his own penis into a pudding and feeding it to the goddess Miti. In Mexico, the savior Quetzalcoatl made new humans to repopulate the earth after the Flood by cutting his penis and giving blood to the lady of the serpent skirt – the goddess with many short phalli dangling about her waist, a figure also known in the Middle East as Anath.
Several forms of the Heavenly Father became creators by a rite of castration. The god Bel cut his “head” (of the penis) and mixed his blood with clay to make men and animals, copying the magic of Mother Ninhursag. Shamin, the Phoenician’s Father Heaven, was castrated by his son El and made the world’s rivers from his blood, imitating the goddess’ menstrual magic. Arabs called this god shams-on, the sun. The bible called him Samson, whose blindness and hair-cutting were not mythic metaphors of castration.
Shearing the sun-god’s “hair” (rays) meant emasculating him. His severed penis represented the son / supplanter; and a penis was often called “the little blind one” or “the one eyed god.”
Greek’s personification of the phallus, Priapus, was the son of Aphrodite and her castrated consort, Adonis. Their Roman counterparts Vesta and Vulcan produced a phallic god Caeculus, “the little blind one.”
Uranus, “Father Heaven,” was castrated by his son Cronus. Uranus’s severed genitals entered the sea-womb and fertilized it to produce a new incarnation of the Virgin Aphrodite Uranina, “Celestial Aphrodite.” It was she who ruled the earlier cults of castrated gods, such as Anchises and Adonis. She was the same as the Canaanites’ Lady of the Serpent Skirt; her priests castrated gods in her honor.
So did the priests of Aphrodite’s Nordic counterpart, Freya-Skadi. The Nordic Father Heaven was Odin, whose twelfth holy name was Jalkr, “eunuch.” As a castrated god, Odin was the son-phallus of an older Eunuch personifying both father and son; for Odin was also the one-eyed god, or Volsi, a “stallion penis.” Like the stallion of the Vedic horse sacrifice, he was castrated.
A late myth tried to account for Odin’s crude phallic title by saying he could not drink of the cosmic feminine fountain of wisdom until he had given up one of his eyes. Here one might recall the alternating seasonal castrations of Set and Horus in Egypt, their severed phalli mythologically described as “eyes.” Biblical writers called the penis a “sinew that shrank,” lying “upon the hollow of the thigh.” This was the sinew that Jacob lost in his duel with “a man who was god.” Jacob, “the Supplanter,” was an other name for Seth, or Set, who was likewise symbolized by the Ladder of Souls and likewise engaged in a contest with his rival, ending in his castration. When Set was castrated, his blood was spread over the fields in the annual ceremony of sowing so as to fertilize the crops.
The Book of Genesis confuses the two aspects of the god-king, who as Jacob won his battle with the incumbent king and supplanted him, then as Israel lost his battle with the next supplanter, and was castrated. Is-Ra-El mau have been a corruption of Isis-Ra-El, the god enthroned as the consort of his goddess, awaiting the next challenger. The syllable El meant his deification. The garbled story of Jacob and the god-man was inserted chiefly to support the Jews’ taboo on eating a penis (Genesis 32:32) formerly a habit of sacred kings upon their accession to the throne. The genitals of the defeated antagonist were eaten by the victor, to pass the phallic spirit from one “god” to the next. A king’s virtu, “manliness,” or heill, “holiness,” dwelt in his genitals because that was his point of contact with the goddess-queen. Innumerable myths of father-castrating, mother-marrying god-kings arose, not so much from inner Oedipal jealousies as from actual customs of royal succession in antiquity.
The Greek king Aegeus died the very moment when his “son,” Theseus, arrived from Crete to claim his throne. The key to this myth is that Aegeus was “rendered sterile” by a curse, the same ritual curse laid on all kings of outworn usefulness, followed very shortly by castration and death. In sacred drama of the Canaan, the reed scepter of the dying god Mot was broken, to signify his castration. His name, meaning “sterility” or “Death,” was a title of the fertility god Aleyin (Baal) as he entered his declining phase, when his rival assumed the sacred throne, and he became Lord of Death. The custom of eating the defeated king’s genitals appears in a number of Middle-Eastern myths, e.g., that of Hittite god Kumarbi, one of a line of father-castrating kings of heaven. Kumarbi’s assumption of the fertility-spirit was expressed by the story that he “became pregnant.” Mythic fathers and sons demonstrated remarkable hostility toward each other’s genitals. Scholars tend to regard this as an expression of Oedipal aggressions, originating in the jealousy of elder males toward younger, more virile ones. Though men eventually gave up the hopeless idea of making one of their number pregnant by redesigning his body in a feminine style, customs of castration and crypto-castration persisted because they offered an outlet for this male jealousy.
Among savages, men’s puberty ceremonies generally provided an excuse for older men’s attacks on the bodies of youths. Modified castrations may be inflicted in the form of circumcision, subincision, and other genital wounds; also a variety of torments such as scarifying flesh, knocking out teeth, beatings, torture, and homosexual rape. “The dramatized anger of both the father and the circumciser and the myths of the original initiation in which all boys were killed, certainly show the Oedipal aggression of the elder generation as the basic drive behind initiation.”
The more patriarchal the society, the more brutal its attacks on male youth, as a general rule. Notable for brutality was the Moslems’ Esselkh or scarification ceremony, a complete flaying of the skin from a boy’s penis, scrotum, and groin. After enduring this, the victim was further tormented by application of salt and hot sand, and buried up to the waist in a dunghill, making subsequent infection almost inevitable. Burton commented, “This ordeal was sometimes fatal.” Legman pointed out that both Islam and Judaism share in the surgical intimidation of the son by the father, just at the threshold of puberty, either in the psychological castration of circumcision at puberty, or this same operation effected at the earlier age of eight days (Judaism), or in a reminiscence of this operation.
Subincision provides an example of transition from a female-imitative rationale to a male sadomasochistic ritual. As practiced by the Arunta, it began with a long sliver of bone inserted into the urethra. The youth’s penis was then sawed open with a sharp flint, down to the level of the bone. Blood flowing from the wound was directed onto a sacred fire, like the menstrual blood of girls at menarche. The operation was termed “man’s menstruation.” The wound was called a “vagina.”
The obvious purpose of this unpleasantness was to transform a male into a pseudo-female. The mutilated youth was even obliged to urinate while squatting, like a woman. Sometimes, men renewed the damage several times over, repeating the litany: “We are not separated from the mother; for ‘we two are one.’” Natives said the custom was begun by an ancestral spirit, Mulkari or Mu-Kari, perhaps a corrupt form of Mother Kali (Ma-Kali), who was known as Kari in Malaysia.
Far from supporting the Freudian doctrine of penis envy, primitive customs seem to suggest vulva envy as the original motive behind ritual castrations. It might be found even in civilized society. Bettelheim remarked on the desire of some young men to be circumcised, or otherwise subjected to bloodletting, when their girlfriends were starting to menstruate. Circumcision was surely a modified form of earlier, female-imitative castrations.
The institution of circumcision was attributed to the same gods, such as El, who castrated their fathers. Its object was to feminize. In India, boys were dressed as girls, nose ring and all, on the eve of the circumcision ceremony. In ancient Egypt also, boys on their way to circumcision wore girls’ clothing, and were followed by a woman sprinkling salt, a common Egyptian symbol of life-giving menstrual blood.
Circumcision took place at the age of thirteen, the number of months in a year according to ancient menstrual calendars, and the traditional age of menarche. After copying circumcision from the Egyptians, Jews transferred it to the period of infancy, leaving the pubertal ceremony, now called bar mitzvah awkwardly placed at a point in a boy’s life when nothing really happens, in contrast to the sudden onset of menarche in a girl. Infant circumcision was attributed to Moses, who insisted on it against the will of his Midianite wife Zipporah, who apparently objected to the mutilation of her infant. After performing the operation, she flung the foreskin at Moses’s feet, calling him a bloody husband (Exodus 4:25).
Other biblical passages show that foreskins were considered appropriate offerings to Yahweh. David brought his wife Michal from Yahweh’s representative the king, with 200 Philistine foreskins (1 Samuel 18:27). Other heavenly fathers made similar demands for genital gifts. Male animals sacrificed to Rome’s Heavenly Father Jupiter were gelded. The bull representing the castrated savior Attis was also castrated. His blood conferred spiritual rebirth on those who bathed in it, like the blood of the Christian “lamb,” as if it were the secret blood of the womb, the real source of life according to the oldest beliefs.
Castration as a means of acquiring feminine powers was still evident among priesthoods of the Great Mother, along with other female-imitative devices such as transvestism. Self-emasculated priests in female clothing served the Indian goddess under her name of Hudigamma. Similar eunuch priests tended Middle-Eastern temples like those of Dea Syria at Hierapolis, Artemis-Diana in Anatolia, and the Magna Mater in Phyrgia and Rome. The famous seer of Thebes, Tieresias, got his powers of second sight and prophecy by becoming a woman, possibly by castration, and living as a temple harlot for seven years. Perhaps the best known self-emasculators in the ancient world were priests of Attis and Cybele, the Great Mother. As Attis was castrated and poured out his lifeblood to fructify her, so his priests in imitation of his sacrifice cut off their genitals and gave them to the goddess’ image. Sometimes, the men’s severed members were thrown into houses, as a special blessing. In return, householders gave the new eunuchs feminine garments to wear. Sometimes, the severed genitalia were carried in baskets or cistae to the Mother’s innermost shrine, where they were anointed, even gilded, and sometimes buried in the Bridal Chamber. The phallus of the god himself was carried into the sacred cavern in the form of a large pine log, which was also, like the phallic cross of middle-eastern saviors, the instrument on which he died. His priests, having copied his self-sacrifice, were distinguished by the androgynous title bestowed on the earliest forms of Shiva; they were “lords who were half woman.”
Tertullian admitted that the “divine mysteries” of Christianity were virtually the same as the “devilish mysteries” of pagan saviors like Attis. Popularity of Attis’s cult in Rome led to Christian adoption of some of the older god’s ways. One of the best kept secrets of early Christianity was its preaching of castration for the special inner circle of initiates, who won extra grace with this demonstration of chastity. They taught, following the wisdom of Solomon, “Blessed is the eunuch, which with his hands has wrought no iniquity.” Jesus himself advocated castration: “There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).
Several early fathers of the church did receive it. Origen was highly praised for having castrated himself. Justin’s Apologia said proudly that Roman surgeons were besieged by faithful men requesting the operation. Tertullian declared, “The kingdom of heaven is thrown open to eunuchs.” Justin advised that Christian boys be emasculated before puberty, so their virtue was permanently protected. Three Christians who tried to burn Diocletian’s palace were described as eunuchs.
Throughout the middle ages, cathedral choirs included castrati, emasculated before puberty to preserve their virtue and their soprano voices, which were considered more pleasing to God than the “impure” female soprano. Women were not allowed to sing in church choirs, anyway.
Castration was advocated also for monks who could not fend off the demons of sexual desire. It was forcibly imposed on the monk Abelard, whose love affair with his pupil Heloise caused a scandal in the church. But there were others who seem to have accepted surgical chastity on a voluntary basis. Such men assumed the title of Hesychasti, “permanently chaste ones” or “those who are at peace.” The title was associated particularly with the monks of Mount Athos, so carefully ascetic that even to the present day no female creature is allowed on the holy mountain – hens, cows, sows, nanny goats, and women all equally forbidden.
It is likely that Mount Athos was named after Attis, and may have been a shrine served by his eunuch priests in pre-Christian times, situated close to his Phyrgian home. There was a Magna Mater figure connected with Mount Athos up to the early 14th century. The monk were labeled heretics for being too deeply involved with the teachings of a certain so-called nun named Irene – “Peace,” the third persona of Triple Aphrodite embodied in her priestess-Horae. Irene, as Crone, would have been the priestess of castrations hinted in the myths of such lovers of the goddesses as Anchises and Adonis. When the church purged Mount Athos of the influence of Irene, the abbot Lazarus was expelled. With a companion named Barefooted Cyril, Lazarus wandered through Bulgaria preaching the redeeming virtues of nakedness and self-emasculation.
It seems that the cult of Attis and Cybele continued to influence Christianity in the Balkans for many centuries. Balkan monastic communities were organized in groups of fifty, like older “colleges” of the Great Mother’s emasculated priests. In Thrace, the Great Mother had the name of Cottyto, mother of the hundred-handed giant Cottus, an allegorical figure representing her fifty spiritual sons with two hands each. Her worship persisted underground, long enough for the church to define it as witchcraft, and to label Cottyto a demon. In 1619 a booklet published in Paris suggested the same Balkan tradition of the priest who dedicated himself to god in a manner that was then considered heretical: “the devil cut off his privy parts.”
Ritual castration was again revived by the 18th century Russian sectaries calling themselves Skoptsi, “castrated ones.” They also called themselves People of God, insisting that removal of their genitals brought them profound spiritual powers. Russia’s “mad monk” Rasputin was a member of this sect. Since Rasputin was famed for his affairs with women, few of his contemporaries would have believed him a eunuch; but they had forgotten what eastern harem-keepers knew well enough: that eunuchs are quite capable of providing women with sexual pleasure. Rasputin’s hold over his female devotees was in any case a curious combination of spiritual and sensual obsessions.