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Tears In God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 2: Eunuchs


Eunuchs in the Ancient Near East

 The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing in the fourth century, believed male castration had its origins during the reign of Semiramis, the Assyrian queen who was powerful and influential, even advising her son Adad-nirari III during his reign (810–783 B.C.) to the point where official texts speak of them acting together. [1] Semiramis surrounded herself with trusted eunuch slaves and confidants and appears to have had astute business acumen in the buying and selling of eunuchs. [2] However, in Mesopotamia eunuchs have a considerably earlier history. Images, from the fourth millennium BC, have been found in Uruk [3] and are associated with the Sumerian goddess Inanna (Ishtar in Assyrian and Babylonian), goddess of sexual love and fertility. They display human figures of three distinct varieties: men, women, and a group lacking hair and genitals that, because of their appearance, anthropologist Susan Pollock has referred to as “genderless figures.” [4]

According to Gary Taylor, a text dating from the Babylonian reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) states explicitly that the goddess of Uruk, referring to Ishtar (or Inanna, her Sumerian name), “makes eunuchs.”[5] The Mesopotamian poem, Erra, records more clearly that the goddess took the kurgarrus and assinnus and “changed their masculinity into femininity in order to make the people reverent” and turn them away from orgiastic practices. [6] We can deduce that this change was castration, as Donald Wiseman and Marvin Pope conclude. [7] Scholars debate whether the assinnu and kurgarru who served Ishtar were homosexuals, transvestites, or hermaphrodites, but the status of eunuch fits each of these categories, as Taylor notes [8] and since the Code of Hammurabi refers to eunuchs, mentioning castration as a form of punishment, it strongly indicates that eunuchs were by that time a widespread occurrence with castration established as a custom, as Scholz suggests. [9]

Deller asserts that the Assyrian tradition of having eunuchs as slaves in the royal court probably derived from late Hittite culture (between 1400 and 1200 B.C.), situated in Asia Minor and down the Syrian coast. [10] Certainly, by that time, eunuchs were frequently mentioned in a variety of ancient texts, as John Hawkins has observed. [11] The eunuch’s first task, in the Hittite empire, was to protect the royal family and report any discovered traitorous or harmful information that was directed against the king, so they were often sent out as emissaries, but never served as military leaders or accompanied the king into battles, as did Assyrian eunuchs. [12] Assyrian eunuchs could hold powerful positions and were bestowed with titles such as rab sha reshi (chief eunuch), rab shaqe (chief cupbearer), or sukkallu (second highest official in the empire) and according to Karen Radner, such eunuchs held the highest recognized authority after that of the king, being referred to as “the great ones.” [13] During the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire it became common to refer to the sha reshis (“beardless ones”) and sha ziqnis (“bearded ones”) as comprising the entire body of Assyrian officials, so differentiating between eunuchs and non-eunuchs who served. [14]

While best known for supervising staff in women’s quarters and harems, Assyrian eunuchs were also favoured royal aides as domestic staff, palace officials, ambassadors, statesmen and military generals. [15] They were not necessarily looked upon as effeminate or weak and some eunuchs even went on to become distinguished generals. [16] During the reign of Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C.) eunuchs became so powerful that landed nobles rebelled against the throne, with the uprisings only finally quashed by Shalmaneser’s successor, Shamshi-Adad V (823–811 B.C.). [17] Following this and during the reign of Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.), reliefs depicting the king’s attendants show most of them as bearded, perhaps indicating that the king had learned from the experience of his predecessors and no longer placed eunuchs in positions of power. Despite this, however, eunuchs had clearly proven their usefulness and so by the reign of Sennacherib’s grandson, Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.), there were more eunuchs in the royal court than ever before. [18]

Eventually, control of the Assyrian territories in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine fell to the Babylonians, while the lands to the north were conquered by the Medes. The Babylonian dynasty of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II is frequently referred to as “Chaldean” in the Bible (e.g. Dan. 1:4, 2:2; Jer. 32:28, 35:11, 51:7; Ezek. 1:3) despite little evidence existing outside the Bible for a Chaldean origin, as John Collins notes in his research of the book of Daniel. [19] Since the Babylonian dynasty (87 years) is shorter than the Neo-Assyrian Empire (274 years) and because fewer architectural and literary records have survived for Babylon than for Assyria, we know almost nothing about eunuchs during this Neo-Babylonian period. However, the Babylonians and Assyrians shared a common culture [20] and both spoke Akkadian, albeit in different dialects, [21] and since eunuchs were used extensively by Assyrian kings (and later by Persian kings: 559–330 B.C.) we can surmise that Neo-Babylonian rulers acted similarly. According to Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, the tradition of using eunuchs in the royal court as essential and highly-trained officers in royal service was most definitely passed on from the Assyrians to the Babylonians and from them to the Persians. [22] Grayson similarly notes that the use of eunuchs would be expected in Babylonian culture since, among other occupations associated with eunuchs, the harem had a significant presence. [23]

Daniel 1 relates that when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem (605 B.C.), Ashpenaz the rab-saris (“master of his eunuchs,” New King James Version) was given the charge of selecting well-bred, wise and beautiful youths without defect from among the Israelite captives to be taken to Babylon to serve the palace; he oversaw their care, gave them supervision and training and gave them Babylonian names. Hayim Tadmor observes that when Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and the city was totally destroyed the following year, his rab-saris or master of the eunuchs accompanied him again (Jer. 39:3, 13), although we are not told in this instance the eunuch’s name or specific duties. [24] Use of eunuchs in the royal courts of the Persian Empire is well documented. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., reports that prisoners of war, in particular “boys of unusual beauty,” were frequently castrated and sold to the “barbarians,” as he referred to the Persians, who considered them more trustworthy than other males. [25] Herodotus also notes that Babylonia was obliged to supply the Persian king Darius an annual tribute of 500 boys to serve as eunuchs in his courts. [26] Hellanicus of Lesbos (fifth century B.C.) further records that the Persians learned castration from the Babylonians although, as Gera notes, this may have been a way of simply saying the Persians used eunuchs as the Babylonians had. [27]

According to Llewellyn-Jones, the Achaemenid Persian king regarded himself as God’s ruler on earth and generally remained hidden from the gaze of his subjects except for formal audiences, spending most of his time in the domestic inner court with his eunuchs, his children and chosen women from his harem. The harems were large and included not only the king’s wives and concubines, but his royal sisters, mothers and other female members. Persian women were jealously guarded, more so than other cultures and spent most of their time locked up in their rooms; if they travelled, they would be in carriages covered on all sides with draperies. [28]

While Egyptian royal art presented images of the royal wives, mothers, sister and daughters, Persian women are entirely absent from royal artwork, as they frequently are from Assyrian reliefs. The Persian king would normally dine with his wife or his mother, while a eunuch stood near waving insects away with a large fly-whisk, or fan. [29] Since eunuchs could enter both the deeply private world of the harem and the general public arena, they were invaluable aides to the king and high-ranking royal women of the inner court, watching and listening, relaying official messages between the inner and outer courts and passing on unofficial gossip and secrets. [30]   They could always be found where the harem was situated and would accompany the women if the king took them on royal hunts, annual journeys between palaces, or on military campaigns.


[1] Bullough, in Tougher, Eunuchs, p.5.

[2] Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, p.70.

[3] Uruk - Erech in Gen. 10:10 - was located sixty miles northwest of Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, as noted by Charles L. Feinberg, Erech, in Geoffrey W. Bromiley [ed.], International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia Vol.2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p.126.  

[4] Referenced by Gary Taylor, Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood (New York and London: Routledge, 2002) p.285.

[5] Taylor, Castration, p.179.

[6] Erra, Tablet IV.55-58: See Daniel Bodi, The Book of Ezekiel and the Poem of Erra (Göttingen: Vandehoeck und Ruprecht, 1991), p.274-76.

[7] Donald Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets (Brooklyn: AMS Press, 1983) p. 25; Marvin H. Pope, Homosexuality, in Keith Crim [ed.] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), p.415.

[8] Taylor, Castration, pp.178-79.

[9] Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, p.74.

[10] Karlheinz Deller referenced by Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000–323 B.C. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) p.147.

[11] John David Hawkins referenced by Karlheinz Deller, The Assyrian Eunuchs and Their Predecessors, in Kazuko Watanabe [ed.], Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1999), p.309.

[12] Deller, in Watanabe, Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East, p.310.

[13] Karen Radner, The King’s Advisors: Magnates and Scholars (Higher Education Academy, U. K.), Available online at: http://knp.prs.heacademy.ac.uk/essentials/kingsadvisors

[14] Albert K. Grayson, Eunuchs in Power: Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy, in Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz [eds.], Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament: Festschift fur Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85. Geburtstag am 19, Juni 1993 (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1995), pp.91-92.

[15] Norman M. Penzer, The Harem (London: Spring Books, 1936 [reprinted 1965]), p.15; also David G. Burke, Eunuch, in Geoffrey W. Bromiley [ed.], International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Vol.2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p.200.

[16] Grayson, in Dietrich and Loretz, Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament, p.97.

[17] Julian Reade, Assyrian Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983 [reprinted 1994]), p.31.

[18] Reade, Assyrian Sculpture, pp.36-37.

[19] John J. Collins, A Commentary on the Book of Daniel: Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), p.137.

[20] Reade, Assyrian Sculpture, p.13.

[21] ‘Akkadian’, Oxford English Dictionary, Available online at:


[22] Llewellyn-Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, p.22.  

[23] Grayson, in Dietrich and Loretz, Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament, p.90.

[24] Hayim Tadmor, Rab-saris and Rab-shakeh in 2 Kings 18, in Carol L. Meyers and M. O’Connor, [eds.], The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of his Sixtieth Birthday (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983), pp.278-81.

[25] Herodotus, George Rawlinson [trans.] The History of Herodotus Chapter VIII, Available online at: http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.8.viii.html  

[26] Deborah Levine Gera, Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulierbus (New York; E.J. Brill, 1996), p.147. Gera is referring to Herodotus, Persian Wars 3.92

[27] Gera, Warrior Women, pp.146-147.

[28] Llewellyn Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, pp.25-27.


[29] Llewellyn Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, pp.29-30.

[30] Llewellyn Jones, in Tougher, Eunuchs, pp.28-29.