The words testament and testify share the same root as testicle. Not literally the same root – if you get my drift. In ancient times men cradled their testicles when taking an oath. Unlike the Holy Bible, your balls were always with you. As the root (that word again) of your masculinity, they were the most sacred things you had.
When farming began, people realised castrating male animals made them docile. It was not long before it was applied to humans.
There were two types of eunuchs: those castrated before puberty, and others who had their entire exterior genitals severed and a quill inserted to pee through. As this operation was so dangerous, full eunuchs were much more prized and often employed as harem guards – for obvious reasons.
In ancient Syria would-be priests of the fertility goddess Cybele (Sybil) castrated themselves at the climax of her annual festival, throwing their genitals into a house as they ran in frenzy through the streets dressed as women. The household where the severed member landed was obliged to nurse him back to health. If by mischance they missed, they were left to bleed to death in the street.
The Emperor Nero bitterly regretted kicking his beloved pregnant wife, Poppea Sabina, to death in a fit of pique. So much so that when he saw her face on a slave, he had the young man castrated, trained in the feminine arts, dressed as a woman and promptly married him.
Eunuchs castrated as boys, served as a third sex performing submissive roles, especially in ancient China, Asia and Byzantium. Places where women were sequestered. They became priests, servants and eventually court officials and statesmen.
Some were patriarchs of the Orthodox Church – a form of pope. Unlike Judaism, Christianity welcomed eunuchs into the faith: tapping into an established resource of power, wealth and talent within the Roman Empire.
The basic form of the human body is female, so losing your testicles before puberty results in feminisation. Eunuchs have no beards, nor male pattern baldness. Narses, a Byzantine eunuch, led the Justinian’s army to re-conquer Italy, while wearing an artificial beard. They cannot develop muscle mass like men but rather lay down tissue on breasts, buttocks and hips, like women.
At puberty male hormones cause the voice box to drop in the throat giving men an Adam’s apple and a deeper voice. Not so eunuchs. They retain a pure soprano voice. This was a boon for church music. St Paul said women should not raise their voices in church and so they were forbidden to sing. Men sang the high parts in falsetto sometimes with unpleasant results.
In the 1500s, a group of male sopranos began singing in church. They were the Spanish falsettos. As Spain had recently been liberated from Islam, it is likely they were castrato. They became all the rage and dominated music, especially the opera, for centuries.
Their voices were totally unlike a women’s: uncannily piercing and quite inhuman. Heard in church they sounded like angels.
Male sopranos became the rock stars of the opera. Children of poor families showing any ability were castrated and sent for musical training. One of the most famous was Farinelli.
Outside Rome, women became commonplace on the stage. In the 1800s Napoleon Bonaparte outlawed castrating children.
The last operatic male soprano was Velluti. In 1825 he caused a sensation in London; where a castrato had not been heard for half a century. It appears novelty, rather than his voice was the real attraction.
The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. He sang in the Sistine Chapel Choir as the Vatican still banned women. He was recorded on primitive wax cylinders in 1902 which still survive.
Moreschi is often criticised as mediocre, but the recording is obviously low quality. Also, singing has changed.
Moreschi seems off-key and misses notes. At one point his voice wobbles up an octave. This is due to grace-notes – difficult vocal accomplishments. Perhaps his skill is best judged by the genuine applause of his fellow choristers heard on the recordings.