While most people will be uncomfortable with the idea of being castrated, a new trend has emerged where individuals voluntarily choose to nullify their gender.
Although this may seem like a recent development driven by modern social trends, the practice of castration has been around for centuries and has been used for various reasons. It has been used as a punishment for criminals, a means of controlling the behavior of slaves, a way of creating eunuchs for court positions, and as a religious or cultural practice.
Interestingly, there have however also always been volunteers who chose to undergo castration for personal or cultural reasons, rather than being forced into it.
The Kybele cult
The Roman Cybele cult originated in Phrygia (modern-day Turkey) and was imported to Rome in the third century BCE. The cult centered around the goddess Cybele, also known as the Great Mother, and her male consort, Attis.
One of the unique features of the cult was the practice of castration, which was performed on young male devotees of the goddess on March 24th, the dies sanguinus, or the day of blood.
The historian Strabo provides a detailed account of the castration ritual, which was practiced in Phrygia and later in Rome. According to Strabo, the ritual began with a procession of devotees who gathered at the temple of the goddess. The devotees were accompanied by musicians, dancers, and priests, and they carried with them the image of the goddess Cybele, which was adorned with jewelry and other ornaments.
As the procession made its way through the streets, the devotees worked themselves into a frenzy, shouting and dancing to the music. When they arrived at the temple, they entered a sacred grove where a bull was waiting to be sacrificed.
The castration was then performed on select devotees, who had been chosen for their beauty and youth. The chosen ones were dressed in women’s clothing and made to dance and perform other rituals before the castration took place. They were then anointed with oil and led to the sacrificial bull, which they castrated with their teeth or a sharp instrument.
After the castration, the devotees were taken to a nearby stream where they bathed and were ritually purified. They were then given new names and dressed in the clothing of the Galli, the castrated priests of the Cybele cult.
The practice of castration was believed to represent a symbolic death and rebirth, and it was thought to confer special spiritual powers on the castrated individuals. The Galli were often employed as priests and attendants in the temples of Cybele. They generally wore women’s clothing (often yellow), a turban, pendants, and earrings. They bleached their hair, wore it long, and used heavy makeup. The Galli also wandered around with followers, begging for charity, in return for which they were prepared to tell fortunes.
The castration of male devotees was not unique to the Cybele cult and was also practiced in other cults that worshipped goddesses, such as the cult of Isis in ancient Egypt. However, in all cases, the practice was controversial and was often condemned by the Roman authorities, who saw it as a form of self-mutilation and a threat to traditional Roman values.
The background of the ritual had some transgender-related aspects. According to the myth, the daemon-deity Agdistis was born as a hermaphroditic being, possessing both male and female genitalia. His nature caused fear among the gods, and they castrated Agdistis, which became fully female, Cybele. From his blood and semen, the man Attis was born. He caught the eye of the former Agdistis, now Cybele, the Great Mother goddess. The two became lovers, but Attis eventually broke his vow of celibacy and had an affair with a mortal woman. As punishment for his transgression, he was driven mad by Cybele and castrated himself, dying from his wounds. In another version of the cult, the beauty of Cybele showing up at his marriage drove him crazy and led him to autocastrate himself.
The Skoptsy were a religious sect in Russia that practiced castration as a form of religious devotion. The sect emerged in the late 18th century and gained popularity in the 19th century, particularly among rural peasant communities in Russia.
The Skoptsy believed in the importance of spiritual purity and the avoidance of sin, and viewed castration as a way to achieve this. They believed that by removing the source of sexual desire, they could eliminate the temptation to sin and attain a higher level of spiritual purity.
Castration was not mandatory for all members of the Skoptsy sect, but those who did undergo the procedure were regarded as “white” or “pure” and were held in high esteem within the community. The procedure was typically carried out by members of the sect themselves, using crude surgical methods and without anesthesia. As a result, many members of the sect died from the procedure or suffered severe health complications afterward.
The practice of castration was eventually banned by the Russian government in the late 19th century, and the Skoptsy sect went into decline. However, some members of the sect continued to practice castration in secret, and the Skoptsy continued to exist as a small, underground religious group into the 20th century.
Skoptic Syndrome is still the name for a body dysmorphic disorder characterized by the desire to be eunuch, named after the Skoptzy sect.
Castrati singer in Italy
During the Baroque era in Italy, the practice of castrating young boys to preserve their high-pitched singing voices became widespread, even though it was officially forbidden. These boys, known as castrati, were typically chosen for their exceptional singing ability and were castrated around the age of 9, before puberty, to prevent their voices from deepening. Arguably, the boys were in these cases certainly less willing participants than their parents…
The castration procedure was often carried out by unlicensed or untrained individuals. Boys with promising voices would simply be taken to a back-street barber-surgeon, placed in a hot water bath with herbs, and doped with opium since there was no anesthesia. The testicles were then removed by slitting the groin and severing the spermatic cord.
The boys who underwent the procedure suffered pain and trauma. Many died from complications, while others suffered lifelong physical and emotional damage. Yet, there were about 4,000 castrated boys during the 17th-18th century in Europe, but not all of them became famous opera singers, and only a few were lucky enough to succeed.
Despite the high personal cost, many parents were willing to have their sons castrated in the hopes that they would become famous and wealthy. The castrati were highly prized for their unique vocal range and emotional expressiveness, and they became popular performers in courts, churches, and opera houses in Italy and other European countries.
However, the practice of castrating boys for the sake of their singing voices eventually fell out of favor in the 19th century.
Hijra in India
Also on the Indian subcontinent self-castration exists. The term used is hijra and it refers to individuals who are biologically male but identify as a third gender, which may include eunuchs, intersex people, or transgender persons. This ‘third sex’ is already mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Franciscan travelers in the 1650s noted the presence of “men and boys who dress like women” roaming the streets of Thatta, in modern Pakistan. The presence of these individuals was taken to be a sign of the city’s depravity.
After facing a long history of persecution, today, Hijras often live together in communities that follow a kinship system known as the guru-chela system. In this system, an older, more experienced hijra serves as a mentor or guru to younger members of the community known as chelas.
Historically, Hijras have played an important role in Indian culture, often serving as entertainers and performing at weddings and other celebrations. However, many also work as prostitutes. While not all Hijras seek castration, many do.
Also, today, thousands of men choose castration and consider it a price worth paying to achieve “genital nullification.” The term “nullo” is used to describe such individuals who seek to nullify or remove their genitalia. Genital nullification, also known as nullification or nulling, typically involves the removal or modification of the penis, testicles, or both. This procedure is extremely painful and carries a high risk of complications, including infection, bleeding, incontinence, and damage to surrounding tissues.
The bizarre and growing Nullo movement sees mostly male subscribers undergo extreme body modifications by removing their private parts and sometimes their nipples. However, there are also women who voluntarily have their vagina stitched closed and clitoris removed. Many opt for a “smoothie,” a procedure that leaves them with a fully smooth groin, and more than half of these people use amateur “cutters,” often doctors or vets, or do it themselves.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 voluntary Nullos worldwide, though the true number is unknown. Most never tell anyone they have no genitalia, including their families, as a 2014 academic study found.
In 2012, Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama became a famous nullo after having his genitals removed, freezing them, and then cooking and serving them at a banquet.
According to Daily Mail, a castrated vicar, named Benedict, said: ‘It’s nowhere near as weird and difficult to try to become a eunuch now as it was 30 years ago. Now, we have doctors who don’t even blink when you say you want to just remove your testicles, or just add a vagina. I never saw this coming’.
The side effects
A study on the remains of castrati singers has shown that there are considerable side effects of castration, especially if it is done early in life.
If it happens before puberty, castrates tend to become taller than average, typically with large chests and long, gangly legs. They do not experience hair loss during adulthood, and they tend to live longer while keeping their childlike voice pitch. In all cases, there is an impact on hormones, weight gain, and psychology.
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