Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Gelding for God

Much of the deviant and misguided behaviour that has been presented in this book, even that of the previous narrative, can appear marginally more comprehensible when it has been placed in context - this has indeed been part of the books purpose. But there are some activities that, by any criteria, are so irrational, so deranged, that they seem to pass all understanding. The following distasteful account is in this category. If one wanted proof positive that the most intelligent species on earth can also be the most stupid, this, surely, is it.

In the 2nd century B.C. Roman soldiers returning from campaigns in the east introduced a new, and decidedly exotic, religion to the capital - the cult of Kybele, the Great Earth Mother. From the very beginning the Roman authorities were somewhat leery of this introduction. The misbehaviour of the followers of the new religion was soon on a par with that of the more familiar cult of Bacchus, whose debauched, orgiastic celebrations regularly provoked public disorder and had constantly to be held in check. There was, however, a marked difference of tone between the two - although both religions invoked unbridled emotion in their celebrations, the enthusiasm of the Bacchai was animated by wine, that of the worshippers of Kybele by blood.

This latter cult gained great notoriety for its principle ceremony, the Day of Blood, an occasion that culminated with the candidates for its priesthood castrating themselves and hurling their severed testicles against the image of their Goddess. This, according to their own myth, was a symbolic act of mourning for their goddesses lost lover Attis, who had sacrificed his own virility for her. After this act of self-emasculation the priests of the Earth Mother dressed as women for the rest of their lives.

The cult was centred in the renowned sanctuary at Comana in Phrygia, in what is now North-western Turkey. Here, Kybele was served by some tens of thousands of women and emasculated priests. Those women who wanted to dedicate themselves to the Goddess frequently cut off their breasts. Such acts of mutilations, like that of castration, were accepted as proof of the total devotion required by the Goddess. The male priests of the Kybele cult became widely known as specialists in the castration of others, and since there was a constant demand for eunuchs as house-servants throughout the Roman Empire their skills were as much in demand for secular purposes as for religious ones.

The worship of Kybele came to be very popular in Rome. The procession of the Great Mother, held at the spring equinox, became one of its most celebrated, and most raucous, festivals. On these occasions the image of Kybele was taken from its sacred precinct and paraded through the streets, its path strewn with alms of silver and rose-petals. From contemporary accounts it would seem that the image was always accompanied by frenzied bands of the cult’s castrated priests who played ecstatic music and leapt about in a wild, contorted dance. There was also a strong undercurrent of menace accompanying this event, with the priests threatening the crowds with swords and occasionally slashing themselves with knives, exulting at the sight of their own blood.

For the Roman citizens, who had acquired a vicarious taste for bloodletting at the gladiatorial arena, this annual ceremony provided an enthralling spectacle. The authorities, however, became increasingly wary of the primitive passions that it aroused. Eventually, when the cult became so widespread that it was felt to threaten the security of the state, it was declared illegal. But the measures taken to suppress the religion were never entirely successful, and later, under the Emperors, it was re-established - with the proviso that Roman citizens themselves were absolutely forbidden to act as its priests. These were now imported from Phrygia, and the cult itself, under the name of the Magna Mater, became thoroughly Romanised. In this form it went on to become one of the most successful religious communities in Rome.

There were other cult centres in the Ancient World, quite distinct from that in Phrygia, that engaged in priestly castration (the worship of Artemis in Ephesus, and of Osiris in Egypt were among the most famous), but by the first century A.D the followers of Magna Mater had something of a monopoly on the custom of priestly castration within the Roman world itself. However, this period also saw the introduction of quite new religious ideas (again coming from the east) some of whose more extreme devotees appear to have adopted the practice. Ironically this new wave of self-mutilators had utterly renounced paganism and all its ways. Even stranger, there appeared to be nothing in their founder's teachings that could possibly be interpreted as encouraging such extreme behaviour. There was, however, a curiously tormented mood among many of the followers of this new cult, who called themselves Christians.

In the short period since the crucifixion of their Messiah the original Christian notion of Universal Love had become thoroughly infused by that of another, quite different, stream of thought that was around at this time, namely that of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, for their part, held that the visible world, with all its evident imperfections, could not possibly be the creation of a beneficent, compassionate God, but was rather that of a daemonic Demiurge, a Creator of a far lower order. In their view the material world was intrinsically corrupt; it was indeed the abode of Evil. The pleasures of the world were therefore quite illusory, the Flesh no more than a loathsome prison of the eternal Spirit. Renunciation of the world and its unreliable pleasures was, they felt, the only reliable path to redemption.

In its early, formative, years Christianity was strongly influenced by these pessimistic, body-hating ideas and, never wanting to be outdone by a rival, it adopted the Gnostic ideals of celibacy and asceticism as its own. In this way Christianity became, so to speak, 'asceticised'. Virginity was idealised, sexual pleasure became a sin, and marriage was demoted to the status of a necessary evil. Sex in marriage, according to its now celibate priests, was permissible only for the purpose of procreation. Having been introduced, these notions of sexual pessimism, contempt for the body and world-renunciation, found a permanent home in Christian thought, where they rapidly acquired a central role. They were adopted by all the early 'Fathers of the Church', the theologians who established its doctrines. One of the most important of these, Tertullian, famously declared that 'The kingdom of God is thrown open to eunuchs', an attitude that found wide acceptance in early Christianity, some of whose followers were to take the injunction quite literally.

Where it came to their notice the Roman authorities were as nonplussed by this practice as they were by the Christians equally desperate pursuit of martyrdom. The Emperor Domitian (who was not noted for any deep concern for the well-being of his subjects) felt obliged to make castration a capital offence. This measure, prompted, as usual, by a perceived threat to civil order, was clearly ineffective as a deterrent however, since his successor, Hadrian, felt it necessary to extend the death penalty for this offence to include the surgeon involved and anyone else that had been present at the operation.

The frustrated, disconsolate mood of early Christianity, which led to these extremes of sexual self-loathing, was reflected in the writings of most of its influential thinkers at that time. Clement of Alexandria, who is still regarded as one of the most important of the early theologians, was the first to pronounce that Christian doctrines required the total abnegation of sexual desire and practice. His equally famous pupil Origen (regarded by many as the greatest of the Church's founding Fathers) took self-denying Puritanism to the extreme. He went barefoot everywhere, never owned more than one garment and always slept on a hard floor. He is also known, in an excess of devotion, to have taken the injunction in Mathew 19-20 quite literally and castrated himself.

In this period castration remained an exceptional, but not uncommon, recourse of particularly dedicated individuals - until the emergence of a group of Christians known as the Valerians, a fanatical North African sect, in the 3rd century. The Valerians made castration a central tenet of their fanatical Puritanism, the elimination of the sexual organ being, in their view, particularly pleasing to God. In pursuit of this dubious aim they became a public menace of the first order. Not content with 'purifying' themselves in this extreme manner, this appalling sect took to forcibly castrating others that had the misfortune to fall into their hands. It is recorded that in one particular year they mutilated no less than 690 men.

Happily the Valerians soon passed from history, and in 324 the Church at the First Council of Nicaea expressly forbade castration for religious reasons. The practice disappeared, at least from the records, for eight centuries. But in the 12th century it re-emerged with a new justification. Around this time the use of castrati as choristers caught on, a custom that had begun in the Eastern Church before spreading to the West. As a result of the Church's misogynistic attitudes women had long been prohibited from singing in church choirs, castrati (who were mutilated for the purpose whilst very young) took their place. The practice was particularly popular in Italy, where it was encouraged by successive Popes. The Sicilian Jesuit priest Tommaso Tamburini was one of the more notable advocates of castration, because it ensured that 'God's praises are the more sweetly heard'. The Pope Sixtus V (1585) further extended the practice by forbidding the appearance of women on the stages of theatres and opera houses, thereby creating a demand for thespian castrati - which was, of course, soon met. The Papal choir included castrati among its ranks right up to the 20th century, the last one dying in 1924.

The gradual decline in the use of castrati marked the end of Christian involvement with castration, at least in the West. But the Eastern Church, particularly in Russia was, as ever, a different matter. In mid-18th century Russia there emerged a sect - one of the most extreme the world has ever seen - for whom castration was the central tenet of their peculiarly distorted creed.

The Skoptzi

The group calling themselves 'The People of God' first came to the notice of the authorities in 1765, in the district of Orel, south of Moscow. An illiterate serf, Andrei Ivanov, and some of his followers were arrested and charged with inciting a dozen of their fellow peasants to self-mutilation in the course of an evangelical session. It emerged that Ivanov was the leader of a clandestine group that practised extreme forms of penitential flagellation. Investigation revealed that his sect was an offshoot of another, earlier and better known movement, the Khlysty. The Khlysty were distinctly heretical in their beliefs and had gained a somewhat sinister reputation. They had emerged from the fragmentation of the Russian Orthodox Church that occurred in the seventeenth century, and had became notorious for their extreme practices, which included both self-inflicted pain (their name derives from the Russian for 'horse-whip') and the orgiastic behaviour that accompanied their meetings.

The Khlysty were antinomian, believing that, as a result of the intensity of their devotions, they could invoke the Holy Spirit and become Christ-like. In this way, they believed, they could attain a state of grace that placed them beyond all conventional moral laws. They strictly avoided meat, alcohol and sexual relations within marriage but, curiously, allowed sex with followers other than their marital partners. Their ceremonies were highly charged affairs, involving wild dancing and ritual flogging, which were usually followed by scenes of unbridled sexual licence. Not surprisingly the movement was abhorred and feared by more conventional believers, and by the authorities. But the persecution to which they were periodically subjected during the latter half of the 17th century seems only to have had the effect of intensifying and spreading their beliefs.

By the time the authorities had become aware of Ivanov and his group, however, this fanatical movement had undergone a further stage of sectarian evolution. The 'People of God' had split from the main body of Khlystys, reacting against their sexual excesses, but retaining the flagellatory aspects. They had, indeed, gone much further in this direction and were advocating, and were actively engaged in, sexual self-mutilation. During his trial Ivanov asserted that salvation was attainable only by this mean - preferably if the act were performed by the believers on themselves. It emerged that his group believed that sexual relations, marital or otherwise, were not merely the Original Sin, they were the deadliest of all. Castration was able to effect a 'sexual cleansing' and a release from the terrible condition of guilt. After these revelations the 'Children of God' became better known as the Skoptzi, from the Russian word for eunuch.

Origen, because he had castrated himself, was held by the Skoptzi as a shining example of saintliness. But their own beliefs were less marked by the sort of intellectual formulation that this early theologian had engaged in, than by the most primitive emotionalism. Their gatherings, usually held in secret locations, seem to have consisted of a deliberate incitement towards a collective frenzy. Typically these began with sermons emphasising the participant’s sinfulness, the horrors of Hell and the joys of Skoptzi redemption. This was followed by a gradual build up of the emotional temperature involving the chanting of hymns to the beat of rhythmical drumming. As this went on many of the worshippers fell into trance - some fainting, others speaking in intelligible tongues. Eventually all who were able joined in a frenetic, jerky-stepped dance, with their arms extended and faces grimacing. Self-immolation and immolation by others took place at the climax of these proceedings. Meetings were often conducted by a woman, known as a Prophetess (followers acquired the title of Prophet or Prophetess by inducing at least twelve others to castrate themselves). Women were also involved in acts of self-mutilation; with them this usually took the form of cutting off their breasts. For men though 'The Seal of God' (the Skoptzi term for castration) was the only certain route to salvation. There was a grisly table of merit for this procedure. The highest form was referred to as the 'Great Seal', which involved the removal of the penis as well as the scrotum. The 'Lesser Seal' was a more conventional castration, involving the removal of the testicles only.

Much of this was revealed at the trial of Ivanov and his followers in St. Petersburg, an event that created an absolute sensation. The details that emerged of Skoptzi practices seemed almost beyond belief. The entire group were found guilty and dealt with in the customary Russian way for dissidents at this time - all were brutally flogged and exiled to Siberia where Ivanov soon died. But one of his closest associates, Kondratji Selivanov, had managed to evade arrest and fled to the region of Tambov where, taking on the mantle of the leader of this sect, he set about re-establishing the cult.

Selivanov, like Ivanov, in accordance with their strangely distorted beliefs, had castrated himself. With the help of sympathisers he formed new groups and under his guidance regular meetings and mutilation sessions were soon taking place again. The sect’s notoriety had served to ensure a steady stream of would-be disciples to its cause. The movement was as secretive as ever and continued to grow, spreading to all the provinces around Moscow. Inevitably (although rather belatedly), the authorities came to hear of these developments and intervened. Selivanov was arrested, tried, severely flogged, and sent to Siberia. However, he managed to escape and returned to Moscow, where he promptly continued with his mission. He was almost certainly assisted in his escape and return by highly placed sympathisers and corrupt officials. By this time the Skoptzi movement had amassed considerable wealth and influence, and were adept in its use. The authorities were aware of Selvinov’s activities and issued a general warning against any who were contemplating the sacrifice or encouraging others to do so. But these admonishments were to no avail to the bewilderment of the State the cult continued to spread in an almost epidemic manner. In a sense, the civil authorities were powerless; what sort of threat could they hold over those who were contemplating self-castration?

Eventually Selivanov was arrested - and this time he was brought before the Tsar himself. Tsar Paul I was extremely curious about this fanatic and his sect and wanted to interview him personally. Selivanov welcomed the opportunity to expound his doctrine to the Autocrat - he explained that both his 'brother', Christ, and himself, were eunuchs, that Christ had preached the Gospel of castration, but that the New Testament had become so utterly falsified that its central message was barely recognisable - only a few golden passages indicated the true meaning - i.e. that the 'baptism by fire' meant castration. It was also clear from a correct interpretation of the Gospels that it was necessary to convert some 144,000 souls to his sect in order to bring about the Millennium and Christ's rule on earth.

Selvinov revealed a great deal more of his elaborate system, but the Tsar decided that he was simply insane and had him confined to a lunatic asylum. Shortly after this interview, however, he was assassinated - an event that greatly encouraged Selvinov's followers. Paul was succeeded by his mystically inclined son Alexander, who was soon prevailed upon by a religious circle within the court to release Selvinov. The Skoptzi leader emerged from confinement as a saint, and instantly converted most of those that had aided his release. Within a very few years he acquired a huge mansion to house his mission, and had amassed a small personal fortune.

Selvinov, who was by now a gross, hairless figure, came to enjoy the protection of some of the most influential people in Russia, including that of the State Councillor, Jelanski, who was now a secret member of the cult. Jelanski was himself castrated, and was a castrator of a whole group of aristocratic Skoptzi. But Selvinov's sway over these people was not universally appreciated inside the court. There were circles within the ruling elite that conspired to remove his influence, and they eventually succeeded in their intrigues. In 1797 Selvinov was confined to a monastery, where he was to remain until his death in 1822. But his cult continued to flourish, despite the persecution that it was periodically subjected to. Indeed, as a result of this, the Skoptzi gradually became an extensive, and extremely wealthy, secret society with growing political ambitions.

Eventually the establishment became aware of this growing threat and the Tsarist secret police were brought in to investigate. They uncovered some 600 locations where initiation ceremonies involving immolation and self-immolation regularly took place in the, by now familiar, highly charged secret gatherings. They found that the cult had attracted members from every level of Russian society, and that a high proportion of the leading figures were women. They also found that the Skoptzi had become extremely skilled in the arts of dissimulation and bribery. A number of measures were enacted to eradicate the cult for good. The savage repression that followed was, however, only partially successful. The Skoptzi became even more secretive and were scattered even further afield. There were several instances in which those who were placed in the care of monks in remote monasteries managed to convert the entire establishment to their cause.

Eventually the cult had spread to most districts of European Russia - in the process the conditions of entry were slightly modified, and the dreadful initiation rites somewhat eased. This relaxation, however, was a relative one; suppliants were now allowed to have a child (or in some of the more liberal branches two children) before they were required to undergo castration. The cult still continued to attract a following from every level of Russian life however - from the peasantry, from the merchant classes, and from the aristocracy. The Tsarist police records dating from the mid-19th century show they were aware of more than six hundred locations where Skoptzi meetings regularly took place. They also indicate that a very high proportion of the sectaries were women, and that both self-immolation and immolation inflicted by others was still a frequent occurrence at that time. The continuing persecution of the Skoptzi simply had the effect of scattering cult members further afield, throughout Russia and beyond. More and more cases of mutilation were being reported from obscure provinces and southern Russia and the Balkans became centres of their activities. The authorities were faced with a dilemma - every time they arrested a group of Skotpzi and brought them to trial the revelation of their activities created a fresh sensation, giving the movement publicity and a new wave of converts.

Matters came to ahead when a branch of the Skoptzi was exposed in the town of Morchansk, in Tambov province. The public were appalled by the particularly gruesome details of the activities of this group, but the authorities were more concerned with the correspondence that was uncovered during the subsequent investigation. These documents revealed the extraordinary degree to which the sect had infiltrated and bribed its way into positions of influence in many parts of Russia, at every level of society. The cult’s apparent aim, which was nothing less than to take over the Russian state, was taken very seriously by the central government. The matter had now become a matter of internal security, and there was a new determination to stamp it out completely. Over the following two years thousands of Skoptzi were arrested, but their trials were kept secret. The details of their activities and the subsequent deportations to Siberia were not allowed to be published.

The Skoptzi movement was finally shattered by this determined campaign of repression. The sect managed to survive in Finland and, in an attenuated form, in the Balkans and Turkey. It persisted in Russia, but only as a highly clandestine, dispersed cult. In the end it was the social turmoil brought about by the Revolution and its aftermath that saw the final demise of this appalling sect.