Eunuchs & Castrates in the Orthodox Church (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE:  The term “eunuch” has become popularized via a character in the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones, which leaves the incorrect impression that eunuchs are relegated to a fantastical, bygone era. In reality, there are more castrated men alive today than at any other point in history. In the medical world, they are usually grouped into two separate categories: prostate cancer patients and voluntary modern-day eunuchs with castration paraphilias or other emasculating obsessions. 

The castrated Varys serves as the "master of whisperers."
The castrated Varys serves as the “master of whisperers.”

As many as 600,000 men in North America are living as eunuchs for medical reasons. The vast majority are afflicted with prostate cancer. Testosterone, the principal male sex hormone, is thought to prominently contribute to the growth of cancerous tumors in the prostate. Thus, as a way to impede the cancer’s spread, many doctors recommend shutting down the hormone’s primary source: the testes. This is accomplished either surgically, where the testicles are removed, or chemically, where patients receive anti-androgen drugs or injections of the female birth-control drug Depo-Provera.

Both the surgical and chemical methods have the same effects. Testosterone levels are drastically reduced which in turn gives rise to a host of side effects. See The Eunuch Archive.

Prostate cancer patients are distressed by the side effects of androgen deprivation and typically strive to hide or deny the effects of castration. In contrast, most voluntary eunuchs are pleased with the results of their emasculations. Despite a suggested association of androgen deprivation with depression, voluntary eunuchs appear to function well, both psychologically and socially. Motivation, rather than physiology, appears to account for these different responses to androgen deprivation.

The following article is excerpted from The Rudder:

st nikodemos


A Eunuch, whether he became such by influence of men, or was deprived of his virile parts under persecution, or was born thus, may, if he is worthy, become a Bishop. (Apostolic Canons XXIII, XXIV; Canon I of the 1st Ecumenical Synod; and Canon VIII of the 1st-and-2nd Synod.)


Eunuchs as a genus are divided into three species, namely: spadones [spadonas], geldings [thlivias], and castrates [ektomias]. Spadones are those who were born without testicles and virile members from the womb of their mother, concerning whom the Lord said: “There are some eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb” (Matthew 19:12); an example was Dorotheos, a priest in the church of Antioch, as Eusebius bears witness in his Ecclesiastical History, Book 7, Chapter 32). Geldings are those whose virile members were so compressed and squeezed by their parents when they were infants that they rendered useless for the purpose of begetting children by being so squeezed. Castrates are those who have deprived themselves of their genitals either with a knife or by some other means or contrivance of a mechanical kind.1

These facts being known beforehand, the present Canon says: in case anyone has become a eunuch as a result of wickedness and injury inflicted by other men, or in times of persecution his genitals were cut off, or he was born without any from his mother’s womb, but he is worthy of Holy Orders, let him be made a bishop.2 For he himself was not the cause of such mutilation, but on the contrary, he suffered the injury either as a result of nature or at the hands of wicked men, and ought on this account to be treated mercifully, and not be hated and castigated. Concerning eunuchism Apostolic Canons XXII, XXIII, and XXIV also have something to state.

In addition, Canon I of the First Ecumenical Synod says that any clergyman who is eunuchized by physicians on account of an illness or by barbarians, shall be permitted to remain in the clergy; or if he is a layman, he may be made a clergyman. But as for anyone in good health who has eunuchized himself, if he is a clergyman, let him cease performing the functions of priesthood; or, if he is a layman, let him not be made a clergyman. Again, Canon VIII of the First-and-Second Synod, citing this same canon of the First, says: Any clergyman who eunuchizes another or himself with his own hand or another’s, let him be deposed. As for any layman who does this, let him be excommunicated. But if priests or laymen eunuchize those who are afflicted with a disease of a venereal nature, they are not to be blamed.

Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip, Menologion of Basil 006 (11th century)
Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip, Menologion of Basil 006 (11th century)



Of such castrates some have cut off both their testicles and their penises, in which case they can no longer have any intercourse with a woman, while others have cut off only their testicles, but not also their penises, and thus they can sin with women, even though they are incapable of begetting children, and they feel the effects of an internal warfare within them more vehemently than those who have their genitals intact and are capable of begetting children. Just as Basil the Great speaks of them in extenso in his discourse concerning virginity. Concerning which matters Sirach also says: “The desire of a eunuch to deprive a young woman of her virginity” (Ecclesiastes 20:4). Possibly Pentephris the eunuch of Pharaoh and master of Joseph the All-beautiful, was also such, because we read of his having as wife a woman who had tried to force Joseph to have intercourse with her.

Note that holy Augustine narrates the fact that a young man gave a letter to procurator Felix asking to be eunuchized by a physician, who did not dare perform the necessary operation due to the imperial edict. For it was as if any eunuch must necessarily be something unholy or dishonorable, forbidden by both the divine law and by the imperial law! But then again divine Justin, in his second apology, says that certain physicians asserted that they could not eunuchize anyone without the procurator’s permission.

Apostle Philip and Ethiopian Eunuch


Such was Nicetas, according to Choniates Nicetas, who says, “There was a certain eunuch by the name of Nicetas presiding as bishop over the town of Chona and a veritable resort of every virtue; but moreover, even the patriarch of Constantinople Ignatius was a eunuch.” Concerning eunuchs God too says in the Book of Deuteronomy: “No gelding, nor anyone excised, shall enter the church of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 3: 1.)


Inasmuch as some wrong-minded heretics, and especially the Oualesians, hearing the Lord say, “if thy right eye scandalize you, pluck it out . ., likewise if your right hand or foot scandalize you, cut it off,’etc., as they mistakenly explained the saying, and hence they said that one ought to amputate and cut off those members which incite him to sin. Examples of such heretics are mentioned by divine Epiphanios. So for this reason all such men as have been found to have mutilated themselves by amputating members of their body when they were healthy themselves are liable to the penalty in the present Apostolic Canon, seeing that they are enemies of God’s creation, and since the above words of the Lord’s are not to be understood literally, but are to be explained figuratively or tropologically. Or to make the matter plainer, it may be said that if we have relatives or friends who are so intimate and dear to us that they may be regarded as members of our body, yet the friendship of such men stands in the way of our love for God, we ought to cut off from ourselves any such endeavor and friendship, and prefer to give our love to God and save our own soul, exactly as this saying is explained by divine Chrysostom, Theophylactos, Epiphanios, and other Fathers of the Church.

“Note further that eunuchs are called by St. Gregory the Theologian ‘men among women, and women among men,’ while St. Basil the Great (in his epistle to Simplicias) calls the race of eunuchs infamous, calamitous, unmanly, deserving of condemnation to irons, and many other such epithets, adding that they are not even credible as witnesses under oath.” The divine Apostle, on the other hand deems anyone liable to a curse that castrates himself. For he thus curses those who were troubling the Galatians, “I would they were even cut off who trouble you” (Galatians 5:12), said with the implication that they ought to be eunuchized, as Chrysostom and Theophylactus interprets the phrase.

Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Decani Monastery)
Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Decani Monastery)


Pursuant to the present Apostolic Canon Demetrius of Alexandria, according to Socrates, deposed Origen because the latter dared to castrate himself though others say that Origen, being a learned man, found a herb and drug with which he succeeded in withering the root of the palpitating flesh. Read also Epiphanios where he mentions (Heresei 64) rumors then current respecting the castration of Origen. But divine Athanasios as well, in speaking about Leontios of Antioch, who was Eudoxior predecessor, says that neither the bishopric nor communion befitted him, because he castrated himself, in order to be able thenceforth to sleep with a certain woman by the name of Eustolia, who though a wife to him was said to be a virgin, without incurring suspicion. (Apology I to Constantine.)

The rest of the Canons of the Holy Apostles on Eunuchs and Castration, together with St. Nikodemos Interpretation, can be read here:

Icon of the Fathers of the first Ecumenical council
Icon of the Fathers of the first Ecumenical council


If anyone has been castrated by surgeons for a disease, or has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain in the clergy. But if anyone has castrated himself when well, he must be dismissed even if he is examined after being in the clergy. And henceforth no such person must be promoted to Holy Orders. But as is self-evident, though such is the case as regards those who affect the matter and dare to castrate themselves, if any persons have become eunuchs by barbarians or their lords, but are otherwise found to be worthy, the Canon admits such persons to the clergy. (Apostolic Canons XXI, XXII, XXIII; Canon VIII of the lst-&-2nd Synod)


Various Canons of the Apostles include decrees concerning eunuchism. But since they were disregarded it would appear, on this account it became necessary that it be made the subject of the present Canon, which states: Whoever has been made a eunuch by surgeons because of a disease or ailment, or by barbarians during the time of an invasion, if he is a clergyman, let him perform the functions of the clergy. But whoever while in good health has made himself a eunuch, although he is a clergyman, must cease from the activities of the clergy. And as many such persons who are laymen, henceforth not even one may be made a clergyman.

But as we say this in regard to those who affectedly and willfully dare to make themselves eunuchs, in the same way again we say that if there are any persons that have become eunuchs by barbarians or by their masters (or owners), that is to say, against their will and tyrannically, but who are worthy, the Canon (either the present Canon, that is to say, or Apostolic Canon XXI) allows them to be admitted to the clergy. Read also the Interpretation of Apostolic Canon XXI.

An image from a Vatican Codex of 1162 believed to be a representation of the Church of the Holy Apostles
An image from a Vatican Codex of 1162 believed to be a representation of the Church of the Holy Apostles


The divine and holy Canon of the Apostles judges those who castrate themselves to self-murderers; accordingly, if they are priests, it deposes them, and if they are not, it excludes them from advancement to Holy Orders.

Hence it makes it plain that if one who castrates himself is a self-murderer, he who castrates another man is certainly a murderer. One might even deem such a person quite guilty of insulting creation itself. Wherefore the Holy Synod has been led to decree that if any bishop, or priest, or deacon, be proved guilty of castrating anyone, either with has own hand or by giving orders to anyone else to do so, he shall be subjected to the penalty of deposition from office; but if the offender is a layman, he shall be excommunicated: unless it should so happen that owing to the incidence of some affliction he should be forced to operate upon the sufferer by removing his testicles. For precisely as the first Canon of the Synod held in Nicaea does not punish those who have been operated upon for a disease, for having the disease, so neither do we condemn priests who order diseased men to be castrated, nor do we blame laymen either, when they perform the operation with their own hands. For we consider this to be a treatment of the disease, but not a malicious design against the creature or an insult to creation. (Apostolic Cannons. XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV; Canon I of the First Ecumenical Synod.)


Just as Apostolic Canon XXII forbids anyone who castrates himself to be made a cleric, and Apostolic Canon XXIII deposes them if they have already become clerics in case they castrate themselves, as being murderers of themselves, so does the present Canon depose those clerics who, either with their own hands or by giving orders to someone else, castrate anyone; and it excommunicates laymen who do this. But if anyone should fall a victim to an affliction requiring him to be castrated, then and in that case neither those priests who order his castration are to be deposed, nor are laymen who with their own hands castrate such a person to be excommunicated, since castration of such persons aims at curing the disease, and not at killing the man, or at offering any insult to nature. See also Apostolic Canon XXI.

A depiction of Origen's self-castration.
A depiction of Origen’s self-castration.