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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Eunuchs in the Fantasy Court...

Ah, eunuchs.  They've lost all their sexy bits and can safely be left to administer affairs of state and, especially, guard the harem without fear of insurrection and the sort of dalliances that can sometimes muddy the waters of inheritance.  Who better to trust with the many comely ladies left alone for so long...

Except history is a lot stranger than that, and fantasy has always been a good place to throw a wrench in!

So to the first point.  It was thought (or perhaps hoped) that castration performed early enough would prevent the usual hormonal eruptions, meaning less aggression and inclination to carve out dynasties or usurp the throne.  This made them trusted in the courts of Asia and Persia and, indeed, some came to wield great power in their capacity as advisors and regents to the emperors.

But first, let me be clear about this topic.  Involuntary genital mutilation is a terrible thing that happens all too often in certain parts of the world and should be opposed as the human-rights issue it is.  But the ancient world wasn't fair, and gaming offers up many opportunities to explore these important issues.  

In short, these fellows had the ear of the ruler and were undoubtedly privy to important information.  This had implications for the real world, but also in fantasy, where such intrigue may contribute to the drama.  Indeed, the sympathetic eunuch Varys from HBO's Game of Thrones (which this blogger sometimes despairs is a calculated and cynical cavalcade of blood and tits meant to generate attention via Twitter traffic) underscores the possibilities.

Varys brings some sympathetic
behind-the-scenes drama to life at court... 

But however much I may disdain GoT (it's really not so bad), I nonetheless can't argue with the drama (and intrigue) this castrated fellow brings to the story.  And maybe to your campaigns as well, because this is the stuff of high adventure once you start leaving the dungeon and interacting with a world's politics...

So what about the sex?  It's hard to avoid or ignore it when the apparatus of sexuality and procreation is literally snipped off, and early enough to (hopefully) prevent such instincts from arising in the first place.  And the image of the bald, scimitar wielding guard is ubiquitous in the media, especially fantasy!

It's important to understand that there were two ways to make a eunuch in the ancient world (we're leaving out chemical castration, although anything can happen in fantasy).  Full castration meant everything went.  These people obviously weren't capable of sexual relations, removing the obvious conflict of interest here...

But others were partial, meaning the member was left intact and ready for action.  They COULD perform, although without the baggage, they couldn't produce viable sperm.  This meant no offspring to expose a courtly affair.  But it also means that royal affairs are at least possible, and this can shake things up and lead to any number of interesting and rewarding adventure hooks.

The royal court is rife with intrigue,
and it's often the overlooked who see the most...

But to cite a properly historical example, the Roman poet Martial speaks out against a woman who has sex with partially castrated eunuchs, although it's unclear how pervasive this practice was or if anything similar happened elsewhere.  To quote: 

"Do you ask, Panychus, why your Caelia only consorts with eunuchs? Caelia wants the flowers of marriage – not the fruits."

Apparently, the Roman Castrato (boys castrated early to preserve their angelic voices for the church choir) could still perform sexually into adulthood.  And while most harem eunuchs were likely fully castrated, this isn't necessarily the case, and in a world complete with dragons, elves, and actual, working magic, this stuff is hardly beyond the pale and can legitimately be inserted.

The Eunuch brings a lot to the fantasy table.  They held a lower social status, but paradoxically, had the ear of the ruler as they bathed and dressed them.  They were thought to be safe guardians, free of those pesky sexual urges, but were, in some cases, able and willing - and with a banquet of potential paramours!

And ultimately, eunuchs are human.  We aren't our genitalia alone, despite what we've been told, and eunuchs are more than their condition.  These people have hopes, dreams, and desires (if not outright ambitions) of their own, although their circumstances will weigh heavily and might even give them cover.

Recently, a fan of our Blood of Pangea blogged about a sample character who happened to be a eunuch.  We really liked this idea because the whole point of Pangea is to break away from rigidly technical character builds into something more varied and narrative, and I'm pretty sure there aren't many PC eunuchs around...

Eunuchs are routinely portrayed as plump, balding harem guards complete with scimitars or acting as functionaries in some far-flung land.  These are often silent props, and this dehumanizes them unfairly and misses out on many opportunities to craft compelling stories (or adventures).  Imagine a rebellion that hinges on a harem guard and a sympathetic bride, who might also be his lover, and requires the help of the players?  Suddenly these guys matter much!

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