Transcending the Material World: Eunuchs and Angels

in The Perfect Servant

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print May 2004 | ISBN: 9780226720159
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226720166 | DOI:
Transcending the Material World: Eunuchs and Angels

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)


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This chapter looks at a very different aspect of the roles assigned to eunuchs by Byzantine culture, discussed as a case of transcendence. Of all of the situations wherein eunuchs were perceived as having readier access to spiritual matters than ordinary men, the most striking involve the perennial confusion between eunuchs and angels. Eunuchs, like angels, were thought to have special powers beyond those of other men. They were an integral part of the material world of mankind but, because of their distinctive gender, they could also penetrate farther along the material–spiritual spectrum than ordinary men. The ease with which eunuchs could cross over into spiritual realms is illustrated in literary themes that regularly play upon the frequent confusion between eunuchs and angels. It was thought that angels were organized in a hierarchical manner and that the heavenly hierarchy was echoed in the hierarchical structures of both the church and the imperial court. The chapter discusses the story of St. Michael the Archangel, who is mistaken for a eunuch. The depiction exactly follows Biblical angelic convention.

Keywords: transcendence; angels; material world; imperial court; St. Michael; biblical angelic convention

Chapter.  8204 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)

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