The Ancestors who Are Not

For a while now, and for reasons that are entirely my own, I have felt I’m being called to honour a certain group of dead; people who both are and are not my ancestors.


I’m writing this post to invite you, dear reader, to share your thoughts and ideas, as well as your opinions, because I’m not that set in my ways (haha, am I ever? Can I even afford to be?!) that I wouldn’t value input. You’re expressly invited to object, if you have an objection, but know that it is ultimately my decision what I do with the objection.

That being said, let’s skip to the topic at hand: honouring the dead.

I said beforehand that I am called to honour people who both are and at the same time are definitely not my ancestors. In fact, any such claim would be, uh, highly contestable, since it’s biologically impossible that they are. Because the group of people I’m talking about are notoriously childless—more often than not to their chagrin—as they’re the cantanti evirati (the emasculated singers) of the baroque era. The musici, the virtuosi, the soprani and contralti, in short: the (operatic) castrati.

Hence the biological impossibility, obviously. The castrati were singers who had been castrated before the onset of puberty to preserve the upper range of their singing voices. Many, though certainly not all, came from poor families with too many mouths to feed, quite often from the impoverished south of Italy. Many, though also certainly not all, were orchidectomised against their will—yes, there is one example of a boy even demanding castration. The boy’s name was Gaetano Majorano—he later became both famous and notorious as Caffarelli.

It was officially forbidden by both church law (on pain of excommunication!) and secular law to castrate children against their will… which, frankly, meant nothing at all. Children are easily impressionable, and the prospect of fame, and in some cases the prospect of being able to live for music, did have its appeal. They were drugged before l’operazione, so that their consent was more or less a fait accompli. Not to mention that parents would be offered money if they gave their child away. In the first half of the eighteenth century, there would be men travelling the south of Italy, especially the part of the country that is today known as Puglia, looking specifically for male children of poor families. Often, actual musical talent would play a lesser role in the decision than material dearth and the promise of fame. Because of the practice being outlawed, often actual surgeons would not perform the operation without medical reason, although medical reasons would be invented aplenty. Frequently though, the operation would be performed clandestinely by people who were not surgeons—veterinarians, barbieri, even butchers. Frankly, all one needed was a basic understanding of human anatomy, a working set of coltelli (knives), some opium (though not too much, as overdosage easily led to death in young children), and at least one strong muscled assistant who would be in charge of pinning the child down during the process. It all was shrouded in layers of lies, half-truths and open secrets. The sheer number of “horse-riding accidents” or cases of “hernia” that would necessitate castration to “save the life of the boy” is—a statistical oddity, to say the least. In certain circles, “to have  fallen off the back of a horse” would become a euphemistic paraphrase of the thing itself: castration.

Just for the sake of accuracy: the voice, of course, would not be preserved in the strictest sense of the word. Due to the fact that those boys never reached sexual maturity, their larynxes would remain the size of a child’s—smaller even than the average woman’s larynx in width by approximately 0.3-0.5 centimetres. However, the castrati’s physique would not be comparable to either a woman’s or a child’s—and with physique being a strong influence on the colouring, i.e., frequency distribution of the tone, the actual sound of a castrato’s voice would not be child-like, and not womanish (although mockery would certainly have it that way). Even today’s countertenors cannot mirror what a castrato would have sounded like, since they use a completely different singing technique—falsetto as opposed to modal register, which affects the tone quality even more strongly than physique.

The operation itself, compared to the medical average at the time, and even with the added malus of non-surgeons performing it, would be relatively risk-free in terms of mortality rate; however, if not done correctly, or too late in childhood—the age at which it would be done was between 7 and 11 years, the latter being really exceptionally late—the voice could yet break at the usual age. This was the worst case scenario, as the voice would then take on an unappealing quality lacking fullness or strength; in other words, it would become entirely unsuitable for a career as a singer. Needless to say: a castrato had no viable alternatives, except a scant few that included trying his hand as a composer or working menial jobs at the conservatori. And those who lacked a voice, musical understanding and luck? Their fates are lost to us today, but they were lucky if they would be kept for a pretty face; and even that would of course not last.

TL;DR: Castrati were singers who were castrated for the sake of their high voices before they ever hit puberty.

So. I’m called to honour them as I would my ancestors, even though they cannot possibly be. Which is why I’m thinking the reconstructionists among you will be frowning deeply by now. Also, never mind that they were Italians (Gods know I have nothing whatsoever against Italians—I just don’t have Italian ancestors to the best of my knowledge) and very Catholic (mostly). The fact remains that they’re not my ancestors, or anyone else’s. I’m not part of their lineage, strictly speaking, so consequently, they do not have the same vested interest in me as my ancestors do: I’m not carrying on their line.

But here is what I am doing: I am carrying on their name, not in my own name, but in my speech. I am carrying it on by virtue of my music. I sing pieces that were composed for or dedicated to them. I will be performing a motet written for a primo uomo this. Very. Sunday. Through me, and others, they are not forgotten.

And they may not be my forbears biologically, but they certainly are culturally. If not for them, the whole genre of opera would not have evolved as it did. The castrati were the icons of opera during the late rennaissance, ALL of baroque, and early classic period. They were the muses that would inspire some of the most beautiful arias ever written. They were the ones who set a standard of vocal quality that would far outreach Italy and even Europe. Who can say how opera would have developed if not for them? If not for the castrati, we would in all likelihood not know the classic belcanto operas of the early 19th century, nor would we know a “Götterdämmerung”.

Sometimes, they would become political figures, even running kingdoms as inofficial prime ministers—look into Spain, look into Felipe V and Fernando VI of Spain, I dare you, and start researching.

The castrati, in summary, have shaped the entire musical culture in Europe, and then some.

There is yet another aspect of their place in my life: although I cannot be a descendant of theirs, I am (in a couple of ways, don’t ask me to explain because I will not). If I write about them, or sing their music, it’s personal… they have, in a way, shaped my life just as much as my biological ancestors have, and perhaps more. And as such, I feel have a responsibility and a holy duty.

I have, as a matter of fact, had a shrine to them for quite some time now. I just didn’t know it was a shrine, but I would maintain the general area with something resembling devotion.  Central to my shrine, there is a framed picture of the great Farinelli—all castrati admired him, aspired to his level of perfection, would seek to imitate him, would envy him. And although some came close, or arguably even surpassed him vocally, none would mirror his gentle, good-natured character at the same time. So, all in all, I have already been honouring them—to the point that I gave up smoking two years ago for the sake of my voice: because compared to their sacrifice, I thought then, this was tiny. It was the least I could do.

And finally: let’s not forget one very poetic detail: gender ambiguity. They’re the epitome of it. And therefore should, according to me, be honoured by aaaaaalll the Lokeans, especially those who identify as queer. No, I’m only half serious here, but what I do mean seriously is this: if we relate to this aspect of our Deities, I think it would be inconsistent to deny them honour.

So, what do you think? Is it “proper” to honor them along with the ancestors? Is it consistent or inconsistent with your own practice? What do you think would be an argument against it, or for it (other than those I’ve mentioned)? Please have at it, I will appreciate your comments!

P.S.: I have not talked about the hypocrisy of the whole business, deliberately. I did not intend this post as a slur against the Catholic church, is why.


About Myriad

Myriad Hallaug Lokadís
This entry was posted in About me, Devotional Practice, Loki, Research and Background and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Ancestors who Are Not

  1. childofthesmokies says:

    Seems to me like they’re part of who you are. I say honor them! Its your practice, and you only you get to say what’s right or wrong. (Also, I love reading about them. Very, very interesting!)

  2. Linda D, says:

    Entirely proper. Those who honor the transgender dead, the abandoned children, and many more, cannot be in the lineage of these people. At best one can claim a common ancestor. But the thing is, ancestor reverence is about honoring the dead, not just our blood relatives. Just like Odin can claim someone of non-European descent if he wishes it, the dead can choose and be chosen by others. Else the childless, transgendered, celibate priests, nuns and such, could never be honored or prayed to. That would pretty much rule out most of the Catholic saints from any form of reverence. Honor those who call to you, by all means. :)

    • Myriad says:

      Very well said, I did not even think of that! Most of the worry I held was due to the fact that “the tribe” is held so important within heathenry, and I was afraid that some people would be offended by my honouring those who could not be anyone’s ancestors… tribal cul-de-sacs if you will, pun only halfway accidental :)

      But I agree with everything you say. And yes, I shall honour them (or, as would be more accurate, continue to honour them).

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. Raven says:

    I noted in my latest blog post that most of the great Philosopher’s and many people of genius’ talent were queer- I believe it is beyond coincidence. I feel that any person of gender fluidity who influenced today’s world should be honored, and I learned much from your post today about what may be considered our musical ancestry if nothing else!

    • Myriad says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, as always! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post… I think it’s pretty obvious that I’ve spent much time devoted to them, their history, fate, and not least of all, their music. I can tell you, some, if not all of the best arias written for them are devilishly difficult to sing!

      • Raven says:

        I can imagine…. All of my singing is done alone in the car or when I am certain no one is listening…;)

    • Myriad says:

      Listen to this, perhaps… it’s one of the most difficult arias ever written, some say it’s insane. It was written for Farinelli by his brother…

      • Alexis Solvey Viorsdottir says:

        oh wow… I don’t want to know how long it takes to learn it O_O
        (na toll, jetzt werde ich den ganzen Morgen durch mein Umfeld mit dieser Musik terrorisieren :D die sind ja schon genervt, wenn ich Maria Callas oder Cecilia Bartoli auspacke.)

      • Alexis Solvey Viorsdottir says:

        (Nachtrag) *hüstel* wobei deren Stimmen doch ein wenig anders sind.

  4. T.Morrs says:

    I’m glad you choose to honour them. They were incredible people, in many cases. They deserve to be remembered. In terms of honouring ‘ancestors’ or ‘tribe’… family is (for many people) the people you choose in your life, rather than simply blood relations. Why should this be any different? There is a connection, make the most of it.

    • Myriad says:

      Thank you so much (sorry for the delay in answering though!). I have had this connection as long as I remember, but consciously ever since I became aware of the castrati as a phenomenon… I agree with you 100% that “the tribe” does not only involve blood relation, but also extended family, and/or friends that become innangard, who might as well be blood relatives. The castrati are in that category for me, in a more abstract sense.

      And yeah, there were exceptional people among them, in every sense. Farinelli and Caffarelli I’ve mentioned, but there was also Tenducci (who married!! which is exceptional since obviously the castrati were not marriage material in the eyes of the Catholic church—nevermind that Tenducci’s marriage was annulled later,), or Filippo Balatri whose poems are quite something to read: they’re full of (often self-deprecating) humour, and frankly adorable. And many, many more.

  5. Wendy says:

    That is wonderful – as other have mentioned, there are plenty of other folks who honor some Dead who are not part of their lineage, and adopt folks that call to them. I have an extended chosen family, who’s dead I honor with my biological family. And there are some, due to quirks of fate, like the castrati, transfolks, infertile folks, those childless by choice, etc, who may not have biological descendants, but are still deserving of honor.

    As a side note, many years ago after I first read ‘Cry to Heaven’ by Anne Rice (which is where I first encountered castrati), I managed to track down a recording of Alessandro Moreschi singing Ave Maria, and it was amazing to be able to hear that voice, there was such an amazingly unique quality to it!

    • Myriad says:

      Thank you for your kind comment, and sorry for the delay in answering… (I’m such a lazy bum sometimes, and then I forget that I wanted to answer…)

      Yes, there seems to be a consensus that “ancestors of the heart”, as Fjothr said in a comment below), should be honoured just as well as biological ancestors. Especially if there’s a connection… and the one I have to the castrati is really old, and strong.

      I’ve read Rice’s novel as well, and liked it although I have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the premise: the main character’s castration takes place when he’s already 15–no way that would have been a good idea for a singer… but then again, it’s done for political reasons more than anything else. Otherwise, I found the story enjoyable and most of the characters relatable. Anne Rice did a lot of research on her subject, the countries involved–mainly Venezia, Lazio and Napoli, if I remember correctly, and I certainly respect that.

      I also agree that Moreschi’s singing is quite something. There’s a couple of things one needs to keep in mind though: one, the technology used to make that recording loses most of the higher frequencies, so that the colouring would have sounded differently “live”. Two, as far as I remember, Moreschi was quite old when he made the recording, and voices age. Also, I think he must have been quite nervous about singing into that machine. :) And finally, and possibly most importantly: when Moreschi was recorded (the beginning of the 20th century) the castrati were all but extinct. The music had changed fundamentally, from baroque ornamentation to classical cantabile, to romantic emotional “wallowing”—and hence the technical abilities required to sing the music of each of these periods also changed. It’s practically proven that Moreschi’s schooling had been very different from what young Carlo Broschi’s (Farinelli’s) would have been…

      At any rate, I’m glad to hear that Anne Rice’s novel inspired you… I sometimes wish that more people were as capable of being drawn into a topic.. :)

      P.S.: my concert went very well! I did Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, which was composed for Venanzio Rauzzini…. sung by D. Damrau here:

      1st movement:

      2nd movement:

      and the “grande finale”:

      And with his, I wish you a wonderful Wednesday :)

  6. I think this absolutely beautiful, both as what you are doing, and how you have written about it. I’ve heard from a number of people talk about honoring – hmm, what is the phrase? – ancestors of the heart as well as ancestors of the blood, or words to that effect. And at any rate, I think honoring the dead, regardless of whether they feel like ancestors in any sense, is an admirable thing to do.

    Regarding a previous comment about “tribe,” well, one’s tribe in the Old Days would have included people not related to you by blood, who would nonetheless have important places in one’s life and history (especially your blood-family’s history), so why would you -not- honor those people?

    I have on my ancestor shrine two one-dollar coins with images of women who were important historical figures in the United States: Susan B. Anthony and Sacagewea (and I am angry that the newer mintings of dollar coins have gone back to Old White Men – because the Presidents aren’t on -enough- money already, I guess, ugh). I am certain I have no blood relation to either woman, but I came across these coins around the time I was first setting up an ancestor altar, and I feel that there has been too little respect given to women throughout history – and I think of them, and many other women of historical note, as being ancestors of sorts in having laid some of the groundwork for the level of gender equality there is today. I have not worked out more specific/intense ways to honor them (or other women who were important historical figures), but feminism is something I have always felt very strongly about. . . .ugh, I am having problems with words at the moment . . . I don’t know if I will end up with a more intense practice where they are concerned, but part of what has influenced my own feminism, and thoughts about gender equality as a whole, has been that I want to honor the work my feminist “ancestors” have done to seek gender equality, to be thoughtful about how I approach gender equality.

    • Myriad says:

      Thank you… for the comment, and the compliment. You know that these people mean a lot to me and that I feel something very close to kinship for them. In that sense, they’re definitely ancestors of the heart, and I am glad that you, and everyone else who commented, is absolutely supportive… I was seriously worried, although at the end of the day, I’d probably have done whatever I please anyway ;-) .

      I don’t know how big their influence was on my blood ancestors, to be honest. But there’s still the fact that they have been and continue to be a big influence on me. I think that’s similar to how you see those women in an ancestral role for you, as their sphere of influence is a great part of your expeirence today, even though they’re not technically ancestors.

      I wish you all the best in finding out ways to honour them that suit you, in much the same way that my honouring the castrati suits me. (Btw, I still find the fact slightly ironic that their voices were originally conceived as gifts to (a) God, and, well. Ahem, history repeats itself.)

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