As we have discussed previously, history is replete with wondrous inventions, courageous encounters, and mysterious achievements. However, mirroring many of our modern day brutalities, history does have its fair share of dark acts that might have even formed the tradition of some cultures. So, without further ado, let us check out ten such bizarrely brutal historical practices you might not have known about, ranging from psychological afflictions to sheer physical pains.
1) Spartan Krypteia –
Despite our popular culture-inspired notions, the Spartan male was only considered as a true soldier from the age of 18 (and not before that) when he was called the eiren or ‘adult citizen’. However, the Spartan secret service, known as krypteia, only inducted male members – who were generally above 27 years old (and below 30 years). This ‘krypteia’ branch of the military practiced a cruel form of training for its initiates that required them to literally murder innocent ‘helots’. These helots belonged the subjugated populace of Sparta which provided the free Lakedaimonians with slaves to work on fields, while the Spartans trained themselves for wars.
As for the barbarous process in question here, it was started off when an ephor (an elected Spartan leader) upon entering his office, often declared war on the helots with the casus belli of fake revolts. This executive decision for all intents-and-purposes made the act of killing a helot legal from the perspective of the state’s judicial system. And, when the terrible order was passed, young Spartan men under the krypteia branch of ‘special services’ armed with just daggers and rations were let loose into the countryside populated by such slaves. These men used stealthy bandit-like tactics and ambushed unsuspecting helots to kill them mostly during times of night. The planning of such legalized murders was often elaborate and bloodthirsty. For example, there were cases when the strongest and largest helot was targeted first, so as to make a case for Spartan manliness in taking down bigger enemies.
2) Persian Scaphism –
Ominously called ‘the boats’, Scaphism was a barbarous Persian method of torturing and then executing their enemies and criminals. The term itself is derived from Greek σκάφη (skáphe), which more-or-less translates to ‘anything scooped out’. The appalling method required the victim to be unclothed and then tied within the space of two narrow boats (or hollowed out wooden trunks), so that his hands and feet would project out from the main volume. Then the victim was force-fed with milk and honey till the point that he would develop diarrhea due to the rich food content. Honey was also smeared along the other parts of the body, with special attention being given to the eyes, ears, mouth, and genitals. Then the victim was left out in the sun for days.
Fueled by the enticement of the honey, insects like wasps would be attracted to the skin, thus resulting in biting and stinging all throughout the day. At the same time, severe diarrhea brought on by the forced ingestion of the rich food led to regular excretion – with the human feces accumulating over time inside the hollowed out space. This, in turn, attracted myriad insects, some of which then went onto feed and breed upon the victim’s exposed flesh. The intrusive worms also burrowed through the rotting flesh, which unpleasantly led to blockage of blood flow, and then created gangrenous spots. This process of feeding could be continued for days, thus extending the repugnant period of the agony of the delirious victim. However ultimately, the victim did die from various combined effects, including dehydration and septic shock.
3) Carthaginian Child Sacrifice –
The Carthaginians were an offshoot of the ancient Phoenicians and a mighty naval power based in North Africa who challenged the burgeoning Romans in three Punic Wars. It was also the very same civilization that the great general Hannibal hailed from. However, in spite of their large mercantile empire (with colonies extending to Spain), the Carthaginians were often maligned by other contemporary Greek and Roman authors – courtesy of their alleged child sacrificing rituals. According to Roman historian Diodorus –
There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.
Such barbarous practices according to the ancient authors, were carried out to conjure up ‘favors’ from gods – that even included materialistic benefits, like favoring a shipment of goods to arrive unharmed in foreign ports. However, it should be noted that extant Carthaginian texts and sources make no mention of any kind of child sacrifice rituals. So, the question arises – why such horrendous allegations? Well, according to archaeological annals, historians have found ‘Tophets’ at the periphery site of Carthage that had crematory grounds exclusively for young children and animals. Many of these remains were found to be contained within small urns; and since the animals were sacrificed, many thought that the children might have met the same gruesome fate.
Interestingly, the accuracy of many such finds is disputed by some experts – with a few studies openly declaring the non-supportive nature of the hypotheses. But, on the other hand, more recent analysis has shown that evidence suggesting child sacrificing MAY just be overwhelming (though the horrific act itself was probably carried out during very rare instances). According to Josephine Quinn (a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford), who headed a study done in 2014 –
But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favors but fulfilling a promise that had already been made. This was not a common event, and it must have been among an elite because cremation was very expensive, and so was the ritual of burial. It may even have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community.
4) Roman Decimation –
In our modern context, the very term ‘decimation’ pertains to the utter destruction of a habitat, populace or even an eco-system. But as it turns out, a few Roman generals purposefully enacted the method of decimation as a form of disciplinary punishment for their legions! Delving into the etymological root, the word ‘decimation’ comes from Latin decimatus, and itself relates to ‘decem‘ or tenth. So, when the punishment was enforced, it was most probably known as decimatio and the vicious process entailed choosing every tenth man from a cohort (approximately 480 men) to be put to death. And, the utterly ruthless part was – this unlucky man had to be stoned or clubbed to death by their remaining comrades-in-arms, in a shocking practice known as the fustuarium.
The barbarous punishment was rare and was usually reserved for the troops who had displayed insubordination, cowardice, will to conspire, murderous intent on fellow soldiers, participation in espionage activities, desertion or in few cases when they had faked illness so as not to participate in upcoming battles. And in a true Roman fashion, the ‘democratic’ part of the ghastly process involved the selection of the soldier in a random manner (by lottery) – regardless of his rank, reputation or even his involvement in the actual transgression or revolt. The remaining soldiers were then sometimes forced to make their quarters outside the main army camp and given diets of barley which were obviously harder to digest than the usual rations of wheat.
Incredibly enough, there are alleged instances of decimation being implemented after the late medieval period and even in the 20th century. The drastic measures were apparently applied during the upheavals of the Thirty Years War, First World War and Finnish Civil War of 1918.
5) Viking ‘Grave Gifts’ –
A discovery made in 2013 might have revealed the ruthless side of the Viking elite. The analysis of a grave on an island in the Norwegian Sea led to the finding of the main occupant’s skeleton (and man in his 20’s), accompanied by several skeletons without their heads. This does allude to the possibility of a barbarous ritual of killing slaves as ‘gifts’ for their master’s graves. And this was also not the first Viking grave that had a headless occupant, thought the burial site was the first to have more than one headless specimen.
According to Elise Naumann from the University of Oslo, who headed the study, the researchers had also found a marked difference in the diet of these grave dwellers. In that regard, the scientists found that the single occupant with his head intact had a rich-protein based diet, that might have entailed greater quantities of milk and beef. On the other hand, the headless specimens had diets filled with low-cost seafood – thus suggesting a societal gap between the occupants. Furthermore, the researchers also assessed the bodies’ DNA, and the subsequent result suggested that these headless men were not kin and were probably mistreated before their deaths. These factors once again hint that the ‘other’ bodies were that of slaves who were ritually murdered to ‘serve’ their masters in death.
6) The Mongol Winter Hunt –
For Mongols, warfare was akin to hunting, and in both cases, they considered themselves as the predators. To that end, their leaders initiated a call-up for each winter hunt – which was viewed as being as serious as the call-to-arms, with the entire endeavor replicating a military campaign. Grand plans were hatched to choose the particular grounds for hunting, and every soldier participating in the complex exercise was given a specific role to fulfill almost down to a letter.
Oddly enough, the ordinary Mongols were forbidden (on pain of death) from harming any of the animals before they were surrounded and gathered into a cordoned area. This was tricky, especially considering a large number of desperate animals – and that is where the hunt followed the thin line between cold-blooded butchering and grand strategy. Finally, the Great Khan was allowed to make the first kill, after which his generals joined in, and later on, the soldiers added to the large-scale barbarous massacre of wildlife – that ranged from wild boars, gazelles to Siberian tigers and wolves. So in essence, the incredibly vicious exercise was seen as a ‘practical’ lesson in battle tactics for the upcoming officers. Unsurprisingly yet remarkably, historians have found similar strategies being implemented in renowned Mongol victories like the battles of Mohi and Leignitz.
7) Aztec Ritual Combat and ‘Flower Wars’ –
The Aztec youths were already introduced to real combat scenarios during the major religious festivals that were mostly held in the central district of the city. One of these series of ceremonies held between February and April was dedicated to the Aztec storm god Tlaloc and the war god Xipe, and the festivities inexorably brought forth their versions of vicious ritual combats. Some of these scenarios sort of bridged the gap between bloody gladiatorial contests and melee fighting exhibitions. One of the popular modes of related sacrifice involved the mock gladiatorial combat where the prisoner (chosen on account of his bravery) was tied to a stone and handed a ‘fake’ macuahuitl with feathers instead of sharp obsidian blades. He had to (hopelessly) fend off an experienced Aztec warrior/s fully armed and armored.
However, the scope of barbarous ritual combat in the Aztec military was not just limited to the ceremonial confines of city-temple precincts, but rather extended to actual battlefields. The Xochiyaoyotl (Flower Wars or Flowery Wars) mirrored this relentless ambit where religious inclinations fueled the ‘need’ for warfare. Possibly a practice started by Tlacaelel, a high ranking prince who was one of the chief architects of the aforementioned Aztec Triple Alliance, the core doctrine of the Flower Wars called for blood – as ‘nourishment’ for Huitzilopochtli, the Mesoamerican deity of war and sun. In fact, by early 15th century, Tlacaelel elevated Huitzilopochtli as the patron god of the very city of Tenochtitlan, thus intrinsically tying up the ‘hunger’ of gods with the Aztec penchant for ritual war.
Interestingly enough, many of these Flower Wars (participated by the young Calmecac and Telpochcalli warriors) were conducted against the Tlaxcalans, who themselves constituted a powerful people with a Nahua cultural affinity shared with the Aztecs. On occasions, the Aztecs reached a status-quo agreement with the mighty Tlaxcalans which outlined that the Xochiyaoyotl would be conducted in a bid to capture sacrificial prisoners, as opposed to conquering lands and taking away resources.
On the other hand, the status (and rank) of an Aztec warrior often depended on the number of capable enemies he had captured in battle. In essence, the Flowers Wars, while maintaining their seemingly vicious religious veneer, pushed the Aztec military into a nigh perpetual state of warfare. Such ruthless actions, in turn, produced the most fierce, battle-ready warriors who were required by the realm to conquer and intimidate the other Mesoamerican city-states in the region.
8) Trial By Ordeal –
The very term ordeal comes from Old English ordǣl – which pertains to judgment or verdict. So, the trial by ordeal was doled out as a way of giving judgment during medieval times; though, the scope had its origins in far earlier times (including being mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi) and was mostly reserved for alleged crimes that were of serious nature. To that end, such trials were conducted by the so-called King’s Court (as opposed to the Manorial Court), and they mainly fell into three categories – ordeal by fire, ordeal by water and ordeal by combat.
The ordeal by fire mainly involved a red-hot iron bar that the accused had to hold with his/her bare hands and then walk around four paces. The portion of the affected hand was then bandaged and reopened after three days to examine the wounds. Now, if the wounds had begun to heal, the accused was judged as innocent. But if they didn’t show signs of improvements, the verdict was unanimously guilty – which was accepted as God’s will. There was a variant to this barbarous trial, with the accused having to walk upon red-hot plowshares for a distance of 9 ft.
The ordeal by water mainly entailed the tying of the accused’s feet and hand, and then being thrown into the water. If he/she floated, the accused was let go. But if the person submerged, the accused was branded as being guilty, and thus seen to be punished by God. There was also a variant to this trial, in which the accused had to retrieve a piece of stone or lead from a cauldron of boiling water. The hand was then examined, like in the case of the aforementioned ordeal by fire.
And lastly, as for the ordeal by combat, some of us who have read The Song of Ice and Fire series (or watched Game of Thrones) might be familiar with the workings of the trial. Usually reserved for nobles, the trial required the nobleman (or his chosen proxy) to fight till death with the accuser. As expected, the victor was seen as the not-guilty party.
9) Self Mummification –
As can be comprehended from the morbid phrase, this was a rigorously grim procedure (also known as Sokushinbutsu), and it was mainly undertaken by monks of the Japanese Buddhist sect of Shingon. It started with a specific kind of diet consisting of nuts and seeds consumed by the monk for 1,000 continuous days. This was followed up by an even frugal diet of barks and roots for another 1,000 days – thus aiding him in getting rid of almost all of the body fat. And after this lengthy period of more than five years, the monk finally took in a kind of poisoned tea derived specifically from a tree sap variety used for Japanese lacquer. This induced him to vomit incessantly, thus snatching away most of the bodily fluids, while also making the body poisonous for bacteria and insects – which prevented them from breeding inside the monk.
Finally, the living monk was interred into a tomb equipped with a special ventilation tube and a bell. So, when the monk lived, he could communicate with his followers via the ringing bell. And, when the bell stopped ringing, it was assumed that the monk breathed his last – and the tomb was ceremoniously sealed, thus completing the macabre process of self-mummification. Now, the question naturally arises – why go to such barbarous lengths? Well, the answer is – Buddhists believe such levels of sacrifice and materialistic abandonment transformed the participant into ‘living Buddha’. But given the severely daunting demands of this grueling process, it doesn’t come as a surprise that there are very few monks who are actually venerated as ‘living Buddhas’ in our present times. Intriguing, there was a recent discovery made by historians entailing one Master Liu Quan interred inside a sculpture, with his body organs being replaced with intricate scripts written on paper.
10) Whipping Boys –
By the 16th century, the elitist strata of the European society had devised the so-called ‘divine right of kings’ – which entailed a politico-religious doctrine that basically iterated the ‘divine’ connection of the monarch. In essence, it pertained to the right to rule as being directly willed by God – and, as such, no one but the king can punish his own child (the prince). This hyperbolic axiom did prove to be problematic in the practical circles, since the king was rarely around, while his child was taught by a myriad ‘commoner’ tutors. So the predicament mainly related to how such tutors and teachers could enforce discipline and learning on their royal pupils when they didn’t have the right to punish them.
As a weird solution, the barbarous tradition of whipping boys was established. Generally coming from families of high status (if not being royal), these boys were used as proxies for the prince’s fault. In other words, the boy was punished, if the prince crossed the line. Oddly enough, the practice seemed to work in most cases – with the prince feeling remorse for his ‘crimes’ when the whipping boy was punished. This was mainly due to the emotional bond formed between the prince and the boy, as they grew up together as companions and playmates.
Honorable Mention – Spartan Ritualistic Flogging
Known as diamastigosis, the barbarous ritual involved the annual flogging of youths (including adolescents) in front of an altar at the temple of Artemis Orthia. Underneath its pseudo-religious veneer – which symbolically replaced human sacrifice with scourging of young men, the grim practice often tested the endurance level and courage of the Spartans youths undergoing military training. But in spite of its seemingly arduous nature, the ritual did result in deaths – with the fatality frequency increasing more by the nadir period of the Spartan state (especially during Roman rule, when the grisly process turned into a sort of blood sport). There are even pieces of evidence of a 3rd century AD amphitheater which was specifically used for such bloody events with a spectator base.