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Scaphism


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Recently discussed, very gruesome form of torture. 

Scaphism, also known as the boats, or mistakenly as cyphonism, is an alleged ancient Persian method of execution. The word comes from the Greek σκάφη, skáphe, meaning "anything scooped (or hollowed) out".

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In the 12th century, Byzantine historian Ioannes Zonaras sat down to compose a history of the Empire. And in The Annals, as the work was titled, he had this to say about their neighbors, the Persians:

The Byzantines were no stranger to tortuous punishments themselves. For instance, many a potential emperor was blinded before they could come to throne. So it would take a lot to make a medieval Byzantine think that your punishment went to far. But when it comes to scaphism, or “the boats,” it’s hard not to agree with Zonaras.

Scaphism comes from a Greek word that means “hollowed out.” And that does a good job at conveying a double meaning behind the punishment.  Not only were the boats themselves hollow, but so was the victim when the punishment was over.

People sentenced to die by the boats were placed between two boats or hollowed out logs that were then bound together, leaving their head and limbs sticking out.

Then, they were force-fed a mixture of milk and honey. And if that doesn’t sound so bad, imagine having a huge amount of milk and honey forced into your stomach.  If you’ve ever watched someone try to complete a “gallon challenge” and drink a gallon of milk, you know what happens next.

Scaphism comes from a Greek word that means “hollowed out.” And that does a good job at conveying a double meaning behind the punishment.  Not only were the boats themselves hollow, but so was the victim when the punishment was over.

The victims would reflexively vomit, spreading the mixture all over their face and chest and threatening to suffocate them. But no one was allowed to die yet.

Instead, they were fed the mixture regularly until the sweet mixture led to explosive diarrhea. As the victim’s feces collected inside the boat, flies and other insects would instinctively gather around the boat to feast.

The victim would then have honey smeared around the soft parts of their body, particularly the anus and genitals. After a few hours in the hot sun, swarms of insects would be gathered around the victim, settling in dense clouds around their face and stinging their eyes, nose, and mouth.

Other insects would begin to bite at the anus and genitals, carrying with them bacteria from the feces. Predictably, these bites would get infected.

After a few days, these wounds would begin to weep pus, adding another layer of attraction to other insects. They would then begin to gnaw at the dying flesh, carrying more disease into the person’s body.

The whole time, the victim would be fed milk and honey, keeping them from dying of dehydration so that they could feel everything that was happening to them.

By the time the insects had chewed away the dead skin around the anus, they would climb inside the body and start to feast on the organs inside. As systemic sepsis set in and the infection found its way into the blood stream, the victim would finally, mercifully, die.

But their corpse would be left in the boats and insects continually hollowed out their flesh and nested inside.

We don’t know for sure how often this punishment was used, but because we have multiple sources from different times reporting on it, it likely lasted a few centuries. We also don’t know who was subjected to this punishment.

All of the sources refer to the victims as men, so women might have been spared this particular form of execution.

Plutarch makes mention of the punishment being used on a young soldier named Mithradates for the crime of killing a member of the Persian royal family. So it might have been reserved for only the most serious crimes. Mithradates himself lived for seventeen days inside the boats before dying, according to Plutarch.

The whole time, the victim would be fed milk and honey, keeping them from dying of dehydration so that they could feel everything that was happening to them.

The idea that the punishment was reserved for the most serious of crimes also makes sense given how horrifying the torture was. Victims lingered in a state of perpetual agony for weeks.

And given the importance the Persians placed on the purity of the body both in Islamic and pre-Islamic times, the indignity of being devoured by insects was a potent psychological punishment as well.

That combination of physical and mental anguish likely made scaphism the most brutal method of torture from the ancient world.

 

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