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.
10) Whipping Boys –
By 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 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 tradition of whipping boys were 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.
9) Spartan ritualistic flogging –
Known as ‘diamastigosis‘, the inhumane 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 evidences of a 3rd century AD amphitheater which was specifically used for such bloody events with a spectator base.
8) Trial by ordeal –
The very term ordeal comes from Old English ordǣl – which pertains to judgement or verdict. So, the trial by ordeal was doled out as a way of giving judgement 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 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 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 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.
7) 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 ghastly 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.
6) Mongol annual 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 in to a cordoned area. This was tricky, especially considering the 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 massacre of wild life – 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.