Death, in any context, sends out a volatile ripple that shakes everyone it touches to their core. It is the root of all fears, and the most inexplicable and disturbing part of the human experience. No death is ordinary. A few, however, stick out. Macabre fatalities have always had a place in folk legends, and have been recorded in encyclopedias and histories as long as there’s been written records. Wikipedia has a particularly thorough list.
Organized by era, each block of entries reveals a surprising amount of information about the time and place they were recorded. The first segment, titled “Antiquity” and spanning 620 BCE to 415 CE, is mostly apocryphal anecdotes told by early historians. Herod the Great appeared to have rotted alive, and ancient medical records describe worms tunneling out of his half dead flesh. Centuries later, these symptoms have been identified as the result of untreated kidney failure and a bad case of scabies.
Surprisingly, the most horrific ways to die are manmade. Two standout. The first is the Persian practice of Scaphism. In this death sentence, a victim is laid on a boat. The executioners take a second boat and lay that on top of him, leaving his appendages outside the tomb and covered in honey. The victim is then force fed milk until he is gripped with violent diarrhea. The honey attracts stinging insects and the excrement causes rot. Guards continue to feed him until he dies. The Greek historian Plutarch reported that one man survived in this state for 17 days.
The second is the Greek Bronze Bull (also known as “The Brazen Bull”). A uniquely Greek instrument, its inventors combined their talent for engineering with their understanding of the human psyche to develop a contraption that would torture its victim while killing them in a clean and efficient manner.
Essentially an oven shaped like a bull, the apparatus was commonly used to punish treason (the thought being that fear of being grilled alive would dissuade political malcontents). A nasty rig, victims would die slowly in the heat. The bull had a series of tubes in its mouth and neck which caused the condemned person’s screams to sound like the bellow of an angry bull.
It is perhaps fitting that the Romans revived the device around 90 CE to combat the rise of Christianity. It’s as if they were attempting to revert society back to its traditional power structure by shoving the new dissidents into an archaic, barbaric device.
Their enemies, however, had already co-opted the cross as their symbol (itself as sadistic a form of execution as any), and the bronze bull failed to shake them anymore than the Empire’s other measures. Saint Eustace and Saint Antipas were both martyred in the bronze bull. Their stories lack factual grounding, but show that earlier Christians could fold any torture into their mythos.
By Matt Alberswerth