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Chamber of torture devices and ancient punishments in Prague Castle

9 Methods of Ancient Punishment That’ll Make You Squirm

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For as long as societies have had to deal with crime, they’ve had to deal out punishment. In some, places, and situations the process was only meant to humiliate the guilty, but most of the following examples of ancient punishments are gruesome and often deadly.

Rhinocolura, Home of Noseless Criminals


‘An Arab Caravan outside a Fortified Town, Egypt

‘An Arab Caravan outside a Fortified Town, Egypt. ( Public Domain ) Statue of a man without a nose. (Public Domain )

3,000 years ago one of the kings of ancient Egypt built a city unlike any other in the world. The Greeks called it Rhinocolura for the strange faces of the people who lived there – none of them had a nose. These men were criminals, and Rhinocolura was their prison.

The city was created as a punishment for thieves. Their noses were cut off of their faces and they were condemned to live in a city on the edge of the desert. They would never again be able to re-enter society.

If one managed to escape over the city walls, his severed nose would give him away as a criminal, so his only choice was to try to eke out some kind of life within the city walls. He might not change his ways, and he might go on tormenting others – but at least, the Egyptians believed, his only victims here would be his fellow criminals.

Life in Rhinocolura was brutal. There was hardly a drop of water in the whole city, the only source was polluted wells. Still, the people survived, catching fish in the sea with reed nets and hunting the few quails that would fly by.

Cutting off noses was not only a punishment for thieves. After Ramses III’s wife slit his throat in his sleep, her co-conspirators were sentenced to have their noses removed. It’s not completely clear whether these people were sent to Rhinocolura, but they were definitely terrified of the fate that awaited them. One, as soon as he was left alone, took his own life, preferring to die than live branded as a criminal by the severed nose on his face.

Torturing with the Brazen Bull


The Bull by Stuart Yeates

The Bull by Stuart Yeates. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Brazen Bull was a type of ancient Greek torture and execution device. Its story is connected with Phalaris, the tyrant of Acragas and the invention’s creator Perillos, an Attic bronze-worker. As its name suggests, the Brazen Bull was a bronze object in the shape of a bull.

This metallic animal was hollow on the inside and had a door on the side of its body through which a person could be placed in the beast. Once the victim was shut in the Brazen Bull, a fire would be lit under its belly. This would heat the device, turning it into an oven and roasting the victim within it.

The most gruesome aspect of this device is that it doubles as a sort of musical device for the ‘entertainment’ of the onlookers. As the heated metal seared the victim’s flesh, he or she would scream in agony. These screams were channeled into “small sounding pipes in the nostrils” of the bull, which resulted in a bellowing sound. In Diodorus’ account, Perillos is claimed to have said to the tyrant “his cries of pain will give you pleasure as they come through the pipes in the nostrils.”

Diodorus wrote that Perillos brought the Brazen Bull to Phalaris as a gift because Phalaris was known in the ancient world for his cruelty. However, the ancient writer states “When Phalaris learned of this scheme, he was filled with loathing of the man”, and decided to let Perillos have a taste of his own medicine.

He requested the inventor demonstrate how the brazen bull worked. Perillos crept into the Brazen Bull and Phalaris had the opening shut then started a fire under it. Perillos did not die in his invention, instead, he was taken out half-dead and thrown off a cliff. This was done in order that his “death might not pollute the work of bronze”.

Execution by Elephant


16th Century depiction of execution of a prisoner by Ottoman soldiers

16th Century depiction of execution of a prisoner by Ottoman soldiers. (Public Domain)

Elephants have played a number of important roles in human history. In some cultures, the elephant is a revered creature, but in others they have been used as executioners. This form of capital punishment was brutal and terrifying.

This method of punishment was occasionally used in the Western world; however, it was more common in South and Southeast Asia, especially in India. This form of capital punishment is known also as gunga rao and has been used from the Middle Ages until the 19th century.

The most common way that the execution by elephant was carried out was for the beasts to crush its victim to death with brute force. Apart from enemy soldiers, civilians who committed certain crimes – such as theft, tax evasion and rebellion - could also be punished this way.

The elephant is considered to be smart and easily trainable compared to many other wild animals. They could even be taught to torture criminals, or execute them slowly. As an example, an elephant could be commanded to break a criminal’s limbs before crushing his skull. Some elephants were also trained to slice criminals to pieces with “pointed blades fitted to their tusks”.

In the former Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand), elephants were trained to toss their victims into the air before crushing them to death. In the Kingdom of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam), criminals were tied to a stake and an elephant would charge into them and crush them to death.

Metal Masks to Shame You into Good Behavior


People being publicly humiliated with shame masks and the stocks. (

Shame masks were a type of embarrassing punishment device used in Europe and New World colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was meant to humiliate the person who was forced to wear it. The masks were made of cold, unyielding metal and would have been tortuous when fitted tightly on the offender’s head.

One variation, the ‘scold’s bridle’ was essentially a mask or metal cage that encased the head of the wearer, and it was attached to a locking iron muzzle. In the 16th century ‘scold’ was used to describe a woman who was a gossip, a shrew, or bad-tempered. To prevent the woman from speaking, this device was also fitted with an iron curb that projected into her mouth and rested on the top of it. Sometimes the curb was studded with spikes, which inflicted pain on the woman if she tried to speak.

Shame masks were also used to punish people, in particular women, who were found guilty of gossiping, gluttony, eavesdropping, and lying. These masks had different designs meant to inflict further discomfort and / or humiliation, as well as to indicate the type of offence its wearer had committed.

Some masks, for example, were shaped like the heads of certain animals. A cow-headed shame mask, for instance, meant that its wearer was lazy, whilst donkey-headed and rabbit-headed ones were used by fools and eavesdroppers respectively.

Other shame masks were designed with exaggerated facial features. Those made with long noses could be an indication that their wearers were guilty of lying, of being nosy, or of being proud and arrogant. Gossiper shame masks had long tongues attached.

Some masks also had a small bell attached at the top or apparatus to make a loud whistling sound when the person breathed, to announce the arrival of its wearer and increase their humiliation.

Imprisonment in the Tower of London


Tower of London as viewed from across the River Thames

Tower of London as viewed from across the River Thames. (CC BY 2.0)

The Tower of London is situated on the north bank of the river Thames in central London and is one of the oldest, long-standing edifices in England. It is believed that after the Norman invasion of England and victory over the city of London, William the Conqueror ordered this massive fortress to deter retaliation and rebellion from his newly conquered subjects and to strike fear into advancing armies.

One of the Tower’s most renowned uses was as a place of execution to get rid of Britain’s undesirables among the royal class. It has an extensive history of imprisonment. Both people and animals alike have been victims within this enormous tower. But there is probably no prisoner more famous than Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Despite Hollywood’s depictions of a very public humiliation and annihilation of Anne Boleyn, she was executed within the walls of the Tower of London, a cruel yet discreet demise for a member of the royal establishment. Henry brought a master swordsman from France to make the beheading swift and clean.

Countless other people of the noble class were tortured or executed over the centuries within the Tower until 1749 when the last execution took place. With so many people having died in the Tower of London, it’s no surprise this former prison is considered one of the most haunted places in London.

Damnatio Memoriae – the Punishment of Non-Existence


A portrait of the Severan family, with the face of Geta removed due to the damnatio memoriae ordered by Caracalla

A portrait of the Severan family, with the face of Geta removed due to the damnatio memoriae ordered by Caracalla. (Public Domain)

Originally, the Roman Senate could pass a form of dishonor known as the damnatio memoriae (literally meaning ‘damnation of memory’) to punish traitors or those who brought discredit to Rome. In practice, however, it could be imposed on anyone that was not in the Senate’s or the Roman Emperor’s good books. Several Roman Emperors, including Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, were even victims of this punishment.

The removal of a person from memory may take several forms. For instance, the name of a person may be scratched away from public inscriptions. In addition, statues of a condemned individual could be reworked, and the faces of their images mutilated.

Ancient Egyptians also tried to erase certain figures from history in a similar way. For example, one of Pharaoh Akhenaton’s successors, Horemheb, tried to wipe out Akhenaten and his immediate successors from history by destroying their cartouches wherever he could find them. This official act of ‘forgetting’ was so effective that Akhenaten’s name does not appear in the famous Abydos King List of Seti I, composed less than 100 years after the death of the heretic king.

The Iron Maiden Torture Device


Iron Maiden, medieval torture device

Iron Maiden, medieval torture device. Source: StarJumper / Adobe

The iron maiden is a torture device widely believed to have been used in Europe during the Middle Ages. This notorious contraption is also known as the Virgin (a reference to the Virgin Mary), and Jungfer (German for spinster). The iron maiden is a human-sized box laden with spikes on the inside. A victim would be forced inside the iron maiden and would be impaled by the spikes when the torture device was shut.

Although the iron maiden is commonly associated with the Middle Ages, there is no account of it being used then, however torture devices similar to the iron maiden have been described in texts written prior to this period. For example, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote an account of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman general who was tortured to death by the Carthaginians by being locked in a box with nails in it. The nails didn’t pierce the general unless he fell asleep, so Regulus kept himself awake but eventually died of sleep deprivation.

The earliest account that we have of the iron maiden dates to the 18th century and was written by a historian claiming that a criminal was executed using an iron maiden in 1515. However, many scholars believe this story was invented by the historian or was a misinterpretation of a medieval punishment device known as the Schandmantel (German for ‘coat of shame’), which was worn by German prostitutes and poachers for public humiliation. Although similar to the iron maiden, the Schandmantel didn’t have spikes inside it.

Nevertheless, the 18th century account of this gruesome device inspired people to create iron maidens and by the early 19th century, iron maidens were being created and displayed across Europe. And while these supposedly medieval torture devices were being created, more horror stories began to be attached to them.

One story stated that the contraption was used during the Inquisition and the Virgin’s head was a symbol of the Catholic Church’s triumph over heresy. Another story claimed that the iron maiden was used as early as the 12th century.

Today, iron maidens are displayed in museums around the world, though these specimens are likely to have been made during the 19th century.

Trial by Ordeal: A Life or Death Method of Judgement


A 17th century engraving depicting an ordeal by water


A 17th century engraving depicting an ordeal by water. (Public Domain)

A trial by ordeal involved having the accused do something dangerous or even life-threatening. If the accused survived, he or she was (usually) proclaimed innocent. If guilty, the individual would perish. The intention is to leave the judgment of an accused in the hands of a higher force.

In European societies during the Middle Ages, a concept known as the iudicium Dei (meaning ‘the judgment of God’) was the basis for this. It was believed that God would intervene and protect an innocent person during a trial by ordeal or punish the guilty.

Trials by ordeal are described in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, and the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament. In the latter, a trial by ordeal for women accused of adultery was prescribed by God to Moses. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi also provided a form of trial by ordeal for a woman accused by adultery and said she had to “jump into the river” – if she sank she would be declared guilty, if she escaped and got out of the river unharmed she was not guilty and the accuser would be executed.

‘Trial by water,’ aka the ‘swimming test,’ was most infamously used to try witches during the 17th century. An accused witch would be dragged to the nearest body of water, stripped to their undergarments, bound, and tossed into the water to see if they would sink or float.

The ‘logic’ was that since witches spurned the sacrament of Baptism, the water would reject their body, causing them to float. On the other hand, if a person sank, then their innocence was proven. The accused would normally have a rope tied around their waist so that they could be pulled up if they sank.

Another example of trial by ordeal was the ‘trial by Host (the Holy Eucharist)’, reserved for priests accused of committing crimes or perjury. In this trial, the accused would go before the altar and pray aloud that God would choke him if he lied. He would then take the Host. It was believed that if the priest was guilty, he would either choke or have difficulty swallowing.

Aboriginal Executioner - Kurdaitcha Man


Kurdaitcha is a ritual executioner

Kurdaitcha is a ritual executioner. Source: Fxquadro / Adobe.

Kurdaitcha (aka Kurdaitcha man) is a ritual ‘ executioner’ in the culture of the Australian Aborigines , in particular the Arrernte people of Central Australia. The job of a Kurdaitcha was to avenge the death of a person by killing the enemy of the deceased, often with the use of magic. Stories are told of how the execution is carried out, and though there is a certain amount of truth in these tales, other parts are believed to be based purely on the imagination.

The Aborigines of Central Australia supposedly believe that there is no such thing as a natural death and a person’s enemies could use magic to cause his/her death. When magic is suspected to be the cause of death, a Kurdaitcha party may be arranged to avenge the person’s death.

The first step is to identify the guilty person. This may be revealed by the dying person to a Railtchawa, or medicine man . If not, there are other means a burrow being made by an animal on a particular side of the grave may be interpreted as showing the direction of the killer’s habitation.

Once the culprit is identified and revealed, a council is held, consisting of the old men of the group to which the deceased belonged. If it is decided that his/her death be avenged by a Kurdaitcha, the person to perform this role would be chosen.

There are two main ways a Kurdaitcha could avenge someone’s death. First, they could kill the guilty person, then bring them back to life, then allow them to return home. After a short time, however, the victim would fall ill and die, and apparently nobody would be able to trace the deed back to the Kurdaitcha.

A second method is through a ceremony called bone pointing. In this process, the bone is pointed on one end and covered with a lump of resin on the other. By muttering curses over it, the pointing bone is endowed with magical powers , which could then be used to curse a victim in order to kill him/her. The ritual has to be done properly in order for it to have the desired effect.

Top image: Chamber of torture devices and ancient punishments in Prague Castle.               Source: CC BY-SA 3.0



A tremendous article. Thank you.

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