brazen bullI was talking about man’s capacity for and delight in killing, some time ago.People do not like to think about this but it is true nonetheless. We are a very curious creature in the sense that our innate curiosity has led us to many discoveries . It has made us become excellent toolmakers and masters of invention. it should be no surprise then to discover that we have some previous form in the invention of death- dealing  methods of torture and execution. We always enjoy portraying ourselves as somehow not as virulently savage as our supporting cast of earthly creatures but in fact  we have climbed new heights of invention in our pursuit of  killing methodology. Someone will say off-handedly ..”He acted like an animal”…as if surprised at the person’s easy facility for violent acts. We really shouldn’t be so surprised . Most animals are mere  amateurs at death- dealing compared to us. Most creatures will kill for food  and survival and once that instinct is unleashed  it can be uncontrollable and not easily stopped…like a fox ‘s spree-killing in a henhouse. By and large it is the natural out-workings and survival instinct inherent in the creature’s genetic makeup.We humans can kill , on the other hand , for the pure inventive revengeful  pleasure of the act. We’ve seen it here in Ireland  over this past forty years and currently across the world , especifically in Gaza. There appears to be a pleasure in the kill.

I’ve been having a look at our pedigree and there is much to wonder at .. our history for dealing out death. We all know about crucifixion , the electric chair , decapitation and hanging. The Christian religion has its  origin  and symbolism in the crucifixion. People wear the cross around their necks to this day. It’s the equivalent of wearing a small hanging  noose , a little model electric chair  or a tiny  guillotine ,when you think about it.  It’s an aide memoire  in that respect. A reminder that Christ was killed in a brutal way and offered himself as a sacrifice for our cruelty. This was an execution and punishment usually kept for slaves , heretics and the worst criminals .It was devised as a  method of killing slowly so that the victim suffered over a long period of time.It sometimes lasted several days .It is still used as a punishment in some cultures and as recently as 2012 a man was crucified in the Yemen.There is obviously a human need of some kind to extend the pleasure of killing at times.

There are many methods of death-dealing of course. We hanged people by rope until  relatively recently and we’ve  all heard about  Madame  la  Guillotine. Hanging was abolished totally in the UK in 1965, just as London was beginning to “swing”. Strangely, hanging wasn’t abolished in Northern ireland until 1973, just as “the Troubles ” were really getting started. . These methods are pedestrian in comparison with some of the methods used throughout humanity’s history  . To give you some idea of the macabre ingenuity in  the dark imagination of man, have you heard of the following  methods of execution?

1.Death by a thousand cuts


3.The Catherine Wheel


5. Boiling


7.Rat torture

8.Brazen bull

9.The boats

10.The Iron maiden

11.The  rack

12. The tongue tearer

13. Coffin torture

I could go on but my eyes are beginning to water already .It’s one thing to take a man’s life  as an ultimate punishment and many argue for this type of revenge for the taking of a loved one’s life  but turning  that death into a pornography of hatred really unfolds the true nature of the human mind  and the need to constrict and corral it.

Death by a thousand cuts is as terrible as it sounds . A victim was literally cut to pieces very slowly with sharp knives while still alive .This method was popular in China until its banning in 1905. There are actually  still photographs in existence of this cruel death.Sawing in half is as brutal as it sounds . In medieval Europe The victim , still very much alive was upended and tied securely while two men sawed him down the middle as his blood flowed . In some cases this death took several hours and the victim lived until vital arteries were severed.Boiling alive was a very popular treatment in Europe and Asia. The liquid could be plain water or possibly wine, oil or sometimes molten lead. To extend the pain and death , the torturers might start off completely cold and gradually bring up the temperature to increase  the audience’s pleasure.

You have to pause in wonder at the cruelty of the minds that could devise the  mechanised industrial slaughter of the Holocaust  some decades ago when the Nazis were in full reign and attempted to destroy an entire culture, but what  can be made of a mind that devises something like the Brazen Bull where a man is placed inside this  bronze metal representation of a bull and whose bellowing when said bull was heated up to boiling point were conveyed by a series of pipes in the animal’s head to somehow resemble the cries of the aforementioned animal?

There’s the scene in the film “Braveheart” where the hero is hanged , drawn and quartered on the rack . To all intents  this was a very popular  execution showpiece. This theatre of death involved literally tearing the man’s limbs from his body while stretching him out on a rack,; winding attached ropes to his legs and arms until they popped satisfyingly from their sockets and then chopping him up into four pieces to be sent to each point of the compass.He would literally be gutted and possibly able to look at his entrails spilling out before him. The idea was to allow him to share in the dubious pleasure of his own death for as long a time as was possible.

As for flaying, or peeling the skin from the still living body of the accused,in the year 415, Hypatia of Alexandria, a famous female mathematician and philosopher, was allegedly flayed alive by a enraged Christian mob, using sharp oyster shells….”Sharp oyster shells”…. you cry!  Is there no end to the ingenuity of man? The idea was to try and take the entire skin off in one piece.You imagine it being done with the fastidious care of two people playing the parlour game “Jenga”.

The “Catherine Wheel ” has survived in name only as the spinning, sparking  firework that almost burnt  the shed down  at Halloween when attached by a  drawing pin to the door  and ignited .It’s real application was as a large cartwheel to which a victim was tied while a  man proceeded  to smash every limb of his body with a heavy hammer.When all the limbs were rendered suitably pliant and rubbery enough to be woven through the spokes of the wheel, the Mercy Blow {or the thus termed ” coup de grace”} was finally struck to end the victim’s life.There are other defilements  such as “the boats” or impalement ,which were very popular too but I don’t want to put you off your dinner, so I’ll not go there at this point.

There was obviously great  delight  taken in a job well done. I suppose it tells you all you’d ever need to know about  the nature human beings , really.

 Even in killing we have a tendency to enjoy our work. I wouldn’t imagine there’s another creature which could put as much thought into it.

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