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Scaphism, also known as the boats, was an ancient Persian method of execution designed to inflict torturous death. The name comes from the Greek word skaphe, meaning "scooped (or hollowed) out".

The naked person was firmly fastened within a back-to-back pair of narrow rowing boats (or a hollowed-out tree trunk), with the head, hands, and feet protruding. The condemned was forced to ingest milk and honey to the point of developing severe diarrhea, and more honey would be rubbed on his body in order to attract insects to the exposed appendages. He or she would then be left to float on a stagnant pond or be exposed to the sun. The defenseless individual's feces accumulated within the container, attracting more insects, which would eat and breed within his or her exposed and increasingly gangrenous flesh. The feeding would be repeated each day in some cases to prolong the torture, so that dehydration or starvation did not provide him or her with the release of death. Death, when it eventually occurred, was probably due to a combination of dehydration, starvation and septic shock. Delirium would typically set in after a few days.

In other recorded versions, the insects did not eat the person; biting and stinging insects such as wasps, which were attracted by honey on the body, acted as the torture.

Death by scaphism was painful, humiliating, and protracted. Plutarch writes in his biography of Artaxerxes that Mithridates, sentenced to die in this manner for killing Cyrus the Younger, survived 17 days before dying.[1]

Similar practices

  • A barrel pillory or Spanish mantle torture method is quite similar. The barrel fitted over the entire body, with the head sticking out from a hole in the top. The criminal is put in an enclosed barrel, forcing him to kneel in his own filth.
  • Simpler installations to the same end have been reported among Native American tribes, such as immobilizing the condemned, smearing him and leaving him to voracious ants. Dehydration would set in within a few days.
  • In early historic times in Siberia, a condemned prisoner would be tied naked to a tree and left to slowly die through starvation and blood loss from mosquitoes, horseflies and other insects. This practice was revived in the Gulag under Soviet authority.
  • Richard Sair refers to one case in modern China in which a man was allegedly chained up outside where the mosquitoes bit him.[2]

Citations

  1. ^ Artaxerxes, Plutarch, (75)
  2. ^ Sair, Richard (Sometimes catalogued as Hirsch, Arnold.) "The Book of Torture and Executions". Golden Books, Toronto. 1944. (So catalogued because [a] Dr. Hirsch was the editor and [b] Sair's name appears nowhere in print on the work, only in the L of C cataloguing info, which is so precise as to indicate that "the title of this work was formerly known [sic] as The Book of Torture and Flagellation.")

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