Of all the horrible ways you could've died in ancient times, this one is one of the worst.
Most people don’t want to hurt, torture, or kill anyone. We live our lives, go to work, try to find something that makes us happy, and hope to die a peaceful death one day when we’re very old. But there are also some really evil people out there who not only dream of harming and killing other people, but actually do it. The worst of them come up with incredibly elaborate and sadistic methods to do away with their victims and commit crimes that are so unspeakable that they go down in history and are remembered with fear for hundreds and even thousands of years.
This is the case of the deranged mind (or minds) that came up with scaphism, a torture method also known as “the boats” that originated in the Persian Empire, around the 5th century B.C. It was devised to inflict as much pain and discomfort as possible for as long as the victim remained alive, and it was reserved only for people guilty of the worst crimes (for instance, murder and treason). The method consisted of trapping the victim in the space between two small boats or two hollowed-out tree trunks and force-feeding them milk and honey over the course of a few days until the person died.
Source: Gateway to the Middle East
In order for the method to work, it had to take place in a swamp or somewhere where the boats could lie exposed to the sun. The victim would be tied inside the space between the boats in a way that left their head, hands, and feet outside. Then, the person in charge of the process would feed the victim a mixture of milk and honey, forcing them to swallow against their will, so the mixture dripped everywhere, covering their eyes, face, and neck. This same mixture was then spread all over the exposed body parts, and the idea was that it would attract every insect, vermin, and wild animal in the area. Very soon afterwards, flies and rats, for instance, would show up and start attacking the victim, eating the mixture of milk and honey, but also eating the person alive along the process.
Source: "A Persian Boat" by Ellsworth D. Foster (ed.), 1921
Now, as if the bugs eating them alive weren’t enough, there was also the severe diarrhea that left them feeling weak and dehydrated. This horrifying symptom was the intended consequence of their enforced milk-and-honey diet. The more they were fed this mixture, the more they would defecate inside the boats, but also, the longer they stayed alive. This point, precisely, was the cruelest yet most effective aspect of scaphism: the victims couldn’t die from the diarrhea-induced dehydration because they were fed milk and honey every day. As a result, the victims could survive for days and even weeks in a small hell of bugs, feces, milk, and honey.
Finally, because the victim would have no choice but to empty their bowels inside the boats, the feces would accumulate and breed maggots and other vermin that slowly made their way into the victim’s body and ate them up from the inside. This is what killed them, ultimately, as was confirmed when the victim died and the boats would be separated, revealing their half-eaten body.
The most famous victim of “the boats” was a young Persian soldier by the name of Mithridates who died around 401 B.C. He was sentenced to die because he accidentally killed Cyrus the Younger, a nobleman who wanted the throne. The actual king, Artaxerxes, was actually grateful to him for killing the young threat, and had secretly covered for him, but when Mithridates forgot about the deal and started bragging about having killed Cyrus, he was immediately sentenced. According to the records written by Plutarch, the Greek essayist and biographer, he was unlucky enough to survive 17 days in “the boats.”
Now, if horrible ways to die and ancient torture methods are your thing, you’ll be glad to know that ancient Persia came up with many other methods that are just as terrible as scaphism. For instance, they’re the ones who thought of killing people by forcing them to drink molten gold, tearing people apart with trees, and drowning them with ashes. This last method, in particular, sounds too awful to be real, but it is. It consisted of throwing the victim into a tower filled ashes. The ashes were moved by a series of wheels that pushed the victim deeper into the “pool,” so that the ashes got into their mouth and nose, and they drowned.
It would be nice to think that the ancient Persians were alone in devising extreme torture methods like this one, and that nobody else ever came up with anything similar to scaphism ever again, but that wouldn’t be true. If there’s one thing we can learn from history, it’s that people from all over the world have thought up cruel and horrible things throughout the ages, and that their sadism knows no limits. What do you think: is it better to know about humanity’s crimes or to remain blissfully unaware?
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