Pathfinder, Magic and Religion in Antiquity

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Ancient Executions, Most Unpleasant [Part 3 of 3]

The word crucifixion is a Latin derived word crucifigo a third conjugation transitive verb meaning to crucify, or attach to a cross. Although other cultures have used this method of execution such as the Persians and the Phoenicians, the Romans are particularly found of this form of torturous death reserved only for the lowest of the low. Pirates, deserters, and traitors are given this punishment whereas more proper Romans were given the option of suicide such as Petronius during the time of Nero, or beheading.
One of the most common misconceptions about crucifixion is due in part of the historical account of Jesus. Artistic depictions of his death depict the location of the nails in his palms, which is simply false. Victims of crucifixion would have the nail driven through the wrist which would support their bodily weight and cause extreme pain due to the median nerve that runs through the arm. Had someone been crucified with the iron nails passing through the palms, then they would have to have their arms somehow lashed to the cross itself since the palms would not hold the weight load. The majority of depictions of Jesus do not show these lashings, but if the Synoptic Gospels hold any truth to the account, then he most certainly would have been bound to the cross before the nails were driven into his flesh.

It is nearly impossible to find a picture of anyone being crucified that isn’t Christ, he has a monopoly on this execution. However, one of my favorite etchings of a Roman graffito is the Roman perspective of the self proclaimed Messiah.

Alexamenos worships his god

Alexamenos worships his god. 3rd century CE

According to a study done by Maslen and Mitchell,1 some possible causes of death for this method range from  cardiac rupture, heart failure, hypovolemic shock, asphyxia  and pulmonary embolism. Death could result from any combination of those factors or from other causes, including sepsis following infection due to the wounds caused by the nails or by the whipping that often preceded crucifixion, dehydration was also a factor depending on the environment and the length of time the victim was left upon the cross. 

In short, although this torture pales in comparison to others that I have discussed the past few days, this one is the most recognizable. Even today, in the Philippines there are people who preform live crucifixions in celebration for the Easter holiday. This practice is most unpleasant, and the worship of this painful execution is quite disturbing. If you really take a moment to pause and think about the grotesque imagery that is found in the Passion of Christ, it is enough to turn your stomach.

But this is why religion is so interesting, the rituals are what make it unique. This alone allows me to continue writing about it in complete fascination.



 1 Maslen, Matthew; Piers D Mitchell. “Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion”. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99 (4): 185.

Ancient Executions, Most Unpleasant [Part 1 of 3]

Capital punishment has always been cause for debate. Should the state be allowed to murder its citizens?  In the modern age, only forty of the 163 countries still have some form of the death penalty, including China, India, The entirety of the Middle East, and of course the United States. But by no means does the modicum of death meted out by the modern state even remotely close to some ancient methods of execution. Although one can assume that the way we execute prisoners today are “humane”, hanging, firing squad, electric chair, lethal injection, these all pale in comparison to the three forms of execution I will be looking at these three bizarre and unique forms of execution, namely the brazen bull, scaphism, and crucifixion.

The first of these that I will be talking about is the brazen bull. This method of death was first used by the tyrant Phalaris of Acragas in Sicily c. 570-554 BCE. The creator of the invention was Perillos of Athens. This invention was a large bronze cast bull, hollow on the inside with a door. The condemned were bound and shut inside the bull and a fire lit underneath. The mouth of the brazen bull was left open and the escaping steam and screams were meant to sound like an angry bull.
tumblr_m8w6gkqtQ41qme7gno1_400Fast forward to the persecution of Christians, it is reported that some saints of the church met their end by this particularly nasty form of execution. Makes being fed to the lions seems like a cake walk. There were three saints mentioned to have been killed by this. Saint Antipas in 92 CE by the Emperor Domition, Saint Eustace in 118 CE by Emperor Hadrian, and a woman by the name of Pelagia of Tarsus in 287 CE by Emperor Diocletian. However, the Catholic Church discounts the martyrdom of Saint Eustace according to the Martyologium Romanum (ISB 8-820-97210-7).
I think that the three reported cases of its use to kill Christians (and possibly Jews) could in fact, aside from the obvious death, be a theological attack. Although scholars in the early 20th century have linked it to the golden calf from Exodus, and then summarily dismissed the idea, I think they should no be so hasty. The imagery of a Christian being sacrificed within a large bull, the golden calf grown into adulthood is striking. Perhaps these emperors had a sick sense of humor and made this connection, or maybe not.

To take a brief look at the account of Pelagia’s death, here is an excerpt from the martyrdom of Pelagia of Tarsus.

Diocletian sentenced Pelagia to be burned in a red-hot bronze bull. Not permitting the executioners to touch her body, the holy martyr signed herself with the Sign of the Cross, and went into the brazen bull and her flesh melted like myrrh, filling the whole city with fragrance. St Pelagia’s bones remained unharmed and were removed by the pagans to a place outside the city. Four lions then came out of the wilderness and sat around the bones letting neither bird nor wild beast get at them. The lions protected the relics of the saint until Bishop Linus came to that place. He gathered them up and buried them with honor. Later, a church was built over her holy relics.

This account if full of typical imagery of a Christian martyrology. Her courage and stalwart faith the hallmark of any proper martyr. Most important is the mention of the whole city being filled with fragrance, some accounts specify the scent of myrrh, which is a motif I am currently exploring in other documents of this period. The cooperation of lions also has a storied history such as in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 11:6 or in the story of Daniel in the lion den.  On a final note, it would be interesting to so some forensic archeology and exhume the bones of this martyr for signs of her death.

Tomorrow I will be discussing the insanity that is scaphism.

Saint Antipas being roasted alive in a Brazen bull at Pergamon.

Saint Antipas being roasted alive in a Brazen bull at Pergamon.

The Changing Notions of Serpents in Antiquity


Throughout ancient history, snakes have been venerated in some way. The ancient Greek cult of Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpiós) flourished and its most famous temple was found in Epidaurus. Healing the sick was the main component to this religion. In light of the medical utility of this deity it is of no surprise that Romans established a temple to their latinized version, Aesculapius. According to Eric Orlin, in response to a dire plague that was ravaging the city, the Senate consulted Sibylline Books a set of oracles. They did this twice, the first time in 295 BCE, which elicited no clear course of action and the second in 293. The books dicated that “Aesculapius must be brought to Rome from Epidaurus.”2 So, the snake, who was housed in was in a temple at Epidaurus, as a representation of the god was taken and brought to his new temple in Rome in 291.

In the second century of the common era, there is the notorious cult of Glycon. The literary source for this is the satirist Lucian of Samosata. His work is titled “Alexander the False Prophet.” This biting account of the charlatan Alexander of Abonoteichus comments that he reportedly used a black snake from Macedonia, famous for their non-venomous and docility in his hoax. In short, Alexander created a cult to a snake deity, who he said was the son of Aesculapius and named him Glycon. The archeological evidence supports the prevalence and longevity of the cult long after the death of its founder. The most famous statuary was found in Tomis, Romania along with other statues and they are believed to have been buried for safekeeping.


 However, to the proponents of Christianity, serpents are usually associated with evil, particularly Satan. Although a Syriac saint named Simeon (390-459 CE) who became known as Simeon Stylites lived out his life atop a pillar. David Frankfurter of Boston University wrote an article entitled “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria.”1 This article discusses at great length the rise of this unique form of Christian asceticism. Simeon’s hagiography survived in both Syriac and in Latin. In one of the Latin codices, a scene takes place where the main characters are in fact a snake couple.

25. A large growth came upon a female serpent and, because of her sufferings, she tried to leave for about one mile when the male, suffering her pains with her, took hold of the female, and they came to lord Simeon. When they arrived at his pillar, they separated from one another, for the female did not dare to be seen by the righteous man, but went into the the woman’s section. The male  came in the midst of that crowd and prostrated himself before the pillar, shaking his head up and down, and prayed to the righteous man. When the crowd saw the huge size of the snake, they ran away from it, but when he saw this holy Simeon said to the crowds, ‘Do not run away, brethren, for he has truly come here to pray. His female is very ill and has gone into the women’s section.’ He said to the snake, ‘Take up clay from the ground and carry it to your wife. Place it on [her] and breathe on it, and it will heal her.’ The snake took some clay and went to his wife. When the crowds saw it they followed him to see what he would do. They saw the female standing  upright outside the barrier, and she had a large growth. The [male]   snake took the clay, placed it on [her] and breathed on her and, in the presence of all, it healed her. He then took her and went away, and when the crowds saw this mystery, they glorified God. 3

This interesting story breaks with the tradition that genesis laid down with the snake in Eden. The symbolic nature of these snakes could be taken to illustrate the holy man’s authoritas, his power, over evil. God punished snakes for all time in Genesis 3:14 by saying “Because you have done this,[Tricked Eve into eating the apple] you are cursed more than all animals, domestic and wild. You will crawl on your belly, groveling in the dust as long as you live.” However, Simeon seemingly converted the evil creature, who went to him in supplication and asked for a miracle for his snake wife.

In summation, snakes have been a source of religious veneration, scorn, and allegory in antiquity. Even within one religion, such as Christianity, the notion that snakes are either good or bad remains somewhat fluid. From serious cults devoted to healing the sick, to the puppet-like Glycon, and in Judeo-Christiain mythology, snakes played an integral role in shaping religious doctrine in antiquity.

1. David T. M. Frankfurter, “Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religion in Late Antique Syria,” Vigiliae Christianae 44.2 (June 1990).

2. Eric M. Orlin, Temples, Religion, and Politics in the Roman Republic, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 1997), 23.

3. The Lives of Simeon Stylites, Trans. Robert Doran. (Spencer Massachusetts: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 227.