The final scene of 1973’s cult horror film The Wicker Man was inspired by an aside in Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, which screenwriter Anthony Shaffer claimed he fixated on because it was “the most alarming and imposing image” he had ever seen. Caesar, traveling through Gaul, remarks on how the people are “extremely devoted to superstitious rites,” so that when they are troubled with severe disease or engaged in battle, they often resort to human sacrifice, “because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious.” Among the various means of sacrifice Caesar had heard about, it was one in which figures of vast size were constructed, “the limbs of which formed of wicker they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.” While, Caesar concludes, they “consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.”
Burning flesh, I’m told, has an unmistakable odor: a mix of the smell of cooking meat, along with the iron-rich smell of boiling blood, the charcoal-like smell of burnt flesh and the sulphurous odor of burning hair. Add to this the heady, woody scent of the wicker itself, though one supposes it might be overpowered by the far more rank smell of burning men. J. D. Salinger, among those who liberated the camps in World War II, later told his daughter, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely. No matter how long you live.”
Caesar played no part in liberating those encased in the wicker man, but perhaps he smelled that unmistakable smell as it rose high over the trees and through the plains, spreading fast in the same way that rumor and legend spread. Or perhaps he never smelled such things, because the sacrifice he describes has never been confirmed to have been real. Caesar never actually saw this take place, so it’s hard to know for sure if such sacrifices existed or how accurate his description was. Ancient and medieval travelogues were often filled with hearsay, with legend transmuted into fact, which makes them both fascinating and unreliable reading.
But this anecdote, horrifying as it is, is not the most alarming or imposing image I myself have come across. That would be a means of execution known as scaphism, or simply “the boats,” which appears in Plutarch’s recounting of the life of the Persian king Artaxerxes II. At the beginning of his reign, Plutarch tells us, Artaxerxes was known as an extremely fair and gentle ruler, “liberal to a fault in his distribution of honors and favors.” Even in his punishments, Plutarch continues, “no contumely or vindictive pleasure could be seen.”
It was a reputation that would not last. A few years into his reign, Artaxerxes was attacked by his brother Cyrus, who’d amassed a large army of mercenaries to claim the throne. During the Battle of Cunaxa, the two brothers faced each other; Cyrus wounded Artaxerxes, but was then in turn killed—not by Artaxerxes, but by young Persian named Mithridates. In the fog of battle, Mithridates had not realized he was attacking a general, and believing Cyrus to be merely another soldier, threw his spear at him, striking him in the temple. After the battle, Mithridates began boasting of his accomplishment, telling all that his was the hand that brought down Cyrus—which, while true, was a disastrous story to allow to spread through Persia, as Artaxerxes took it as a terrible insult. “For it was his desire,” Plutarch writes, “that every one, whether Greek or barbarian, should believe that in the mutual assaults and conflicts between him and his brother, he, giving and receiving a blow, was himself indeed wounded, but that the other lost his life.”
So the Persian king sentenced Mithridates to death by scaphism. The victim is placed in a small boat, and a second boat of equal size is fastened on top of it, encasing all of his body except for his head, arms and legs, which protrude through holes cut in the boats. He is then force fed (“if he refuses to eat it they force him to do it by pricking his eyes”), and his face and extremities are covered in milk and honey. “They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun,” Plutarch continues “and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it.” Continually force-fed meat, milk, and honey, the victim gradually develops both diarrhea and dysentery, and, lying in his own filth as it collects in his wooden prison, “creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed.” It took Mithridates seventeen days to die.
Why did Mithridates have to suffer so terribly? His crime was his refusal to accede the glory of his victory to the king, continuing to remind others of his own heroism. The King, meanwhile, wanted Mithridates to be forgotten, obliterated from the record books.
Plutarch, writing centuries after these events, of course did not witness this execution, any more than Caesar witnessed the Wicker Man sacrifices. That neither of these horrible modes of death can be confirmed, and yet both have had amazing staying power, speaks to the way, perhaps, that torture—or at least stories of torture—have the capacity to go viral, and cover large distances quickly. There is perhaps no better guarantee of ensuring the transmission of a story than to include in it some gory or violent detail, particularly if it is unusual or inventive.
Torture, after all, is never about its supposed interrogation; it is, rather, the way in which the victim’s body becomes a weapon against itself, a tool in the service of the power that harms it. Its purpose is to demonstrate the power of the agency committing the torture, and the more spectacularly and violently the victim is tortured, the more the victim’s body will be made to bear witness of the singular power of the tormentors. The body of the victim becomes a sounding board, by which the message of the king or government committing the torture is spread. The more horrific—and inventive—the mode of torture, the more likely it will spread throughout the populace, ensuring fear and complicity.
Of course, the Wicker Man killings were not, strictly speaking, torture—they were sacrifice. In sacrifice, the body becomes a different kind of letter, a signal sent to the gods who may not otherwise listen. The message they sent to the gods was unmistakable: do not forget us, we who have not forgotten you, we who are prepared to waste even the most precious commodity—human life—so you’ll notice us and think on us with favor. But who were these gods—what were their names? What good is this mode of communication, if the memory of it outlasts its recipients?
Add to this the even stranger fate of Mithridates. Artaxerxes demands that no one remember this impudent soldier, that his people remember none but the king himself, but then makes such an example of this poor man that he could not, in any way whatsoever, ever be forgotten.
Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), along with two other books of nonfiction. He is also the editor, with Joanna Ebenstein, of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, and he teaches at National University.