Sunday, August 28, 2016

Revised and Expanded: One of the things that throw scholars off... (Part 1)

... is the idea that impalement as a death penalty usually -- or invariably -- ends with an immediate, or at least a quick, death.  Gunnar Samuelsson [1] and John Granger Cook [2] both hold this conviction. Yet illustrations and narratives from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries show that this was not so!

There was a way that the Turks -- and Vlad Țepeș (sometimes) -- did it; by transfixing the person through the length of his body from the rectum and out the back below one of the shoulders.  The Western Europeans of the time thought it was a disgusting and exceedingly vile combination of the utmost cruelty and what they called unnatural sex:
Swords, bows, and spears took the place of the pyres on which the Protestant martyrs suffered, but were just as much perpetual reminders of violence, threat, and danger. And sometimes sexual excess and perversity were suggested instead of savagery. In some images all these elements were present. Many Europeans were convinced that Muslims were pederasts and sodomites. The Turks were held to be devotees of impalement, one of the few forms of cruel punishment not practiced in the West. The depictions of this implied both unnatural sex and excessive cruelty. [3]
In this first part we will deal with the illustrations.

Show-place of Barbaric Slavery. 
 The above illustration depicts an active impalement underway in the middle foreground and behind it, people already impaled and suspended on poles. These two persons are depicted as still alive -- the one on the left appears to be interacting with two spectators while smoking a pipe.

The next two illustrations depict an impalement scene under the Ottoman Empire.The next two illustrations come from French edition of Voyages de M. Thevenot tant en Europe qu'en Asie et en Afrique and and depicts an impalement scene in Ottoman Egypt.  In the foregeround is an Arab seated upon a camel with lit candles stuck in his arms so that the hot pitch or rosin would drip down and burn not only his skin, but also the muscles within. In the background are two pyramids, and in front of that are two impaled men, surrounded by guards and spectators, one of them smoking a pipe. This pipe seems to be a popular meme in these depictions.  The second comes from the 1723 Dutch edition of Alle  de gedenkwaardige en zeer naauwkeurige reizen van de beere de Thevenot, trans. G. van Broekhuizen, 2nd impression, (Amsterdam, 1723, p. 441).   Here the landscape is changed; it appears to be southeast European or Anatolian, perhaps Levantine. The pyramids have been replaced by a stony outcropping on the left and a city at a distance on the right. The impalement scene now receives top billing so as to emphasize the brutal, cruel and unusual (to Europeans) punishments of the Turks – an active impalement is depicted in the foreground, while the scene of the two suspended men is shown immediately behind. [6]

A description of an actual occurrence from the 1687 English edition:
… Impaling is also a very ordinary Punishment with them, which is done in this manner. They lay the Malefactor upon his Belly, with his Hands tied behind his Back, then they slit up his Fundament with a Razor, and throw into it a handful of Paste that they have in readiness, which immediately stops the Blood; after that they thrust up into his Body a very long Stake as big as a Man’s Arm, sharp at the point and tapered, which they grease a little before; when they have driven it in with a Mallet, till it come out at his Breast, or at his Head or Shoulders, they lift him up, and plant this Stake very streight in the Ground, upon which they leave him so exposed for a day. One day I saw a Man upon the Pale, who was Sentenced to continue-so for three Hours alive, and that he might not die too soon, the Stake was not thrust up far enough to come out at any part of his Body, and they also put a stay or rest upon the Pale, to hinder the weight of his body from making him sink down upon it, or the point of it from piercing him through, which would have presently killed him: In this manner he was left for some Hours, (during which time he spoke) and turning from one side to another, prayed those that passed by to kill him, making a thousand wry Mouths and Faces, because of the pain be suffered when he stirred himself, but after Dinner the Basha sent one to dispatch him; which was easily done, by making the point of the Stake come out at his Breast, and then he was left till next Morning, when he was taken down, because he stunk horridly. Some have lived upon the Pale until the third day, and have in the mean while smoaked Tobacco, when it was given them. This poor wretch carried the Scales and Weights, of those who go about to visit the Weights, to see if they be just, and he had so combined with such as had false Weights, that he brought false ones also with him; so that the Searchers not perceiving the change of their own Weights, thought the other to be just. When Arabs, or such other Robbers are carried to be Empaled, they put them on a Camel, their Hands tied behind their Backs, and with a Knife make great gashes in their naked Arms, thrusting into them Candles of Pitch and Rosin, which they light, to make the stuff run into their Flesh; and yet some of these Rogues go chearfully to Death, glorying (as it were) that they could deserve it, and saying, That if they had not been brave Men, they would not have been so put to death. [6]

Des supplices en usage en Egypte.
From Voyages de M. De Thevenot tant en Europe.... (1689 edn.)

Jan Luyken: Straf empaleren Egypten
From Alle de gedenkwaardige … de Thevenot (1723 edn.)
The next illustration depicts the scene of a crucifixion of a Christian in the middle of Algiers. In the detail below it a sharpened stake can be clearly seen behind the victim with the sharp point rising above his head. In this detail, the victim is clearly shown standing up crookedly with a reverse twist in his torso.  He is also shown alive and suffering, implying that the stake was run through him before he is to be nailed to his cross, and unfortunately for him, it missed all his vital organs.  The crookedness introduced into his body suggests the stake missed nicking either of the two critical central blood vessels of the torso: the descending aorta and the vena cava

Crucifixion d'un Chretien a Alger.
Source: / Biibliothèque nationale de France
Crucifixion d'un Chretien a Alger - detail.
The following image, titled "Impaled on a Stake," depicts a scene in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The stake is depicted with a transom, which acts as a brake for the body, bringing to mind Macaenas’ line “Though I sit on a piercing cross!” (Sen. Ep. 101.10 - English transl.)

One Impaled on a Stake [in Ceylon].
Source: Robert Knox's An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies [9]
This image below is a scene showing a variety of tortures and executions meted out in Asian countries. The depiction of an impalement is midway up on the right, labeled no. 10. Here the executioners are depicted to be pushing up the stake, on which the victim already has been transfixed, his feet apparently nailed to the stake.

Scenes des supplices Asiatiques / Alle Asiatische Straffen
Source unknown.
Impalements weren’t limited to the Islamic world at that time. This 16th Century woodcut below depicts an impalement scene in Russia. The illustrator apparently showed the victim on the right with a smile; the stake as shown would have nicked his descending aorta or vena cava, guaranteeing a quick death (John Granger Cook, p. 3). The victim in the center is also apparently dead, seeing that the stake is shown emerging from his breast, apparently through his heart. The victim on the left though has been depicted with the stake driven slightly askew and emerging from his back between the spine and the shoulder. One such victim was recorded to have suffered for fifteen hours alive in such a manner. [8]

Impalement scene in 16th Century Russia.
The one on the right is depicted to be smiling.
This next one, Scenes des supplices / Elendige Straffen Dic. de. Túrcken de Slaaven doen Leyden, is a triptych of engravings illustrating several sorts of executions under the Turks in the 17th-18th Centuries. In the background, in front of the citadel, is depicted an impalement scene. One of the victims is shown transfixed through and possibly, but not necessarily, quite dead, the other one infixed only to a partial depth and obviously still alive judging by the flexing of his legs.

Elendige Straffen Dic. de. Túrcken de Slaaven doen Leyden.
Source: / Biibliothèque nationale de France.
Elendige Straffen ... - detail.
Note one of the impales is obviously alive by the positioning of his legs.

So you can see, if one were to impale another with care, the victim will be transfixed to suffer extreme torture for a long, slow, lingering death.

I also found evidence that the ancient Greeks knew this was true, too; and included their knowledge thereof in epigraphs and literature... although very, very rarely.

Next Part: Descriptions of Impalement in Travelogues and Literature.


[1]   Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity, p. 44, n. 31.
[2]   John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean, p. 3.
[3]   Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels: A History of Conflict between Christendom and Islam, p. 260.
[4]   Voyages de M. Thevenot tant en Europe qu'en Asie et en Afrique. Paris: Charles Angot (1689).
[5]   Alle  de gedenkwaardige en zeer naauwkeurige reizen van de beere de Thevenot, trans. G. van   Broekhuizen, 2nd impression, Amsterdam (1723), p. 441.
[6]   Wheatcroft, p. 260 n. 3.
[7]   Jean de Thévenot, Archibald Lovell (trans.), The Travels Of Monsieur De Thevenot Into The Levant: In Three Parts, Volume 1 London: H. Faithorne, J. Adamson, C. Skegnes, and T. Newborough, (1687), p. 259.
[8]   Giles Fletcher, Sir Jerome Horsley. Edward A. Bond, edr. Russia at the Close of the Sixteenth Century. New York City: Burt Franklin (1856), p. 172.
[9] Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together with an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape, London: Richard Chiswell (1681), p. 39.


  1. The source of "One Impaled on a Stake" is Robert Knox's An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together with an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape, published in 1681