Northern Kentucky University
Northern Kentucky University

A History of "Trial By Ordeal"

Northern Kentucky University
Northern Kentucky University

Have you ever undergone a “trial by fire”? In its modern use, this refers to any ordeal meant to test one’s strength, endurance, or resolve. These trials and tribulations can be mentally and physically taxing, and can sometimes push a person to their breaking point.

Originally, however, “trial by fire” was a much more literal term, and was one of the many categories of “trial by ordeal” that permeated the judicial system of Europe, Asia, Africa, and colonial America. The thought behind trial by ordeal was that, during the process, the gods intervene and show a sign that indicates guilt or innocence.

Of course, the system was far from foolproof; many of the trials were easily manipulated by the administering judges (or priests) to “prove” a verdict that they thought was correct. Still, some authors, such as George Mason University economist Peter Leeson, say that in a society that unflinchingly believes in the efficacy of these trials, the ordeals and ordealists would have resulted in the “correct” verdict more often than not. After all, if a person was guilty, but believed that the trials always showed the truth, they’d be unlikely to be willing to undergo them—the punishment for pleading guilty was almost always far more lenient than the punishment for being “shown” to be guilty under trial by ordeal.

Though the trial by ordeal was forbidden by Pope Innocent III in 1215, its prevalence in Europe continued to be wide enough that it even came over to colonial America. Other trials by ordeal were also found throughout India, Southeast Asia, and in many parts of Africa. Both the Ramayana (a Hindu epic) and the Old Testament (in the Book of Numbers) describe trials by ordeal. Even to this day, trial by ordeal is known to take place in Liberia, concerning many human rights organizations. Here's a brief rundown of 11 trials by ordeal.

Trial by Fire

Courtesy of Nirmukta

The defendant on trial must pick an object out from within flames, or walk over hot coals. If they were burned in the process, they were presumed guilty. In the Hindu version of the trial by fire, a woman suspected of adultery must stand in a circle of flame, or on top of a pyre, and not be burned. This was exemplified by the trial of Sita in the Ramayana, who was said to have not had a single flower petal in her hair be wilted by the heat of the flames, for she was so pure the flames avoided her.

Trial by Hot Iron

Courtesy of Brittania

A one-pound iron was heated in a fire, and pulled out during a ritual prayer. The defendant had to carry this iron the length of nine feet (as measured by the defendant’s own foot size). Their hands were then examined for burns. If the crime of the accused was particularly egregious, such as betrayal of one’s lord, or murder, the iron would be three pounds.

Trial by Water

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The defendant was bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Contrary to popular belief, those that sank weren’t drowned but were hauled out of the water, and those that floated didn’t float because they could swim: If he or she floated, they were guilty, and if they sank, they were presumed innocent. This was the most common ordeal undergone in the New World, and was seen during the time of the Salem witch trials. A surprisingly high number of people were deemed “innocent” by this method, but it was largely the younger women and the men who were exonerated in these trials. Their lower body fat levels probably helped them sink down in the water.

Trial by Hot Water

Courtesy of Fordham University

The arm was plunged elbow-deep into hot water, often to grasp a ring, stone, or holy object at the bottom of a cauldron. After several days, if no blistering or peeling was present, the defendant was presumed innocent. Since it was not always boiling water that was used, this was one of the most easily-manipulated trials for the ordealists to work over.

Trial by Host

Relegated to priests accused of crimes, or suspected of lying regarding someone else’s crime (perjury). The priest would go before the altar and pray aloud that God would choke him if he were not telling the truth. He would then take The Host (the holy eucharist), and if he was guilty of perjury or the crime, he would either choke or have difficulty swallowing. This had a degree of psychosomatic truth behind it, if the priest truly believed in the trial, but it was one of the easiest of the “trial by ordeal” ceremonies to overcome by the defendant.

Trial by Ordeal Bean

A trial of “Old Calabar” (Akwa Akpa—now part of Nigeria), involving the “E-ser-e,” or “the ordeal bean,” now known as the calabar bean (Physostigma venenosum). A common use was in trials where someone was accused of witchcraft. The defendant would ingest the calabar beans. If they vomited up the beans, they were presumed innocent, and if they digested the beans they were presumed guilty. Most defendants who digested the beans were killed by their effects. The physostigmine effects of the calabar beans are similar to the effects of nerve gasses that have been used in war; they disrupt the communication between muscles and the nervous system, and the victim dies of asphyxiation when the diaphragm fails to respond.

Trial by Tagena

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Very similar to “trial by ordeal bean,” but used in Madagascar. The nut of the tagena tree (Cerbera odollam) contains cerberin, which is related to the toxin found in foxglove (digoxin). This causes the heart to fibrillate (an uncoordinated spasmodic contraction that fails to pump blood), and in many cases, completely stop beating. The “trial by Tagena” has been used against alleged witchcraft practitioners in Madagascar for over 500 years, and in the mid-19th century, was responsible for over 2 percent of the deaths (3000 people) in Madagascar every year.  Its use was banned in 1861 by King Radama II, but is still known to be used in homicide and suicide in Madagascar and India, and in trial by ordeal that continues in remote Madagascar provinces.


The sassywood rituals of Liberia and the West African coast come in several different forms, but all feature the “Ordeal tree” (Erythrophleum suaveolens). This tree produces a toxin similar to the tagena of Madagascar throughout its tissues, but also produces a hemolytic (blood-thinner), and a convulsant toxin. In the most common ritual, the defendant is called to ingest a concoction of the sassywood bark. If they vomit it back up, they are presumed innocent. Another common ordeal is to place a machete into burning sassywood, and when it’s red-hot, rub the blade on the legs of the defendants. Whichever defendant is burned is presumed guilty.

Since the disruption of the court systems during Liberia’s civil war, the sassywood rituals have been regaining ground as “legitimate” alternatives to “Western justice”. Despite being officially outlawed, the belief in the validity of the rituals has kept the tradition alive, even in well-educated parts of the country, such as Monrovia.  Nevertheless, many people have died because of being forced through them (unlike the other trials by ordeal, the choice to “plead guilty” instead of undergoing sassywood is not usually an option – even if it were, it would mean accepting death by machete rather than death by poisoning), and international justice communities are seeking to bring down the use of these rituals.

Trial by Diving

This trial, found in India, Thailand, Burma, and Borneo, involved a test of breath-holding, and was most often used in disputes of contested cock-fights. Two stakes were secured beneath the water of a clear pond, and both parties involved in the dispute would dive and grasp onto a stake. Whichever claimant stayed beneath the water longest was declared to have truth on his side.

Trial by Snake

A cobra and a ring are placed in an earthenware pot, and the defendant is tasked with retrieving the ring from beneath the snake without being bitten. This trial was most commonly used when someone was accused of making a false accusation against another person, or lying to get another person punished (the equivalent of perjury in the Western court system).

Sotah Ritual

Mentioned in the King James version of the Old Testament (Numbers 5:11-31), this ritual was to be undertaken by a woman suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. It was called the “ordeal of bitter water,” and had the woman ingesting a concoction of dirt from a temple floor and holy water, in an earthenware vessel. If her “belly swell an’ her legs fall away” (if she got very bloated or lost muscle in her legs) after the ritual, she was deemed guilty of adultery. However, if she was unharmed by the ritual, she was seen as not guilty, and her husband was made to stop falsely accusing her. Despite appearing in fairly explicit instruction in the early Bible, there’s no evidence that this ritual was ever undertaken by anyone either anywhere else in the Bible, or in life.

Our current court systems work best when those involved are skeptical, analytical, and not biased toward any one viewpoint, but in the days of Trial by Ordeal, the opposite would have been true—the more people involved in a case brought to “court” who were thoroughly vested in the idea that these ordeals were accurate in showing guilt and innocence, the more effective these trials were. The guilty would refuse the trials, and the innocent would undergo the trials with such confidence in their success that they would oftentimes succeed, even in a trial that hadn’t been “helped” along by the ordealists.

Additional Sources: "Ordeals," Peter T. Leeson [PDF]; Asian Review: Trial by Ordeal in Siam. Demetrius Charles Boulger, 1895; The cyclopædia of India and of eastern and southern Asia: Trial by Ordeal. Edward Balfour, 1885; Protabase Records; Erythrophleum suaveolens; Wicked Plants. Amy Stewart, 2009; Reason Magazine; Trial By Ordeal. Radley Balko, 2010.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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