A History of "Trial By Ordeal"

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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.

Sassywood

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.

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April 19, 2013 - 1:00pm
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