The Colourful History of Death by Sawing. (Don't read this before bed. Or food.)
Alright this is a long one.
When we think of ISIS - the now seemingly defunct terrorist regime, not the Egyptian Goddess - we tend to associate the most heinous, disgusting and brutal forms of death and destruction known to man. Their limitless thirst for vile torture and execution makes us separate ourselves to some degree from certain corners of the internet, hoping that a subtle psychological ignorance would basically be preferable.
But I've long been conscious of a certain truth: Isis is tame.
At least when you compare it to almost all of human history, anyway. From the Golden Horde to Ancient Rome and beyond, humanity's capacity for innovative agony has been consistently boundless; only now do we live in a time where most (but certainly not all) of us get the privilege of forgetting, and no longer comprehending, how savage and cruel existence can be.
I come here to pop that little bubble you're living in. Today we're starting a journey of Horrible Histories sans Protection. Rather than explain my intent, let's jump right into it. Careful where you land.
Saint Cyriacus - Public Domain
A saw is a pretty handy tool. For humans, it cuts wood, for mosquitoes, it cuts into humans with fantastic precision, and for sawfish, it allows them to look ridiculous for our entertainment. Thanks, God!
But the saw is far more versatile than that, which is why one of history's most imaginably vile torture and execution methods, innovatively named The Saw, saw itself spread all over the world across the centuries until surprisingly recently, but I want to go into some of the fascinating history first.
'Saint' Simon, sawn in the most effective way. Visit the link to get a real close up of this. By Lucas Cranach the Elder, Public Domain
Simply, death by sawing is accomplished by sawing a human until they're dead. But this in itself lacks imagination. No, we needed to consider the most optimal, painful way to do this. Where to start? Sawing a human's head off would be too immediate, as would sawing top-down from the skull' there would be no point sawing any further once you got a fraction of the way through the brain.
Sawing across the midriff would be pretty agonizing and also lead to a sustained death as you watch the victims guts spill over the floor and the blood drain from their face. But this draining caused a problem; the victim would pass out too quickly and escape from all the joyous torture.
The 'best' method, some found, was to hang a victim upside down and saw them in half lengthways, from the groin to the head. Being upside down allows the sawing to continue at least as far as the chest before death prevails, and all that blood going to the head allowed consciousness to stick around that bit longer. The bonus result is that the onlookers got to watch the victim's own blood and guts droop down and drench their body and face, intestines slapping around and more. This has been beautifully illustrated, as you can probably see by now, with Saint Simon who was traditionally martyred around 65AD in Persia for... being Zealous, apparently?
Reasons for sawing differ through history, it's not only those praised by God who get the opportunity to have their mortal bodies torn asunder.
It's hard to say when Death By Saw was actually first devised, but I can say with fair confidence that it was within the week of saws being invented, which was possibly around the 17tth century BC - almost 4,000 years ago.
Thanks to the Bible, we have written evidence that humans were at least thinking about it based on the aforementioned sawing of a zealot in Persia, but a little more recently we get some insight into yet more Persian sawing in the epic poem Shahnameh around 1,000 AD where the character Jamshid was 'sawn asunder' for growing ungrateful of God... three times. Seemingly for political reasons, his fate would change in scripture depending on the situation at the time:
Jamshid fled away….Zahhak missioned spies to find him and they found him near the coast…. They sawed his hands and legs off….The Tarikh-e Tha'alabi (1990: 13-17)
Jamshid fled away and Zahhak followed him until he found him near the sea of China. Then, he sawed him in half and threw his body in the sea of China. Fars-nameh (2007: 34)
...he fled to India and ruled for one hundred more years in there until his other sons were born…. Finally, he was taken into captivity and brought to Zahhak. They used a piece of fish bone which was similar to a saw, cut him in half, and burned his body. Mojmal al-Tavarikh (2010: 25-40)
Bloody ingrate. Serves him right.
So we can safely assume sawing was pretty popular in Persia. Then again we don't need to assume. There are numerous examples of Persian saw-gutting, including when Parysatis, wife of Darius II (423 BC) had her daughter-in-law's sibling sawn in half, when Hormuzd IV had to watch his wife and son sawn in half, and when Ziselmius, leader of the brutal Thracians tribe sawed a whole bunch of people in half and had their family members eat the remains. (this eating of decapitated loved ones is surprisingly common in history).
But Persia wasn't the only place of Ancient times that enjoyed such heinous acts.
What's with the ugly momma on his chest? Louis le Grand
If you thought crucifixion was the worst that came from the Romans, think again. Around AD 40, a particularly nasty individual, Caligula, took office as the third Roman emperor for less than 5 years. His life had been pretty miserable. His father was rumoured to have been poisoned by Tiberius, his adopted father, for being a political rival. His mother. Agrippina, publicly declared vengeance before being imprisoned until she starved to death - along with all 5 of Caligula's brothers and sisters. Caligula was too young, and thus avoided prison, instead of being made to live with Tiberius where resentment and hatred boiled quietly inside him.
By the time he was 25, he became emperor following Tiberius' death, but by this point, he had already gone stark-raving mad. It didn't help that everybody would mock his appearance; a hairy yet bald, pale and lanky individual. The solution was to make mockery punishable by death.
If that wasn't enough, he started killing off his family members and declaring himself as God, even dressing as them in public and replacing the heads of statues of gods with his own. His increasing number of enemies were taken down gruesome, or joyously, depending on whether or not you are Caligula. He would have them sawed in half through the torso while he ate, apparently stating that such suffering served as his meal's appetizer.
Mahomet the Conqueror
Such historical times are full of rumour and fables, propaganda and outright myths. None of the above really proves the Saw ever being used as an execution method. So we need to go into more recent times, past the Jews, the Christians, and the Egyptians who all lay claim to some form of Sawing methodology.
Between 1461 and 1480, the Ottoman Empire was going through a sawing phase under the guidance of Mahomet the Conqueror (derived from Muḥammad). Garnished with a rich variety of horror, it was almost as if he was jealous of Arch Nemesis of the Ottoman at the time, Vlad the Impaler and his status as an impaler. 'Mahomet the Sawer' doesn't quite have the same ring to it, unfortunately. But he certainly tried. On the conquest of constantinople:
They no sooner found themselves masters of it, than they began to exercise On the inhabitants the most unremitting barbarities, destroying them by every method of ingenious cruelty. Some they roasted alive on spits, others they starved, some they flayed alive, and left them in that horrid manner to perish; many were sawn asunder, and others torn to pieces by horses. Three days and nights was the city given to spoil, in which time the soldiers were licensed to commit every enormitySource
The sawing continued for various crimes during the reign of Mahomet. in 1464, a small city was said to have been conquered, whereby 500 prisoners were sent to Saw-haven Constantinople and, you guessed it, sawn asunder. All of 'em.
A year earlier, the Knights Hospitaller Sent a bunch of knights to their doom. But to the knights' fortune, instead they surrendered under Mahomet's promise that their heads would be spared. Keeping to his word, he had alll 400 of them sawed in half, instead. This account really highlights Mahomet's unreasonable brutalities:
A few days after, mahomet had them arrested on a frivolous pretext, because, he said, they had endeavoured to go our of Constantinople without this permission; he caused them both to be strangled. He treated still more cruelly those Christians who had armed and defended Metelin. They had surrendered to the vizier, under the promise of life: Spite of this promise so solemnly given, the sultan had these unfortunate persons sawn asunder between two planks Source
After Mohamet's reign, sawing became a thing of the pa- nah, kidding.
Indeed, death by sawing continued on at least in some accounts as recently as the 1820's in Burma for certain criminal offences. For gruesome's sake, here's an account from the Quarterly Review of some decorative murder methods to go alongside the sawing main course:
One gentleman told me that he had seen a deserter eat a banana with his bowels out, after the executioner had performed more than half his task; and another, also an eye-witness, stated that a woman condemned for murder to be thrown to a tiger, deliberately crept into the cage, made the savage a shi-ko, or obesiance, was killed by a single blow of the animal's fore-foot, and immediateley dragged by him into the recess of his den.Source
It's fair to say that sawing people in half has historically been a popular endeavour. The problem is, it's frustratingly tricky. The body, whether alive or dead, tends to flop around in either panic or flaccidity, so it can be more annoying than ecstatic. The Chinese had a work around for this by crushing the victim between two planks of wood first before commencing the sawing or 'death by 1,000 cuts'. But nowadays it's just easier, for the most part, to stab and shoot.
I have no doubt, however, that in some war-torn regions where accounts of people being forced to eat each other (yes, that happens today) we might possibly also expect to see some sawing action going on. But there is so much going on out there, right now, that we are completely oblivious to that this post can only serve as a brief glimpse of a reminder of it.
So maybe I'll make it a series. What do you think?