Human beings are unique in many different ways. One of the most outstanding areas that sets us apart from other animals, however, is the imaginative ways we devise to cause pain and kill members of our own species. Hanging, decapitation (see post: The Hangman), stoning, burning at the stake, drowning…The list of ways to kill is almost endless but one of the most gruesome and most painful means of execution which dates back thousands of years and, in some areas of the world is still used, is crucifixion. The most famous execution by crucifixion, of course, was that of Jesus Christ but this cruel punishment had a history that stretched back at least centuries before Christianity.
It has always been presumed that death by crucifixion was the most painful way to die. Historically, many ‘divine’ beings were subject to this form of execution since gods would be expected to suffer in this way as an example of courage and fortitude, to show themselves willing to undergo misery. These ‘gods’ were not only expected to be equal to their followers but superior. Many gods and ‘demi-gods’ were crucified long before Jesus. Among these were Krishna (India-1200 BC), (Buddha) Sakia (India-600 BC), Thammuz (Syria-600 BC), Wittoba of the Telingonesic (southern India-552 BC), Iao (Nepal-622 BC)-nailed to a tree, Hesus of the Celtic Druids (834 BC), Quetzalcoatl (Mexico-587 BC), Quirinus of Rome (506 BC), Prometheus of Caucasus 547 BC), Thulis of Egypt (1700 BC), Indra of Tibet (725 BC), Alcestos of Euripides (600 BC)-the only female divine figure to die this way, the Nordic god, Odin, hung from a tree, Atys of Phrygia (1170 BC0, Crite of Chaldea (1200 BC), Bali of Orissa (725 BC), Mithra of Persia (600 BC), Ixion of Rome was crucified on a rotating wheel.
Many others are connected historically or allegorically with crucifixion such as Adonis, Apollo, Arys, Bacchus, Horus (ancient Egypt), Osiris (ancient Egypt), Pythagoras, and Jupiter. Oswestry, named after King Oswald of Northumbria, who died in 641 AD was nailed to a tree (‘Oswald’s Tree‘).
Crucifixion was probably introduced into the Middle East by Alexander the Great when he conquered the city of Tyre and then executed two thousand Tyrian captives in this manner. During Roman times, death by crucifixion was shameful and disgraceful and, at first, crucifixion was used for slaves, pirates and, and enemies of the state. The Romans carried out mass crucifixions in 73–71 BC (the slave rebellion under Spartacus), other Roman civil wars in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. To frighten other slaves from revolting, the Roman general Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’ men placing them on display along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome. The dead bodies were left up for as long as it took for the vultures to consume.
As a means of execution, crucifixion could be simple or more complex. Above all, this form of ‘judicial punishment’ was meant to be humiliating, by making the condemned as vulnerable as possible and painful. The length of time to die on a cross could range from hours to days depending on various factors such as the type of crucifixion, the victim’s health, and the environment. The victim could die from various direct causes such as blood loss, infection, pre-crucifixion whipping/beating as well as by dehydration. Depending on how and in what position the prisoner was fixed to the cross, asphyxiation (inability to breathe properly) would often be a factor in his demise. Roman soldiers would often break the victim’s legs (often leading to blood loss and emboli) in order to expedite death since they were obliged to attend the prisoner until he was no longer alive.
Modern Christianity depicts Jesus on a cross that is in the shape of a ‘lower case ‘T’ (t). But this is one of many forms of cross (or wheel) upon which this form of torture/execution was carried out. The Crux Immissa was the familiar ‘t’ shaped structure upon which Christ was supposedly crucified. Immissa means ‘inserted’. The Crux Decussata was an X-shaped cross (also called St. Andrew’s cross), named after the Roman ‘decussis’, or Roman numeral ten. The Crux Commissa was capital ‘T’ shaped construct (also known as St. Anthony’s cross). It takes its name from the Greek letter ‘Tau’ that it resembles. The Crux Simplex was a lone upright stake in the ground upon which the victim was tied or impaled. It was the simplest, most primitive cross used for capitol punishment of criminals.
Not everyone died from crucifixion although death was, in the vast majority of cases, the intended end-point. Depending on the circumstances, a human being can survive even up to 3-5 days suspended on a cross. Real crucifixions, lasting for only short periods of time, take place every year in Mexico and the Philippines (some tied, some nailed) to ‘celebrate’ the crucifixion of Christ.
In the early Meiji period of Japan (1865-8), the 25 year-old servant Sokichi was executed by crucifixion for murder. He was affixed to a stake with two cross-pieces by tying, rather than nailing.
In the 20th century, Archbishop Joachim of Nizhny Novgorod was nailed upside down to the doors of the cathedral by the Bosheviks in Sevastopol, Russia (1920). It has been reported that crucifixion was used in several cases against non-combatant Germans in East Prussia when it was occupied by Russian forces at the end of the WWII. Crucifixion is still one of the punishments that can be used in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2002, 88 people were sentenced to execution in Sudan where the options of death were execution by either hanging or crucifixion. In Myanmar, the armed forces (the Tatmadaw) reportedly crucified ethnic Karen villagers in 2000. In 2005, Maricica Irina Cornici, a 23 year old Romanian nun was believed to be possessed by the devil and crucified, after exorcism by the local priest, Father Daniel. On 23 November 2009 , a 22-year-old man was sentenced to beheading and posthumous crucifixion in Saudi Arabia. On 1 May 2011, provincial police in South Korea found a taxi driver in his late 50s who had been crucified in an abandoned mine.
In the 1990s, shortly after returning home from UN service in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, one of my own patients described the trauma of finding three members of a Muslim family who had been crucified by Serbian militia, nailed to the wall of their barn.
Crucifixion is certainly a sad reflection on humanity. It is a means to kill, a means to torture and a means to terrify.
*The evolution religious symbols: subject of research for the novel The Tao of the Thirteenth God – Amazon Kindle.