Museum Macabre: Scaphism

Museum Macabre: Scaphism

Greetings, readers, and welcome to another installment of the Museum Macabre. Today we have a particularly gruesome little tale, originally told by Plutarch in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Ah, here we go, we have the item in question on display — You see these two narrow rowboats, bound together open side to open side? This darling little thing was one of the most horrific torturous execution methods ever devised in all the cruelty of man and beast together.  How does it work, you ask?

Allow me to explain.

Known as The Boats, or “Scaphism,” from the Greek skaphe, “hollowed out,” this was a means of slow, agonizing execution, devised by the Persians, that stands out, even amidst slow, agonizing execution methods.  The condemned would be stripped naked and fed — forcibly, if necessary — a large quantity of milk and honey.  More honey would then be smeared on their skin, with some accounts suggesting that it would especially be applied around the genitals, anus, eyes, nose and mouth.  They would then be bound in place sandwiched between the two boats, or two hollowed tree trunks, with their head, hands and feet exposed.  The entire contraption would then be left in the sun or floated on a stagnant pond.

The honey smeared on the condemned’s skin quickly attracted biting flies, wasps, and other insects, who would begin to gnaw on their flesh.  Meanwhile, the large quantity of milk and honey consumed by the condemned caused them to swiftly develop severe diarrhea.  The unpleasantness of laying naked in your own liquid waste was soon compounded as insects found their way between the boats and began to feed and breed in the feces and flesh of the condemned.  As burrowing maggots and chewing insects severed the blood vessels in the condemned’s limbs, the flesh turned gangrenous and began to rot away while the condemned still lived in horrifying agony.

In some cases, the condemned would continue to be fed milk and honey daily to prevent starvation or dehydration from ending their torment early.  It is believed that the condemned would eventually die of a combination of dehydration, exposure to the elements, and septicemia as their own fecal material and that of the hundreds of insects gnawing their way through him mingled with his blood.

In his account of the Life of Artaxerxes II, the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch gave us our earliest account of Scaphism being used; Artaxerxes reigned as King of Persia from 404 BCE to358 BCE, and in the year 401 his brother, Cyrus the Younger, challenged him for the throne, leading to a civil war in the Persian Empire.  At the Battle of Cunaxa in northern Babylon (modern day Iraq, about 15 km south of Bagdhad) Cyrus was killed by a dart to the brain, stabbed through his temple above the eye by a common soldier named Mithridates.  Artaxerxes showered Mithridates with gifts in thanks, as the death of Cyrus secured his claim to the throne.  However, Artaxerxes wished it to be known that he had in fact killed his brother in glorious combat, to increase his own personal legend; and so the story went around that Artaxerxes had put a dart in his brother’s head, killing him.

All well and good until Mithridates, wearing the robes and jewelry Artaxerxes had given him, showed up drunkenly to Artaxerxes’ court and loudly (remember, drunk on wine) proclaimed that he, not Artaxerxes, had cast the killing blow.  Artaxerxes ordered Mithridates’ execution for showing the king up as a liar.  I’ll let Plutarch take the story from here:

It was decreed that Mithridates should be put to death in boats; which execution is after the following manner: Taking two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other, they lay down in one of them the malefactor that suffers, upon his back; then, covering it with the other, and so setting them together that the head, hands, and feet of him are left outside, and the rest of his body lies shut up within, they offer him food, and if he refuse to eat it, they force him to do it by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, they drench him with a mixture of milk and honey, pouring it not only into his mouth, but all over his face. They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun; and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it. And as within the boats he does what those that eat and drink must needs do, creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed. When the man is manifestly dead, the uppermost boat being taken off, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon and, as it were, growing to his inwards. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.

Seventeen days.  SEVENTEEN DAYS.  Think about that for a minute.  Imagine laying, helpless, in your own feces while insects burrow through your flesh, feeding on you and laying eggs in you, for over two weeks.  I don’t know about you, readers, but just the thought of it makes my skin crawl.

To my knowledge, scaphism has never appeared in film, though an unsigned Black Metal band has taken their name from this ghastly method of execution.


Well readers, I believe that just about sums up this installment of Museum Macabre.  As you exit, please take note of the gift shop, where we have bottles of “Last Torment of Mithridates” brand honey on sale for a very reasonable price, and do remember that all proceeds go to the upkeep of the Museum Macabre.  Until next time, readers.

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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.


  1. […] which means that almost anything can happen. Particularly in face of your killer employing scaphism in your poor victim’s ordeal. There are many forces in this circumstance conspiring to destroy […]

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