Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Immortals and the Brazen Bull

My partner and I just came back from the movies, having watched The Immortals 3D. It was probably one of the most gruesome displays of gratuitous violence I've ever seen. I do not have too much to complain about though. If you choose to go and watch a movie which is loosely based on the exploits of the mythical Greek King Theseus and the battles between gods of Olympus and the Titans and the Greeks and the Hyraklion Kingdom you should expect a certain degree of violence, blood and gore.

What was really disturbing was the depiction of the Brazen Bull. In the movie three of the Oracle Priestesses are put inside a Brazen Bull and roasted alive while their screams are channelled through a series of pipes, to mimic the painful cries of a bull.

Initially I thought that the concept of the brazen bull was something thought up by a very disturbed screenwriter. (In other words: WTF, what kind of sick person thought of this?)

But 5 minutes on the internet and I found out that the Brazen Bull was a torture device designed and used in Ancient Greece. So this time it was not Hollywood who thought of this, it was the Ancient Greeks.

According to the information on the public domain (i.e. Google which referred me to Wikipedia and a host of other sites. This was not really an in-depth study of reputable academic sources) a metal worker by the name of Perillos of Athens designed the Brazen Bull. Excitedly he ran to Phalaris, the ruler of Akragas, Sicily and suggested that Phalaris use the Brazen Bull as a new way of executing criminals. One of the selling points he used was that Phalaris would be able to hear the tortured screams of individuals put inside the Brazen Bull.

According to some sources, Phalaris was so disgusted by the device that he instructed that the Brazen Bull be tested and that Perillos would be the test subject. Perillos was put inside the Bull and a fire was lit underneath it.

We do not know how long Perillos was inside the Brazen Bull. One can only imagine what  thoughts went through his head, but the major ones probably had to do with Karma and what a bitch she can be .(This was Ancient Greece though so Karma most likely had a different name or was personified as one of the plethora of deities that were worshipped.) After a while, we do not know how long, Perillos was taken out and became one of the few to survive this method of torture. Phalaris then threw Perillos from a hill, killing him.

Perillos should have known that fraternising with tyrants usually leads to unpleasantness. Not that I have a lot of sympathy for either of them. It is good to know that when Telemachus overthrew Phalaris’ rule he executed a Brazen Bull,

The sterile words of history leave the casual reader of Wikipedia with a couple of questions:

-     What moved Perillos to design such an inhumane and gruesome way of executing criminals? What happened to him to make him descent into probably the darkest caves of human depravity to design the Brazen Bull? It sounds as if he was a lone crusader and a mad inventor.  A man on a mission to right real or perceived wrongs. Did righteousness motivate and inspire him?

-      Why was Phalaris, who according to some accounts was a tyrant, so disgusted by this invention? Surely a tyrant would welcome new ways to torture criminals or political opponents or enemies? And if he was so disgusted, how did it happen that the Brazen Bull became a widely used torture device in the Mediterranean? Or did some of the scribes of ancient history have a soft spot for Phalaris and tried to portray him as a tyrant with a heart of gold, in a manner of speaking? Did the scribe add this story to garner sympathy for a devil?

But even more interesting for me is the need for humans to be so utterly cruel? Although some may argue that humans have become more civilised, more tolerant and more compassionate, one only has to look at the news to find enough evidence to dispel that argument: A woman shot dead on the way back from dropping her child at school, people set alight in their houses during a farm attack, suspected "witches" stoned, burnt and killed, corrective rape and the rape of toddlers, genocide, concentration camps. The list goes on and on.

We as the human race do have to admit that we are not really that different from the ancients who committed such horrendous atrocities. But we have better PR and publicists and in the end that makes a huge difference in how our deeds will be perceived by historians in the year 2064. Or not. Who knows?


  1. My only concern is the true symbolism of the bull. There is something deeper.

  2. Gucci: The bull was a great symbol of importance in Ancient Greek, not only depicted in the Minotaur but also with links to the god Hera and Dionysus. I can't remember exactly what it was though but the bull represented strength, resurrection and long life and was a favourite when it came to sacrificing animals. The Brazen bull I believe was not only a way of painfully executing people but also a (sick) means of sacrifice to various gods.

    Also remember than most leaders in these times were dictators / tyrants and even the slightly more democratic city states such as Athens greatly differed from todays idea's of democracy.

  3. Thanks for your comments. It is indeed an interesting point. The bull symbolised power in the Greek mythology. For example Zeus who changed into a bull. Also in the Middle East it was used as a symbol of power..I am thinking of the Israelites who made the golden calf and worshipped it. So it is a good point that you make that the execution can also be viewed as a sacrifice to a god.
    Thanks for your enlightening comments :)

  4. Yes, I was very disturbed by that torturous bull in the movie. Can't seem to get that image out of my head of the three girls being tortured that way. Glad to know that Christ came to make a way for our disease of cruelty to be overcome by His own death.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

    1. No offense but "God" and the Greek mythology are two completely different things. I don't believe God has any place in this discussion. Sometimes He just doesn't need to make an appearance. I agree with anonymous...definitely a haunting pictures. You believe that the bull is a cruel form of punishment and death, try to imagine those who were demented enough to lock people in there. I guess this is the ultimate question of would you prefer the brazen bull or drowned as a witch with a rock? Esch.

  5. I just watched the film last night and I've been haunted by that seen too. I don't like that kind of unnecessary cruelty. Even in movies. Then finding out that this kind of thing really used to happen made me feel ashamed of the human race.

  6. This etched into my mind as well. I wonder does the wall street bull have someone inside it?

  7. yup me too the movie is disturbing, especially that brazen bull part, after reading your article on this, my eyes hurt bad, can you change your backround from red to royal blue or something?:)

  8. There are ancient and medieval torture and execution devices a lot more cruel and painful than the Brazen Bull, most of which would never be depicted in a "Hollwood " movie

    The Judas Cradle and Crocodile Shears are 2 examples

  9. Maybe perillos wasn't a bad person. Maybe he was so great at his craft that he was pushed by higher authorities to construct torture devices. Maybe that was his unchosen profession. Could be wrong but just a thought.