Chop Off the Head or Change the Heart

If prostitution is the oldest profession, them that of the executioner is the second oldest. Some of the most ancient written documents and certainly the oldest legal documents, mention death as a punishment for various crimes, often very minor ones. The Code of Hammurabi (1754 BC) gives the death penalty for about 50 offences. The book of Deuteronomy in the Bible (circa 7th century BC) requires death for merely working on Sunday, for a woman falsely claiming to be a virgin before her marriage, and for children who disobey their parents. Today we think of the death penalty as a quick drop, an electric shock, or a sharp chop ending an offender’s life, but that was not so in the past. Death often came at the end of a prolonged and agonising ordeal. In ancient Indian law, two forms of capital punishment were recognised; quick (suddhavadha), which usually meant beheading; and painful (klesadanda), which included torture before death. In the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha listed some 13 hideous tortures inflicted on prisoners as a means of killing them. One of the ghastliest punishments ever contrived, being hanged, drawn and quartered, was only finally abolished in the UK in 1870, although it had not been used for some time before that.



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