Scaphism, also known as "the boats", and cyphonism both seem to involve smearing an individual in honey and exposing them outdoors to insects for a prolonged period of time as a form of torture. Plutarch reported that Mithridates, the killer of Cyrus the Younger during the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, survived scaphism for 17 days before dying. The Mongols also practiced a similar type of torture. This type of torture seems particularly excruciating.

What is the latest recorded use of this type of torture (smearing in honey and outdoor exposure) with government support? Is it still in use today? This dictionary definition for cyphonism claims it is still in use in some Oriental nations but I could not find any proof and the definition is unclear on whether it is referring to government sanctioned use of cyphonism.

  • 1
    This is an interesting question. I hope someone can provide an answer. How and where did you come across Scaphism/Cyphonism?
    – E1Suave
    Aug 19, 2012 at 14:42
  • 2
    I was reading the Anabasis (Xenophon) article on Wikipedia, then clicked through to Battle of Cunaxa, and in that article it noted that Mithridates was "executed by scaphism." Not knowing what scaphism was I researched it, which also led to cyphonism.
    – Mike Rodey
    Aug 20, 2012 at 3:19

1 Answer 1


There are numerous references to Christian martyrs having been killed by scaphism. As best as I can tell, these are referring to reports of an execution in A.D. 363 during the reign of Julian. As it was retold in the The History of Christian Martyrdom:

Marcus, bishop of Arethusa, having destroyed a pagan temple in that city, erected a christian church in its room, on which account he was accused to Julian as a Christian. His persecutors, stripping him naked, cruelly beat him . . . and lastly, he was hung up in a basket in the heat of the sun, after having smeared him over with honey, in order to be tormented to death by wasps. As soon as he was hung up, they asked him if he would rebuild their temple? To which he answered, that he would neither rebuild it nor advance a single doit towards its being rebuilt; upon which they left him, and he fell a martyr to the stings of the insects (108).

The implication is that the Roman state sanctioned the execution, though it may have been carried out by a mob. @fdb rightly points out that Martyr Acts are of dubious historical veracity, so check out the original sources in Greek and English here.

A more recent (and definitely historical) instance of execution-by-insect (though not scaphism proper) is provided by Jeffrey Lockwood, author of "Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War." Lockwood shows that torture by insects is disturbingly common throughout human history. The last state-sanctioned insect-aided execution probably comes from 19th-century Bukhara:

The epitome of insectan torture was developed by a 19th-century emir of Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan. He threw political enemies into a bug pit, a deep hole covered with an iron grille and stocked with sheep ticks and assassin bugs. The bite of the latter has been compared to being pierced with a hot needle, and the injected saliva digested the victims’ tissues until, in the words of the emir’s jailer, “masses of their flesh had been gnawed off their bones. (NYT)

Researching this question was mostly disheartening, but at the very least I can confidently contradict thefreedictionary.com: modern "Oriental" nations do not use scaphism/cyphonism as a method of execution. Note that the Free Dictionary definition has not been updated since 1913, and even then scaphism was probably out of fashion for a hundred years.

  • Martyr Acts are not reliable historical sources, and Christian tracts from the 19th century even less so. Do have a look at the title page of the linked book by Foxe.
    – fdb
    Jan 9, 2015 at 23:17
  • @fdb: You are right. I had seen references to Christian martyrs on the wikipedia page and elsewhere, so I was trying to track those mentions back to the original source. I've updated my answer to urge caution when relying on Martyr Acts.
    – two sheds
    Jan 9, 2015 at 23:35

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