The cutting out of the tongue as punishment

Proverbs 10:31 "The mouth of the just bringeth forth wisdom: but the froward tongue shall be cut out."

In our day and age, this would certainly be classed as 'cruel and unusual punishment', and yet it was a common torture from Biblical times onward.

Given the ancient principle of justice, it was frequently a punishment meted out for slander, bearing false witness, perjury or preaching proscribed teachings. Historical records confirm that many civilisations practiced it, across many ages and continents. The earliest positive record (from around 1700 CE*) is in The Code of Hammurabi. Under Hammurabi's rule, anyone who defamed another was punished by cutting out the tongue at the roots.

The punishment was carried out in 10th century Mongolia and Persia against Christian missionaries, in 5th century India as a punishment for non-Aryans who read aloud from the Vedas, in 13th century Spain and Florence for those who spoke out against the governors, and in Mediaeval Europe, again for defamation or slander.

Among many tortured in this manner was Saint Leodegarius, who along with the removal of his tongue, suffered his lips being cut off and his eyes bored out.

Carrying out the punishment

The execution of the torture followed a similar pattern throughout the ages. The head of the victim was held, often in a restraining frame or cage. The mouth was forced open (the Mediaeval Inquisition used a clamp to hold the jaw wide), and the tongue pulled out with tongs or hooks. A sharp, often curved knife was inserted into the mouth and under the tongue, and the organ was sliced across. The aim was frequently to excise as much as possible of the tongue, although in some cultures, only the tip of the tongue would be removed, or the tongue slit open (as in Persia).

The procedure was certainly painful. Accounts from surviving missionaries confirm that there was often a considerable loss of blood, most especially when the victim was not properly secured, and allowed to move during the operation. The tongue is a muscular organ, and is involved in swallowing and speech. The more was removed, the more difficulty the 'criminal' had in leading a normal life afterward. Even when the tongue was merely split, it was certainly seen as a fit reward for those who sin with the tongue.

It may come as some surprise to discover that in 17th century Massachusetts, there were laws passed by the Puritan governors that any deviation from religious teaching could be punished by means of floggings, being pilloried, having ears cut off or the tongue bored through with a hot iron. Some records also speak of full elinguation.

But thankfully, we live in civilised times, civilised states. Certainly we shall never again see a scale of charges for this torture, such was published in Cologne in 1757, which included the following allowable expenses:

Item 29: For cutting out the tongue entirely, or part of it, and afterwards for burning the mouth with a red-hot iron. 5 Reichstaler
Item 31: For nailing to the gallows a cut-off tongue or a chopped-off hand. 1 Reichtaler, 26 Albus
Modern Times

Reports in 2000 from Iraq confirm that any who "are insolent to the dignity of President Saddam Hussein" will suffer in this manner; "the cutting out of the tongue of those who curse of express offensive statements about his family"

Travelers returning from Baghdad reported in September 2000 that a group from the 'Fidayi Saddam' (Saddam Commandos), under the supervision of the ruling Bath Party Organization, cut out the tongue of an Iraqi citizen in the Al Jadidah district and "traveled round the crowded streets of the area with him in a car, using a megaphone to advertise his crime, and the "just punishment" which he had merited because he had reviled the State, and the President, Saddam Hessian. (sic)"

Religious sacrifice and hellfire

In India, it seems that many people would sacrifice their tongues, either as propitiation for sin, or as an offering for appeasement or request for favour:

"In the 17th century, at Nagarkot there was a famous temple for the Goddess Durga. The idol was small and short and was made of stone. Notable among the offerings to the Goddess were pieces of Human tongues. It was reported that on the next day, the tongues of those who had cut them became whole again! Such sacrifices to the gods were common in the early centuries. This custom of tongue-sacrifice also prevailed in Karnataka. According to tradition, a Kannada poet, Gopal Nyaka, frustrated in his love for a woman, he is alleged to have sacrificed his tongue to the goddess Saraswati, the deity of learning."

In visions or warnings of Hell, the tongue was also the target for torture, across many religions and cultures:

"Then the man of unwholesome deeds boils in water infested with worms. He cannot stay still--the boiling pots, round and smooth like bowls, have no surfaces which he can get hold of. Then he is in the jungle of sword blades, limbs mangled and hacked, the tongue hauled by hooks, the body beaten and slashed. Then he is in Vetarani, a watery state difficult to get through, with its two streams that cut like razors. The poor beings fall into it, living out their unwholesome deeds of the past. Gnawed by hungry jackals, ravens and black dogs, and speckled vultures and crows, the sufferers groan. Such a state is experienced by the man of unwholesome deeds. It is a state of absolute suffering. So a sensible person in this world is as energetic and mindful as he can be."

Sutta Nipata 672-76

* I have used CE and BCE, meaning "(Before the) Common Era" rather than the frequently used "BC" and "AD"
Encyclopædia Britannica

E`lin*gua"tion (?), n. [L. elinguatio. See Elinguid.] O. Eng.Law

Punishment by cutting out the tongue.


© Webster 1913.

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