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Trial by Ordeal

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Ordeal of boiling water from a Sachsenspiegel manuscript (1350-1375)

He whom the blazing fire burns not, or whom the water does not throw up, or who does not speedily suffer some misfortune, should be regarded as pure on his oath.
—"Verse 8.115", Manusmiti

Trial by ordeal is the determination of guilt or innocence by using ordeals, or experiments going from merely unpleasant to potentially fatal to always so. Then the outcome would decide the guilt, basing on whether the accused survived, stayed unharmed or if any injury healed. It was claimed the gods would intervene to show who's guilty or to protect the innocent party.

The most common exemple was during witch-hunts, where accused were thrown into water, with the ones to float being the guilty ones; some described the process as Morton's Fork.

Before the advent of modern forensics, means by which crimes could be investigated were scarce, meaning alternative methods had to be devised.

In fiction, they can be of the following types:

  • The trial is an attempt to invoke Laser-Guided Karma, to engineer a scenario where The Powers That Be will intervene to spare the innocent or punish the wicked. Thus, emerging from the trial unscathed (or with injuries that heal quickly) is taken as proof of innocence, while lingering injury or death is taken as proof of guilt.
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  • The trial is supposed to reveal the accused's true nature or evil powers, by placing them in a situation that would only be harmful for a normal person. So emerging unscathed is proof of guilt, in this case. Ideally, there should be some way to save an individual once they're proved innocent—for example, in the infamous ordeal of water to test if someone is a witch, assistants are supposed to pull the accused back out of the water as soon as they're convinced she can't float. However, particularly cynical works may omit this second part and turn the trial into a Morton's Fork where there's no possibility for the accused to survive: either they die while proving their innocence, or they survive the ordeal and get executed afterwards.
  • As a more humane alternative to physical ordeals, the accused can be exposed to some holy object which will only hurt the guilty—historically, this often involved consuming food that had been blessed by a priest or otherwise enchanted. Refusal to partake is seen as an implicit admission of guilt, so this particular trial can work even if the blessed food is actually a placebo.

See also Trial by Combat and Only Good People May Pass.


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    Comic Books 
  • Hellblazer: One arc has John be interrogated by a tribe descended from Cain. His ordeal consists of plunging his hand into boiling water, which will burn him if he's guilty of theft. He exasperatedly sticks his hand in and tells them he's innocent... waiting until he's far out of earshot to scream (having used magic to fake his innocence).
  • The Phantom once had a story arc featuring an African tribe with a stricter version of the Trial by Hot Metal: if you were innocent, the hot metal wouldn't burn you at all. It turned out the trials were rigged by the tribe's Witch Doctor using a flesh-colored leaf from a local plant that made a good heat insulator.

  • In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, an accused witch is weighed to see if she weighs as much as a duck, the Insane Troll Logic being that: If she weighs as much as a duck, she must be able to float in water. Which means she's made of wood, which in turn means she can burn, which proves that she's a witch. And this was after a good guy intervened; initially they weren't going to even bother with an ordeal.
  • In The Loves of Hercules, Queen Deianera is subjected to the Trial of Themis: she's tied to a wall, and a champion must cut her free with throwing axes, without injuring her. Licos, her treacherous General who set up the trial, fully expects Deianera to die, but Hercules volunteers to be the axe-thrower and successfully frees her.

  • Trial by ordeal is option available in certain circumstances in The Crowner John Mysteries. John himself regards it as a farce that doesn't prove anything.
  • In The Fifth Elephant, Angua mentions that the only reason that Uberwald recently abolished Trial By Ordeal is because they realized that lawyers were nastier.
  • Good Omens: Adam and his friends attempt to play Spanish Inquisition, but due to their rather hazy sources they end up putting Pepper's sister on trial as a witch, and their attempt at dunking her results in her enjoying it.
  • In the short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton, the king's entire justice system is placing the accused in an arena and making them choose between two doors. Behind one of the doors is a beautiful maiden, and behind the other is a vicious tiger, but the accused obviously doesn't know which has which. If he chooses the door with the woman, he's declared innocent and they're both immediately married. If he chooses the other door, then the tiger mauls him to death on the spot, and this is taken as proof of his guilt.
  • Marauders of Gor takes place in Fantasy Counterpart Culture to Vikings, and Trial by Hot Metal comes up briefly as they tour a fair.
    We passed one fellow, whom we noted seized up two bars of red hot metal and ran some twenty feet, and then threw them from him.
    "What is he doing?" I asked.
    "He is proving that he has told the truth," said the Forkbeard.
  • The Bridge Kingdom Archives: According to Ithicanian custom, traitors are hung in chains in the sea and then the water is churned to attract sharks (which are for Ithicanians a kind of sacred animals, as they protect the islands' shores from invaders). If the sharks kill the accused, he or she has been guilty—but if they don't, it means that the person is innocent. Which does not happen very often, of course.
  • During a three-part Star Trek: Voyager series of novels, Paris and Chakotay are captured by agrarian aliens and put in a pit for several days with no food or water to determine if they're favored by their captors' gods. This is negatively discussed by a member of their spacefaring neighbors, who tells Harry that just because someone can physically survive such an ordeal doesn't make them favored by any gods.

    Live Action Television 
  • Babylon 5: The Starfire Wheel is a Minbari trial by ordeal meant to get around their "Minbari do not kill Minbari" ban. The leaders of both sides of a grievance step into a circle, where they are slowly exposed to an Agony Beam that goes all the way up to Disintegrator Ray intensity. The winner of the ordeal is whomever of the two has the conviction to stay in the circle until they are disintegrated. In the show, Delenn challenges Warchief Shakiri to the Starfire Wheel and defeats him, being only saved herself thanks to Neroon pulling a More Expendable Than You and replacing her at the last second through Loophole Abuse.
  • For having the sheer audacity to use her own name, among other things, the Thirteenth Doctor was subjected to ducking, and likely would have drowned were it not for having learned to escape restraints during 'a wet weekend with Houdini'.
  • Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: In "The King of Thieves", Autolycus, The King of Thieves, performs a robbery that Iolaus is blamed for, and the penalty for thievery in this kingdom is death. While Hercules tries to capture Autolycus to clear his name, the king subjects Iolaus to three trials by ordeal. First, he is weighed down and thrown into a river; if he drowns, he is guilty. He survives by meditating to slow down his heartbeat and reduce his need for oxygen. Second, he is ordered to stand with a platform full of rocks on his back for one hour without dropping any. He meditates again and passes. Last, he is thrown into a pit with a wild boar and must stay in for three hours without bleeding. He hypnotizes the boar to make it fall asleep, but when the time is up and he is allowed to climb out, he accidentally cuts his hand. The king declares him guilty despite his protests and sentences him to the guillotine. Fortunately, Hercules arrives with Autolycus and the stolen item.
  • My Name Is Earl: Earl is forced to go through three trials to determine whether or not he's worthy of marrying Catalina for a Citizenship Marriage, but is trying to lose so Randy can marry her instead. Each time he misses they give him another chance.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: In the episode The Loves of Hercules, Tom Servo and Crow find this week's experiment inspiring, and subject Jonah to what they call "The People's Throwing Court": they tie Jonah to a wall and determine his guilt by throwing things at him. It quickly becomes apparent that it's just an excuse to throw things at Jonah.
    Crow: If something hits you, you're guilty. If it doesn't hit you, you're still probably guilty.

  • Flanders and Swann referenced trial by ordeal in their song "Bring Back The Birch". The song was a satire on people who (when the song was written) wanted to bring back corporal punishment and hanging, and depicted people in previous historical eras wanting to bring back even older forms of punishment.
Bring back the knout,
bring back impaling,
jus primae noctis and trial by ordeal...

  • The Book Of Numbers allows women accused of adultery by their husbands to be submitted to the ordeal of the bitter water, which makes them supposedly become sterile (or miscarry an illegitimate child, or experience prolapse of the reproductive organs, or simply drop one really knows for sure) if they are really guilty. According to Midrashic interpretations, if she was innocent, not only would the "bitter water" have no ill effect on her, but she'd go on to have a healthy baby boy in the coming year.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Game 
  • The Crusader Kings game allows Zunist rulers to submit prisoners to the judgement of the Sun.

    Web Original 
  • In Cat Ghost, Elon and Naarah were subject to cruel witch trials, such as Naarah being drowned to see if she was a witch who could float.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror VIII", this is used to determine whether or not Marge is a witch.
Wiggum: OK, here's how the process works. You sit on the broom and we shove you off the cliff.
Marge: What?!
Wiggum: Well, hear me out; if you're innocent, you will fall to an honorable Christian death. If you are, however, the bride of Satan, you will surely fly your broom to safety. At that point you will report back here for torture and beheading.
  • One Animaniacs short parodying the Salem Witch Trials, Rita is forced to go through one after being accused of being a witch's familiar. The trial is explained as "We will hold you under water for a really long time. If you drown, we will apologize."
  • An episode of Back to the Future had Marty subjected to the lethal version of the Ordeal of Water. The Browns rescue him underwater with the townspeople none the wiser.

    Real Life 
  • Until 1215, Catholic clergy were allowed to participate in ordeals.
  • One story told about Napoleon is that he was conducting a review incognito when he saw one of his officers had a sword with a wooden blade, who explained that the blade broke off but he didn't have the means to have it reforged. The next day, a soldier is accused of theft and the officer receives an order from the Emperor himself to decapitate the man before his fellow soldiers. The officer yells "Lord, I have never taken an innocent life before. Let my sword be turned to wood if this man is not guilty!" Naturally, everyone is amazed at the miracle, and the next day the officer receives a masterfully-crafted sword with a note: "Keep the other one, you never know when this one will break again. -N."
  • During 16th and 17th century witch hunts, women accused of being witches could be forced to undergo ordeal by water (dunking them in bodies of water). If they sank, they were considered innocent, but could drown if not pulled out in time. If they floated they were considered witches, and punished. The idea goes back to ancient times, as there is an account by Pliny the Elder of witches not sinking in water.
  • Germanic tribes reportedly determined if someone was guilty of a crime by making them hold a glob of molten lead in the palm of their hand and then walk a certain distance over to a bucket of water to drop it in. If they dropped the lead from the pain before they could make it to the bucket, they were found guilty.
  • In 19th century Madagascar, one ordeal method involved having the accused had to eat tangena nuts; on average, an estimated 20 to 50 percent of those who underwent the ordeal died. In 1838, it was estimated that as many as 100,000 people in Imerina died as a result of the tangena ordeal, constituting roughly 20 percent of the population.


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