He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet. "We're all Heliogabalus, Bill," he would say. This was the name of a Roman emperor who had a sculptor make a hollow, life-size iron bull with a door on it. The door could be locked from the outside. The bull's mouth was open. That was the only other opening to the outside.

Heliogabalus would have a human being put into the bull through the door, and the door would be locked. Any sounds the human being made in there would come out of the mouth of the bull. Heliogabalus would have guests in for a nice party, with plenty of food and wine and beautiful women and pretty boys--and Heliogabalus would have a servant light kindling. The kindling was under dry firewood--which was under the bull.

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

In truth, Vonnegut has the story of the bull correct, but its owner was not Heliogabalus (or Elagabalus). It actually belonged to Phalaris, the tyrant ruler of Acragas in Sicily from 570-554 B.C. He ordered Perillus of Athens to create the "perfect art of cruelty." Perillus returned with his bull of iron with the mouth open to hear the screams of its victims. In return, Phalaris demonstrated his own perfect art - by making Perillus his creation's first resident. In contrast to the fable, Phalaris used the bull as punishment for criminals - harsh justice, to be sure, but it was not arbitrary and mean-spirited.

Interestingly, the brazen bull history began hundreds of years earlier with the creation of the Phoenician god Baal (featured prominently in the Old Testament as the golden calf sculptures created by the Israelites), who was said to resemble a bull. Later mythology led to the creation of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who fed on young children on the island of Crete.

In modern times, the most famous victim of the brazen bull was St. Eustace, a converted Christian who refused to make an offering to the Roman Emperor Adrian's god. Adrian then placed Eustace's family one by one in the iron bull and burned them alive, before turning on Eustace himself.

Vonnegut, in his 1996 acceptance speech as American Humanist Of The Year, put the phrase "Bull of Heliogabalus" into a terrifying modern perspective:

We modern humans roast people alive, tear their arms and legs off, or whatever, using airplanes or missile launchers or ships or artillery batteries--and do not hear their screams.

Sources

  • Jameson, Anna. Sacred and Legendary Art. 3rd ed. London. 1911.
    (text can be found at http://vrcoll.fa.pitt.edu/medart/texts/saints/Jameson/AJ-SLA-Eustace.html)
  • Peck, Dwight. Castle Come-Down.
    (text can be found at http://homepage.iprolink.ch/~dpeck/ccd08.htm)
  • "Phalaris The Tyrant." Encylopedia Britannica. 1911 ed.
    (test can be found at http://www.4reference.net/encyclopedias/wikipedia/Phalaris.html)
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. Delta: New York City. 1999.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Why My Dog Is Not A Humanist. Speech. May 1, 1996.
    (text can be found at http://www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/archives/arc_humanist.html)

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