A Note: On the Flames of Purification

This is a note providing some background on one of the traditional Imperial methods of execution, namely, the flames of purification (as described here) for an ongoing comment thread here (relevant part quoted below):

Let’s also not forget that the eldrae themselves have had a historical penchant for burning certain heinous offenders alive in a manner which was not itself a quick, easy, or painless death. This seems to imply that the concept isn’t quite as foreign to the eldraeic standards of sanity as it would appear at first blush — and thus that, in a sense, Imperial history itself was driven by the actions of certain creepy-ass psychotic motherfuckers, since they seemed to have no problems inflicting that on other people.

The relevant point here, though, is that the agony is not the point. And since every crime – and every wrong action – involves mens rea as well as actus reus, what the point is is very much the point.

It is, to use a comparable example, the intent that makes the difference between using flamethrowers to clear bunkers, destroy nanofog, and deny areas (acceptable under the Conventions of Civilized Warfare) and, say, using them to extract information or just to roast prisoners alive for the vengeance-lulz (very much not).

And what you’re looking at there was a theological error. As mentioned in its description, fire is a force that transforms (hence its use in cremation) and purifies. The purpose of the flames, like the name says, is to purify, as roasting ore burns away the dross and leaves the shining metal. That it happens to also hurt like hell is merely a side-effect, and not even a desirable side-effect.

(This isn’t, some sort of “suffering is good for the soul” notion; it’s merely applying cleansing force for desired effect. While unlikely that anyone particularly cared about the feelings of the certain heinous offenders in question, it should nevertheless be fairly easy to imagine various chymists and ktenologists of the early era in question attempting to compound non-euphoric analgesics of sufficient potency as to make it possible to immolate them without them actually feeling the pain of it – both because all that screaming has undesirable psychological effects on the euthanatrists who must carry the job out, and because it makes executions so dreadfully inelegant.)

Now, what might be a better example are certain early cases of judges indulging their taste for irony, say the flaying in Inisvaen in -43, or the documented practice of responding to say, cases of child or animal neglect with a crow’s cage for the sake of balance; to which they might well respond that few worldbound, uncontacted civilizations are fortunate enough to come into existence in a state of ethical perfection, and must learn by progress over time along a path paved with errors.

(Of course, if you have met other civilizations which do have their shit together, this excuse obviously no longer applies.)

As a side note, for those curious, the standard form of the death penalty for the non-especially heinous was a single sword thrust through the heart (delivered by a professional ktenologist), which was replaced with the firing squad when sufficiently reliable firearms had been invented. (These methods being selected as suitably quick and surgical, while also allowing the condemned the courtesy of meeting their death on their feet and with whatever dignity they could muster, rather than being put to sleep like an ailing pet.)

If repentance is noted, or clemency due (and yet insufficient), the condemned may receive the opportunity to volunteer for “chains and pyres” – i.e., the chance to earn their honor back by volunteering for any of a range of adequately suicidal tasks, which can mean anything from joining the Legion of the Dead1 to becoming a sophont test subject – rather than a conventional execution, or at the least being offered a pistol with one shot and the chance to choose to do the right thing.

  1. Note: this isn’t one of those “succeed at your mission and receive a pardon” deals. If you are in the Legion of the Dead, it’s because you owe the Empire a life – you’re in the Legion to die, and the Legion will send you somewhere where you can die usefully and with honor. That’s what you’re getting: and if you qualify, that should suffice for you.