Sunday, 20 October 2013

Brazen - Bull-Headed Brass

A brazen sky
Photo by Terry Porter


[Old English bræ sen, from BRASS noun & adjective + -EN.]

1 Made of brass; strong as brass. OE

2 Hardened in effrontery; shameless; impudent. L16

3 Of a brassy colour or sound; burnished; strident; harsh. L16

Brazen is a powerful word, and has been for me ever since I first learnt it as a child while reading a historical encyclopaedia in primary school. The entry Brazen Bull told of a sadistic creation by Perillos of Athens, a metal-worker who designed the Brazen Bull as a new and excruciating means of executing criminals for Phalaris, the tyrant king of Sicily, around 550 B.C. The bull was fully cast in bronze, hollow, and with a trapdoor through which the condemned would be forced. Once inside, a fire would be lit beneath the bull, heating the metal, and the victim would be slowly roasted to death. Even more diabolical was that Perillos installed a novel system of tubes and stops in the bull so that the victim's screams would be converted into the sound of a bellowing bull. While presenting his invention to Phalaris, Perillos is recorded as saying:

"His screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings."

Phalaris ordered that Perillos demonstrate his claim, at which Perillos climbed inside the bull to simulate screaming. Once inside, Phalaris ordered that the door be closed and the fire lit. As Perillos endured an agonizing death within his own creation, Phalaris saw that the system of pipes did indeed work, as Perillos's tortured screams resonated through the pipes and emerged as the sound of an infuriated bull. Legend has it that King Pharalis suffered a similarly fitting fate, as he too is said to have been killed within the Brazen Bull upon his overthrow by Telemachus, with the Brazen Bull going on to be one of the cruelest and most sadistic methods of execution used throughout Ancient Greek and Roman times.
Execution, Phalaris, Perillos, Cruelty, Sicily,
Engraving of the Brazen Bull by Pierre Woeiriot
While the Brazen Bull is a grotesque record of man's inhumanity to man, in modern times the word brazen is used to mean utterly shamelessness and impudence. One might think of the brazen hypocrisy of the United States and Great Britain in their shameless upbraiding of China for its hacking and cyber-warfare programmes, all the while secretly operating the biggest and most expansive cyber-surveillance and espionage operations that the world has ever seen. Or perhaps the brazen impunity with which bankers, politicians and financiers caused the economic downturn of the 2007-08 financial crisis. However one might apply it, brazen is a powerful word, one that reflects not just the very worst of what humans are capable of, but the very worst manner in which they go about doing such things.

Are there any examples that you think of as particularly brazen?

Have you ever acted brazenly?

Please leave your most shameless comments below.


  1. People who talk incredibly loudly on their phones while seated next to you on a bus or train. This happened to me a while back, there I was minding my own business, gazing out at the panoramic view of passing English countryside in a nice quiet carriage ( admittedly economy class ) when the busty student seated across from me proceeded to phone a friend and relay in minute detail the entire series of events since she last saw her ( probably unconscious in a corner ) the previous night. This included how her bodily functions were affected by the quantity of last night's alcohol and the complete account of an apparently disappointing romantic liason with someone she could barely remember the name of. Maybe get ears were still ringing because although the carriage was deafening quiet she still felt the need to shout the entire conversation all the while staring down anyone who glanced in annoyance in her direction.
    Is this an example of brazen Ed?
    If so where can I find one of those bronze bulls? I need it for... something.

    1. Yeah. That's brazen all right. Even reading it makes my skin crawl with rage. I want to take up a placard: "Bring Back the Brazen Bull!"

      Maybe that'd be a bit much. But would it? I'm not so sure.


  2. Just a thought. That chap who created the Brazen Bull, Perillos. Is that where we get the idea of doing something at your "peril"?
    Oh well. He may have died horribly, but every cloud...

    1. Great minds, Angry! I wondered exactly the same thing - you offer to demonstrate a contraption of excruciating torture and execution to a despotic tyrant at your own peril, right?

      Unfortunately, I don't think there is a connection in the etymology of 'peril'. According to the OED, the root of 'peril' is the Latin 'peric(u)lum', meaning experiment, risk, danger, itself from the base 'experiri', meaning to try, which is exactly what Perillos did when he climbed into the Brazen Bull (the idiot).