Combing, sometimes known as carding, (despite carding being a completely different process), is a sometimes-fatal form of torture in which iron combs designed to prepare wool and other fibres for woolen spinning are used to scrape, tear, and flay the victim's flesh.
The iron combs typically used for torture were sturdy instruments with one or two rows of teeth, each a few inches in length and designed to prepare wool and other fibres for woolen spinning. Used for combing rough fibres, these instruments resembled miniature garden rakes.
The tradition that a torturous death by combing with a kanphos was inflicted by Croesus was recorded by Herodotus. Later mentions from the Middle East and Asia Minor often associate combing with heroic martyrdom for the sake of belief in the Abrahamic God and loyalty to one's Jewish, Christian, or Muslim faith. Specific episodes of combing are mentioned in the Talmud and in the martyrologies of several Christian saints, notably Saint Blasius, whose iconic attribute was the comb. Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, a companion of Muhammad and one of the first ten persons to convert to Islam, taught that a man should remain faithful to Islam even if his flesh should be torn away from his bones with an iron comb.
In the 6th century BC, when Croesus's half-brother Pantaleon failed to seize and hold the throne of the Lydian Empire, one of his supporters was captured. According to the description given by Herodotus, Croesus tortured the life out of his captive by having him "hauled over a comb."
As described in the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva, a Judean Tanna of the latter part of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd century, said the Shema prayer as he was combed to death by agents of Ancient Rome. Evoking this memorable incident, a writer for Haaretz metaphorically described political corruption in contemporary Israel as "an iron comb of torture."
Combing continued to be used as a means of torture during the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire. The Acts of St. Blaise, a Greek text describing the 3rd century Armenian bishop Saint Blaise, recount how he was captured by the governor of Cappadocia and beaten, combed, and beheaded for not renouncing Christianity. Eventually becoming a popular saint in Medieval Europe and venerated as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, the frequent depiction of St. Blaise in iconography with the iron combs of his martyrdom led to his adoption as the patron saint of wool combers in particular and the wool trade in general.
St. Antonius of Beba, a martyr venerated in the Coptic Orthodox Church, was also tortured with iron combs before being beheaded. St. Hilaria, another Coptic martyr, survived torture by combing and other sadistic methods before finally being dismembered, beheaded, and thrown into a fire. A third Coptic martyr, the ascetic virgin St. Febronia in the reign of Emperor Diocletian, lived through combing, being crushed by a wheel, and other tortures, before she too was beheaded.
- "Card". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd edition. 1989.
- Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, Ch. 92. Translation of Robin Waterfield. "And when Croesus had gained possession of the kingdom by the gift of his father, he put to death the man who opposed him, drawing him upon the carding-comb". Herodotus, I.92.
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