The cruelty of the Inquisition is somewhat axiomatic in the modern West, yet it seems that even they had a light-hearted, if dark, side. Spain was enormously popular in Spain, having been brought there through the Muslim conquerors of Al-Andalus. In 1485, Pedro de Arbués is said to have set up a game of human chess, using those convicted by the Inquisition as pieces. Two blind monks played, although if this part is true, it must have been quite an achievement, since while blind chess is relatively common today, at the time, it was nothing short of a marvel. As each piece was captured, the person was executed. What happened to the survivors is unknown, but most likely, they, too, were put into the bag, as we all are someday.
Saint Columba, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, once wished to construct a chapel on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. However, whatever was built each day, was destroyed each night. It seemed that the task was impossible.
Eventually, a voice spoke to Saint Columba, and told him that the chapel could only be constructed were someone buried alive in the foundation. Columba’s son, Odhran, volunteered himself, was thusly buried, and the chapel was duly completed.
One day, however, Odhran pushed his head through the floor, and said that there was no heaven or hell, as people speak of them. Alarmed, Saint Columba had Odhran’s body removed from the foundation, and properly buried in consecrated ground, lest Odhran reveal more secrets of the afterlife. After this burial, Odhran never bothered the people of Iona again.
Lysander used to say that, “Boys were to be cheated with dice, but an enemy with oaths.” He himself felt no obligation to obey oaths he had sworn, but used the false confidence that his foes gained by his swearing of oaths to get the best of them.
In a war between Athens and the Dorians of the Peloponnesus, the Delphic Oracle proclaimed that the Athenians would have victory, if their king was slain by the Peloponnesians. Hearing of this prediction, the Peloponnesians gave word to every man in their army not to harm Codrus, King of Athens. Codrus, however, had other plans. He dressed himself as a wood-cutter and made his way towards the enemy army, where he came across some soldiers, and picked a fight with them, wounding some with his axe, until they slew him in annoyance. The Athenians then dispatched a herald to the enemy camp, requesting the body of their slain king. When they realized what they had done, the Peloponneisans retreated, leaving Athens victorious, in fear of the Oracle’s words.
The Battle of Pelusium was the first major battle between the Persian Empire and Egypt, soon to be conquered by its growing foe. The Persians easily routed the Egyptians and won a great battle, and they did so in the following way, according to Polyaenus. The Egyptians held cats to be sacred and inviolate, and refused to harm one for any reason. Cambyses, who disdained such religious devotion, took advantage of this. He had his men carry cats in front of them as they advanced, as shields, preventing the Egyptians from launching their arrows at the Persians, lest they wound and kill the cats instead. In this way, the Persians ended the independence of Egypt, which it would not regain for more than a millennium.
Once, a man traveled through Sparta collecting money for the gods. One Spartan, upon seeing this man, commented that he did not think much of gods who were poorer than himself.
Cnut the Great ruled England, Denmark and Norway for a brief period during the 11th century. He was a pious man, and once wished to show his ever-flattering courtiers the limits of earthly power. He had his throne placed on the beach and ordered the tide to stop and the waves not to wet his robes. When, inevitably, the waves reached him, he stood up and declared, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.” And thus he showed the weakness of kings and men against the natural world.