Perillos of the Brazen Bull
What’s in a name?
The name of the village as being that of “Perillos” has come about through a series of changes, spun out as the centuries passed. Known variations of the name are, across time, Perelionis, Perelionibus, Perello, Perillou. In medieval charters, the area between Opoul and Vingrau was also called “Peyrouo Mount”, “Petrus’ Mount”. “Peyrouo”, which might have given rise to “Peyrios”, i.e. “stony ground”, and later “Perillos”. But it is less known, it seems, that there is a famous “Perillos”, of Greek mythical fame.
A Brazen Bull
“of Athens” was therefore of Athens. He is also sometimes referred
to as Perillus and Perilaus, more Latinised renderings of his Greek name.
It was Perillos of Athens who proposed the “Brazen Bull” as
a form of torture to Phalaris, the tyrant of Acragas in Sicily, ca. 570
to 554 BC. Though Phalaris had brought the city wealth, he was also reputed
for his excessive cruelty. It is even said that he ate suckling babies.
Whether true or not, Perillos approached the man with his proposed invention: a bull, made entirely of brass, hollow, with a door in the side. The condemned were shut in the bull and a fire was set under it, heating the metal until it became “yellow hot” and causing the person inside to roast to death.
The device seemed to meet with the satisfaction of Phalaris, who allegedly commanded that the bull was designed in such a way that the smoke of the roasting human inside would rise in spicy clouds of incense, whereas the head of the ox was to be designed so that the screams were converted into the sound of a bellowing of a bull. It is said that when the bull was reopened, the scorched bones of the remains shone like jewels and were made into bracelets.
Though Saunière might have made two tombs of Perillos very famous, Perillos of Athens was clearly someone associated with death himself – making the Brazen Bull a tomb for many – and himself. Once the Brazen Bull was completed, Phalaris wanted to test the device. With apparently no real criminals or others on hands, Perillos hopped right into the device himself, to demonstrate to Phalaris that the modifications made to the oxen’s head did indeed sound like bellowing. But Perillos was apparently unaware that Phalaris would lock him in, and set the fire alight. Perillos of Athens was soon no more, though he apparently did not roast the inventor completely. He apparently freed him while still alive, but only to be thrown from the top of a hill – rather than receiving the reward Perillos hoped he would have gotten for his invention.
Myth or legend?
Some have labelled the story of the bull as pure invention. Pindar, who lived less than a century afterwards, expressly linked this instrument of torture with Phalaris, underlining the historical nature of the device, and therefore Perillos of Athens. There was certainly a brazen bull at Agrigentum (Phalaris’ city on Sicily) that was carried off by the Carthaginians to Carthage, where it was recaptured by Scipio the Elder, who returned it to Sicily in ca. 200 BC. However, others suggest it was Scipio the Younger who returned the bull in ca. 150 BC.
Torture or sacrifice?
choice of a bull was – to say the least – an inspired choice.
Bull cults were notorious throughout Antiquity, throughout the Middle East,
whether we look at the famous scenes of bull leaping in Crete, or the cult
of Mithras during the Roman Empire – a religion that was a serious
contender for being the cherished religion of the Romans, in competition
There was also the cult of the Phoenician Baal, e.g. on the Greek island of Rhodes. There, it was said that when misfortune threatened Rhodes, the brazen bulls in Baal’s temple bellowed. It is believed that the Rhodians brought this worship to Gela, which they founded conjointly with the Cretans, and from Gela it passed to Sicily, and Phalaris. This would suggest that Perillos of Athens’ invention did not come out of nowhere, but was part of a tradition.
Equally, human sacrifices to Baal were common, and, though in Phoenicia proper there is no proof that the victims were burned alive, the Carthaginians had a brazen image of Baal, from whose downturned hands the children slid into a pit of fire; and the story that Minos had a brazen man who pressed people to his glowing breast points to similar rites in Crete, where the child-devouring Minotaur must certainly be connected with Baal.
The question, therefore, is not whether “Perillos of Athens” was a man who had invented a new method of torture, or whether he was merely the fashioner of a device that was in common usage across the Mediterranean basin, and which he now introduced to Sicily. And, of course, whether he brought it to Sicily as a means of torture, or as part of a bull-worshipping religion. In the past, there was little to no difference between human sacrifice and the manner in which criminals were disposed. The latter were normally treated as sacrificial offerings. Equally, children and infants were often sacrificed in great times of need.
comes around, goes around. And it is therefore no doubt not a surprise that
Phalaris himself is said to have been killed in the brazen bull when he
was overthrown by Telemachus, the ancestor of Theron.
The invention was definitely popular. In later centuries, the Romans are recorded as having used this torture device to kill some Christian martyrs, notably Saint Eustace, who, according to Christian tradition, was roasted in a brazen bull with his wife and children by Emperor Hadrian. Another martyr who died in this manner was Saint Antipas, Bishop of Pergamon during the persecutions of Emperor Domitian, and the first martyr in Asia Minor, in ca. 92. The device was still in use two centuries later, when another Christian martyr, Saint Pelagia of Tarsus, is said to have been burned in one in 287 by the Emperor Diocletian. Little wonder, therefore, that in medieval times, the device was mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.
Greek mythology, Perileos (yet another variation of its spelling, and sometimes
referred to as Perilaus) was the son of Icarius and Periboea. He accused
Orestes of the murder of his cousin Clytemnestra. The son of Argonaut Ancaeus
of Samos and Samia, a demigoddess, was also named Perileos. So it is clear
that Perillos of Athens was named after a – minor – character
of the Greek world.
Periboea was a river nymph, who married Icarius, a Spartan king and a champion runner. The couple had three children: Penelope, Perileos and Iphthime. Icarius stated he would not allow anyone to marry his daughter unless he beat him in a race, a challenge in which Odysseus succeeded.
Because of his role in Homer’s Odyssey and his key role in the saga of Orestes, which became the topic of many spectacles, ancient Greeks were familiar with the legend and the man. In the Homeric story, Orestes was absent from Mycenae when his father, Agamemnon, returned from the Trojan War with Cassandra, a Trojan Princess, as his concubine, and was murdered with an axe by his wife, Clytemnestra, in retribution for his sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia to obtain favourable winds to Troy for the Greek fleet. The accuser, as mentioned, was Perillos.
ET IN ARCADIA EGO
second Greek legend is of even more interest. Perillos was the son of Argonaut
Anceaus of Samos. First of all, Anceaus of Samos was commonly confused with
Anceaus of… Arcadia! The confusion between the two Anceaus is largely
because both were killed by a boar.
Anceaus of Samos was king of Samos, and known to be a helmsman of remarkable skill. Anceaus married Samia, daughter of the river god Maeander, who bore him Perilaus, Enudus, Samus, Alitherses, and Parthenope, the mother of Lycomedes. We, of course, need to underline that the highest rank within the Priory of Sion was claimed to be not that of Grand Master… but Helmsman. Furthermore, Anceaus of Samos was, of course, an Argonaut, linked with the constellation of Argo, and it is Pierre Plantard himself who, in Gérard’s de Sède’s book on Gisors, makes references to the importance of this constellation and its “Helmsman star” Canopus.
We can, of course, only ask the question whether someone involved with the creation of the mythology of Rennes-le-Château confused Anceaus of Samos with Anceaus of Arcadia. If he did, then bringing Arcadia into the story of Rennes-le-Château is actually a hidden, indirect, reference to Perillos. But that within Greek mythology there are direct references to Perillos, should perhaps be entered into a decades-long debate of the story of Rennes-le-Château.