jump to navigation
  • Mongolian Ear Cutting September 24, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    If you are going to carry out massacres then it is important to be able to count how many soldiers (and all too often civilians) that you are killing. From scalping in the American west to the Einsatzgruppen tally sheets on the Eastern Front in the Second World War military organizations have come up with all too many ways to carry out these kinds of bloody statistics. But among the most striking was surely the Mongolian custom of counting ears. We have several thirteenth-century references to massive quantities of ears being collected and brought by armies to their commanders. For example, a melee near Baghdad netted some 12,000 ears. In one other campaign, probably down the Volga and into Bulgar territories, some quarter of a million ears were removed: the mind boggles. Gibbon reports that at the Battle of Legnica the victorious Mongols cut off an ear from every fallen European warrior

    All this begs a number of questions about the organization of cut off ears. First, the right ear alone seems to have been cut off, presumably to stop any dishonest Steppe warrior getting two  ears from one head. Second, the ears seem to have been stored in sacks. After Legnica the Mongols were able to fill nine sacks with ears: this depends, note, on a Polish source. (We need a study where someone tries to establish how many ears could fit into a Mongol sack: a bit like that wonderfully nonsensical study of how deep the blood was after the capture of Jerusalem). Third, presumably these were carried back to some base camp for counting. Were there ear counters in the army or its bureaucracy? Or was it a job that you were given if you had got on someone’s nerves? There is, then, fourth, the question of what happened to the ears. Being of cartilage they presumably were made into manure in some Khan’s fields: nothing will remain of them.

    The only famous parallel to ear-cutting that Beach can think of is the Ancient Egyptian trick of removing right hands from fallen enemy warriors. Taking a right hand might be more satisfying in some ways: I am taking your force from you. But surely it is more difficult to do and much more difficult to carry around and count. If the Mongols had chopped off hands after Legnica they would have needed a couple of hundred sacks. Mongol ear chopping habits seem, it should be noted, to have been restricted to warriors, which makes the quarter of a million figure above so much more terrifying. This should remind us that the horrific figures given for the Mongol invasions, particularly when these numbers come from the Mongols themselves, should be taken a bit more seriously than many historians have been inclined to do.

    Other body cutting in atrocities and war: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    Bruce T. 29 Sep 2017: The Pentagon encouraged ear taking by American forces in Vietnam to get a more accurate count of enemy combat dead as they felt the ‘little’ finger method used early in the conflict was being abused by troops who would cut them off of dead civilians killed in bombing raids or captured enemy refusing to talk during a rough field interrogation. I know a number of guys who have dried up ears stashed away in drawers in old cigar boxes. There was an added macabre bonus to the ear taking. According to GI’s I knew, many Vietnamese felt that if a person’s body was corrupted, missing parts, their soul couldn’t move peacefully into the afterlife.  The ear and finger taking was double whammy, we killed him and left his soul to roam forever. Leave a Death Card with him usually bearing the Ace of Spades with your name and your company’s logo, and you claim ownership of the killing and his soul. The Vietcong and NVA would throw a bounty on your head for that one, a point of pride for a lot of GI’s. GI’s often threaded them on cords, leather and otherwise, displaying them on their uniforms or around their necks when coming back to base from patrols.The footage of them displaying strings of ears was common on the TV news during the war. I would think there would be footage of it on Youtube but you might have to dig a bit.

    Floodmouse, 29 Sep 2017: I distinctly remember something about necklaces made of ears, but I have no idea of the source.  I probably got this from one of the more disreputable types of novels.  When you read something like that in a novel, you don’t know if it’s something someone really saw, or just something they dreamed up to make the enemy sound scarier.  I’m glad it was not my job to be the person with needle and thread who sewed the ears together . . .

    Filip, 29 Sep 2017: Filip writes in with a culinary delight, a Stramberk Ears.