1. An ancient form of test to determine guilt or innocence, by appealing to a supernatural decision, once common in Europe, and still practiced in the East and by savage tribes.
In England ordeal by fire and ordeal by water were used, the former confined to persons of rank, the latter to the common people. The ordeal by fire was performed, either by handling red–hot iron, or by walking barefoot and blindfold over red-hot plowshares, laid at unequal distances. If the person escaped unhurt, he was adjudged innocent; otherwise he was condemned as guilty. The ordeal by water was performed, either by plunging the bare arm to the elbow in boiling water, an escape from injury being taken as proof of innocence, or by casting the accused person, bound hand and foot, into a river or pond, when if he floated it was an evidence of guilt, but if he sunk he was acquitted. It is probable that the proverbial phrase, to go through fire and water, denoting severe trial or danger, is derived from the ordeal. See Wager of battle, under Wager.
2. Any severe trial, or test; a painful experience. Ordeal bean.
(Science: botany) A poisonous tree of madagascar (tanghinia, or Cerbera, venenata). Persons suspected of crime are forced to eat the seeds of the plumlike fruit, and criminals are put to death by being pricked with a lance dipped in the juice of the seeds.
Origin: AS. Ordal, ordl, a judgment; akin to D. Oordeel, G. Urteil, urtheil; orig, what is dealt out, the prefix or- being akin to a- compounded with verbs, G. Er-, ur-, Goth. Us-, orig. Meaning, out. See Deal, &, and cf. Arise, Ort.