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In customary law, a test of guilt or innocence in which the accused undergoes dangerous or painful tests believed to be under supernatural control. Ordeals by fire or water are the most common. Burns suffered while passing through fire (as in Hindu custom) or rejection (i.e., being buoyed up) by a body of water (as in witch trials) would be regarded as proof of guilt. In ordeal by combat, as in the medieval duel, the victor is said to win not by his own strength but because supernatural powers have intervened on the side of the right.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on ordeal, visit Britannica.com.