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For other uses, see Flay (disambiguation).
Assyrians flaying their prisoners alive

Flaying, also known colloquially as skinning, is a form of slow and painful execution in which skin is removed from the body. Generally, an attempt is made to keep the removed portion of skin intact. This article deals with flaying in the sense of torture and execution of humans.


A dead animal may be flayed when preparing it to be used as human food, or for its hide or fur. This is more commonly called skinning.

Flaying of humans is used as a method of torture or execution, depending on how much of the skin is removed. This is often referred to as "flaying alive". There are also records of people flayed after death, generally as a means of debasing the corpse of a prominent enemy or criminal, sometimes related to religious beliefs (e.g. to deny an afterlife); sometimes the skin is used, again for deterrence, magical uses, etc. (e.g. scalping).

Causes of death[edit]

Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.[1]


The Assyrian tradition[edit]

Ernst G. Jung, in his "Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Haut" ("A small cultural history of the skin"), provides an essay in which he outlines the Neo-Assyrian tradition of flaying human beings.[2] Already from the times of Ashurnasirpal II (r.883-859 BC), the practice is displayed and commemorated in both carvings and official royal edicts. The carvings show that the actual flaying process might begin at various places on the body, such as at the crus (lower leg), the thighs, or the buttocks.

In their royal edicts, the Neo-Assyrian kings seem to gloat over the terrible fate they imposed upon their captives, and that flaying seems, in particular, to be the fate meted out to rebel leaders. Jung provides some examples of this triumphant rhetoric, here are some from Ashurnasirpal II:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.

Other examples[edit]

The Aztecs of Mexico flayed victims of ritual human sacrifice, generally after death.

Searing or cutting the flesh from the body was sometimes used as part of the public execution of traitors in medieval Europe. A similar mode of execution was used as late as the early 18th century in France; one such episode is graphically recounted in the opening chapter of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1979).

In 1303, the Treasury of Westminster Abbey was robbed while holding a large sum of money belonging to King Edward I. After arresting and interrogating 48 monks, three of the monks including the subprior and sacrist were found guilty of the robbery and flayed. Their skin was attached to three doors as a warning against robbers of Church and State.[3] The Copford church in Essex, England has been found to have human skin attached to a door.[4]

In Chinese history, Sun Hao, Fu Sheng and Gao Heng were known for removing skin from people's faces.[5] The Hongwu Emperor flayed many servants, officials and rebels.[6][7] In 1396 he ordered the flaying of 5000 women.[8] Hai Rui suggested that his emperor flay corrupt officials. The Zhengde Emperor flayed six rebels,[9] and Zhang Xianzhong also flayed many people.[10] Lu Xun said the Ming Dynasty was begun and ended by flaying.[11]

Examples and depictions of flayings[edit]

Apollo flaying Marsyas by Antonio Corradini (1658-1752), Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Yahu-Bihdi, ruler of Hamath, was flayed alive by the Assyrians under Sargon II.
  • According to Herodotus, Sisamnes, a corrupt judge under Cambyses II of Persia, was flayed alive for accepting a bribe.
  • In Greek mythology, Marsyas, a satyr, was flayed alive for daring to challenge Apollo.
  • Also according to Greek mythology, Aloeus is said to have had his wife flayed alive.
  • Tradition holds that Saint Bartholomew was flayed before being crucified.
  • In Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec is the flayed god of death and rebirth. Slaves were flayed annually as sacrifices to him.
  • The Talmud discusses how Rabbi Akiva was flayed alive by the Romans for the public teaching of Torah.
  • Mani, founding prophet of Manichaeism, was said to have been flayed or beheaded (c. 275).
  • Totila is said to have ordered the bishop of Perugia, Herculanus, to be flayed when he captured that city in 549.
  • Pierre Basile was flayed alive and all defenders of the chateau hanged on 6 April 1199, by order of the mercenary leader Mercadier, for shooting and killing King Richard I of England with a crossbow at the siege of Châlus in March 1199.
  • In 1314, the brothers d'Aulnoy, who were lovers to the daughters-in-law of king Philip IV of France, were flayed alive, then castrated and beheaded; and their bodies were exposed on a gibbet (Tour de Nesle Affair). The extreme severity of their punishment was due to the lèse majesté nature of the crime.
  • The Polish Jesuit martyr Andrew Bobola was burned, half strangled, partly flayed alive and killed by a sabre stroke by Eastern Orthodox Cossacks
  • One of the plastinated exhibits in Body Worlds includes an entire posthumously flayed skin, and many of the other exhibits have had their skin removed.
  • In 991 AD during a Viking raid in England, a Danish Viking is said to have been flayed by London locals for ransacking a church. Alleged human skin found on a local church door have for many years been considered as proof for this legend, but a deeper analysis made during the work with the 2001 BBC documentary Blood of the Vikings came to the conclusion that the preserved skin came from a cow hide and was part of a 19th-century hoax.
  • Daskalogiannis, a Cretan rebel against the Ottoman Empire, was flayed alive and it is said that he suffered in dignified silence.
  • The Rawhide Valley in Wyoming is said to have gotten its name from a white settler who was flayed alive there for murdering a Native American woman.
  • In 1404 or 1417, the Hurufi Imad ud-Din Nesîmî, an Islamic poet of Turkic extraction, was flayed alive, apparently on orders of a Timurid governor, and for heresy.
  • In the United States, Nat Turner, leader of an unsuccessful slave rebellion, was hanged on November 11, 1831. His body was then flayed, beheaded, and quartered.
  • In Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995), the character Mamiya is traumatised by having witnessed a colleague being flayed to death in Manchukuo in the late 1930s.
  • In March 415, Hypatia of Alexandria, Neoplatonist philosopher, was murdered by a Christian mob of Nitrian monks who accused her of paganism. They stripped her naked, skinned her with ostraca (pot shards), and then burned her remains.[12]
  • The fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Boltons of the Dreadfort flay their prisoners. The sigil of House Bolton is a flayed man. The Boltons allegedly gave up this practice a thousand years before the series begins; however, the sadistic bastard of the family, Ramsay Snow/Bolton, delights in flaying people and wants to restore its use.
  • In Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs the character Buffalo Bill is a serial killer whose modus operandi includes flaying his victims.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jung (2007), p.69
  2. ^ Paragraph based on the essay "Von Ursprung des Schindens in Assyrien" in Jung (2007), p.67-70
  3. ^ Andrews, William (1898). The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc. London: Williams Andrews & Co. pp. 158–167. Retrieved 4 May 2015. 
  4. ^ Wall, J. Charles (1912), Porches and Fonts. Wells Gardner and Darton, London. pp. 41-42.
  5. ^ . 中国死刑观察--中国的酷刑
  6. ^ "也谈“剥皮实草”的真实性". Eywedu.com. Retrieved 2013-07-11. 
  7. ^ 覃垕曬皮
  8. ^ 陈学霖(2001). 史林漫识. China Friendship Publishing Company.
  9. ^ History of Ming, vol.94
  10. ^ "写入青史总断肠(2)". Book.sina.com.cn. Retrieved 2013-07-11. 
  11. ^ 鲁迅. 且介亭雜文·病後雜談
  12. ^ Edward Jay Watts, (2006), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. "Hypatia and pagan philosophical culture in the later fourth century", pages 197–198. University of California Press

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 


  • Jung, Ernst G. (2007). "Von Ursprung des Schindens in Assyrien", in "Kleine Kulturgeschichte Der Haut". Springer Verlag. ISBN 9783798517578. 

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