What Is Flaying?

Angie Bates
Angie Bates
Before being flayed, a prisoner was often tied up and stretched out on a specifically-designed torture device.
Before being flayed, a prisoner was often tied up and stretched out on a specifically-designed torture device.

A method of torture or execution used most often in ancient and medieval times, flaying occurs when a person's skin is removed, usually while they are still alive. Flaying was most popular in African and Asian countries centuries ago, though instances are found in most parts of the world. Flaying was usually used to punish or execute prisoners, but was also sometimes used to gather information.

Despite occurring on different continents, the basic process of flaying is the same. A prisoner was tied, stretched out, with their hands over their head and their feet together. Normally starting with the face, the torturer would use a small knife to peel the skin off the body in one solid piece. This process was very slow and painful, and victims usually died before the torturer had flayed them to the waist. Sometimes victims were left in the sun or boiled in hot water first in order to make the skin removal easier.

Flaying was usually used in ritual sacrifice, on criminals, enemy soldiers, deposed rulers, and even witches. When used in ritual sacrifice, such as with the ancient Aztecs, the victims were normally already dead when their skins were removed. Other cultures put the flayed skin to use. For example, the Assyrians would nail the intact skin of their enemies to the wall after flaying them alive.

In medieval Europe, flaying was seen more as cutting off sections of flesh rather than the whole body. It was not one of the most popular methods of torture in Europe, but it was sometimes used to gather information. For example, some Babington Conspirators — those who were part of a plot to assassinate England's Queen Elizabeth I in order to free Mary, Queen of Scots, from captivity in 1586 — were flayed for information regarding the plot.

In China, flesh was sometimes just removed from the face rather than the whole body. In 1396, however, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu, had 5,000 women flayed. Additionally, he flayed many servants and enemies during his reign.

Though uncommon in the United States, flaying does occur in its history. Possibly the most famous example is of Nat Turner. Nat Turner, a slave, lead a slave rebellion in 1831 and was subsequently hung and then flayed.

Flaying is now illegal in every part of the world. Unfortunately, it is still seen even in the early 21st century. For example, in 2000, government troops in Myanmar allegedly flayed every male in the village of Karenni.

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Discussion Comments


At least there is peace in the end. I wish that no living thing had to experience suffering on this level. I don't wish that upon any living thing.


In China or/and Eastern regions, they show public fraying of live dogs at market which are then sold as food. Humans are Earth's cancer and we need eradicating. My soul has been destroyed. It's only the perversely twisted society that evil controllers created for us that keeps us all from being savages.


@truman12 - My thoughts exactly! I once read a fiction story that involved flaying torture. A man was tied to a chair by a villain who ended up cutting the skin off of the soles of his feet and palms of his hands, and also removing his lips. I read this story when I was a teenager, and bumbling into this shocking flaying scene resulted in me disturbing myself for a long while afterward.

It was so horrific that I literally stopped reading and couldn't come back to the story for months, even though I had been avidly reading it up until that point.

The fact that the character was still alive and left that way was just shudder-worthy -- I have a really active imagination, and this was a very well-written story, so the mental images were crystal clear. Ugh -- just awful. If the writer's goal was to show just horrible the villain who did this was, they succeeded a little too well.

I did eventually return to the story to face that scene and stop being disturbed thinking back on it, and finishing the story helped me get over it, but even today thinking back on that story makes my skin crawl...


@gravois - I agree, this practice is so disgusting it's hard to believe anybody who identifies as a human being would want to do this to another person.

Unfortunately, the more illegal something is, the more some people will want to use it as a way ti incite fear. Threatening somebody with torture so horrific it's illegal worldwide ought to be a pretty good motivator to talk. Like being hung, drawn and quartered, flaying is also extremely gruesome and nasty to watch, so flaying one prisoner would probably make the rest talk no problem.

Flaying is probably still around because as you said, it's "practical". Unlike other medieval methods of torture that have fallen out of fashion, like breaking on the wheel or death by iron maiden, flaying doesn't require any torture devices that people don't make anymore.

This means that for those revolting enough to want to do it to somebody, all they need is rope to tie the person up and a knife to cut them with.

Makes my skin crawl, but I can see why it would be an effective and efficient torture method. As far as I'm concerned, all torture is a barbaric practice that we should grow out of, but tell that to the people who keep going to wars all the time...


My grandfather had a pretty macabre imagination and when us grandkids were misbehaving he would trace a rectangle on the skin of our backs and tell us that that was where he was going to flay us. Of course these were just idle threats, he usually said them with a smile, but they never failed to settle us down. My grandmother hated when he did this, but like I say, it worked.


I can't believe that flaying is still practiced anywhere in the world. I want to believe that we are getting better as a species. We outlawed mustard gas, flame throwers and other implementa and methods of war that are deemed to be especially gruesome. But laws alone, unfortunately, are often not enough to change peoples behavior. As gross and indefensible as it is, it is sadly likely that people will continue to be flayed for a long time to come. There is something so horrifying and practical about it that it will likely never fall out of fashion.


Ugh, flaying has always given me the creeps. I remember the first time I heard about it in a high school history class I almost had to leave the room. I know that the point of torture is to inflict pain and suffering, but there is something about flaying that just seems so gruesome and inhumane. I don't know how anyone could flay another person let alone stand the pain of being flayed themselves.

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    • Before being flayed, a prisoner was often tied up and stretched out on a specifically-designed torture device.
      Before being flayed, a prisoner was often tied up and stretched out on a specifically-designed torture device.