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What Is Flaying?

By Angie Bates
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

What Does Flayed Mean?

To be flayed refers to removing the skin as a method of torture, and another way to talk about flaying is being skinned alive. Though not a standard form of suffering, it began as a routine option during the early middle ages and lasted well into the 21st century.

A person was first captured and then restrained by being bound and tied without clothes on their body. Often the method of restraint was either by the hanging of hands and feet to spread the limbs apart or on a larger butcher block to contain the blood. Then the designated torturer, usually the same person who held the job of the executioner, would begin flaying the skin.

The skin was removed in one large piece while the person restrained was still alive in many cases. In other instances, only skin parts would be removed to gain information through torture without ultimately killing the prisoner. If the person was sentenced to whole body flaying, they often died from blood loss and shock before completing the entire process. The process was also typically a public display, with dozens of onlookers viewing the gruesome task.

Who Got Flaying Torture?

There was no designated crime and punishment system when flaying was first instituted. As a result, it would be prescribed as a punishment at will and whenever people saw fit. It was mainly reserved for extreme or heinous crimes, though not always. There is some record of flaying originating in Asian and African cultures, though the English did their fair share of flaying too.

On some occasions, flaying was not considered as torture, exactly. Instead, flaying was central to how ritual sacrifices or ceremonies were conducted. These differentiations make flaying no less horrific, other than in some cases, like the Aztecs, where those flayed were already dead before the process began.

What Happened to Flayed Skin?

When flayed skin was removed, it served many different purposes. It might have covered a vase or an urn in ancient times, like traditional leather. The use of skin as an offering or adornment was part of the ritual nature of flaying. However, Assyrians would use the flayed skins of their enemies as reminders of battle victories on their walls.

Several heads of state used flayed skin as a messenger. An early King of England once had three monks who had robbed the treasury of Westminster Abbey flayed. Later their skin was hung on the doors to remind thieves of the punishments that awaited them before hell. King Philip IV of France had purveyors of extramarital affairs to the throne not only flayed but castrated and beheaded and then displayed on the gallows as a warning to others.

Serial killers and murderers also use flaying as a method of torturing victims. Some instances of flaying are evident in the heinous stories of torture from murderer Ed Gein. His affinity for flaying as a method of torture was from a self-reported fascination with the horrors of nazi Germany death camps. Murderers who flayed their victims include Vlad the Impaler, Josef Mengele, Jeffrey Dahmer, Delphine LaLaurie, and others.

Do People Survive Skin Flaying?

If flaying were used as a means to gather information through torture, then sometimes the victims would survive afterward if they were adequately treated with medical care and if the wounds were not too critical. If they waited too long to divulge important information and were missing too much skin, the body might have already gone into shock or hypothermia. In that case, the chances of recovery were low thanks to the lack of modern medicine available to prisoners and the harsh conditions in captivity.

If flaying was used as a method of torture with the intent to remove the entire covering of skin in one piece, the prisoner did not often make it through the whole flaying before dying. The body will go into shock long before the skin is totally removed.

Does Flaying Still Exist?

Currently, flaying is illegal worldwide and is considered a violation of human rights and a war crime. However, there have been reports of flaying as a common illegal activity amongst murderers and as a method of torture. Those found guilty of flaying are currently serving criminal sentences or the like.

Reported as a war crime, flaying was in circulation as recently as 2000 to 2018, despite international interventions. In the early 2000s, amid civil war, government troops in Myanmar violated international human rights by allegedly flaying all the males in a village in Karenni in Burma.

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Discussion Comments
By anon352311 — On Oct 21, 2013

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.

By pickled — On Feb 17, 2012

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.

By Hawthorne — On Jul 23, 2011

@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...

By TheGraham — On Jul 22, 2011

@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...

By nextcorrea — On Jul 21, 2011

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.

By gravois — On Jul 21, 2011

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.

By truman12 — On Jul 20, 2011

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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