The premier of season six of Game of Thrones is still two months away and until then many of our favorite characters languish in dire circumstances. Perhaps the most irredeemable villains of the series, the Bolton family, have sadistically plotted to murder, rape, and/or castrate multiple members of fan favorite House Stark and their allies. At the end of last season, Lady Sansa appeared to finally be on the verge of escaping the clutches of the vile Ramsay Bolton with the help of a redeemed Theon Greyjoy. Both Theon and Sansa have suffered terrible abuses at the hands of Ramsay, the sociopathic son of Roose Bolton, who now controls the North. The Bolton family’s greatest pastime is the flaying and brutal torture of their enemies - sometimes just for fun.
Flaying someone alive entails slowly and painfully removing their skin intact. It is one of the more horrific methods of torture and execution imaginable. Probably the most prolific flayers were the ancient Assyrians, who used this method of execution to deter hostile cities from resisting Assyrian aggression. Give up without a fight and the Assyrians might just kill your rulers, loot the city, and demand tribute. Resist and you all invite a fate worse than death.
The Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II was said to have boasted:
“I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me and draped their skins over the pile of corpses; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile … I flayed many right through my land and draped their skins over the walls.”
But my favorite account of flaying comes not from the Assyrians but the Achaemenid Persians. Herodotus mentions this story somewhat as a footnote when recounting some political maneuverings during the Greco-Persian War. Our judge, jury and executioner is the Achaemenid King Cambyses II, long rumored to have been utterly mad or perhaps suffering from some disease of the mind. Our flayed man is a corrupt Judge named Sisamnes, who served under the Persian King in the royal court. Sisamnes was accused of taking bribes that influenced his court decisions. This was a big no-no in Persian society where honesty was considered a virtue and getting caught in a lie could result in an instant death sentence.
From Herodotus' Histories:
“Otanes, son of Sisamnes, whose father King Cambyses slew and flayed, because that he, being of the number of the royal judges, had taken money to give an unrighteous sentence. Therefore Cambyses slew and flayed Sisamnes, and cutting his skin into strips, stretched them across the seat of the throne whereon he had been wont to sit when he heard causes. Having so done Cambyses appointed the son of Sisamnes to be judge in his father's room, and bade him never forget in what way his seat was cushioned. “
That's about all we know of this story. But for fun, let's take a look at the diptych series of Gerard David paintings (1498) that depict the arrest, sentencing and execution of Judge Sisamnes: The Judgement of Cambyses.
Here we see Sisamnes (the guy seated who looks like he's in a whole lot of trouble) being placed under arrest by King Cambyses (the guy with the dark royal garb and white cloak). Everyone in this painting seems to be going about their business as if this were the most ordinary occurrence in the world. Sisamnes looks totally detached from the situation, as if he is either in a state of shock or entirely unable to grasp the gravity of what is about to happen to him.
In this next pane, we get the actual flaying. Sisamnes is tied down as a doctor (executioner?) performs a rather surgical removal of his leg skin. Two other flayers work on his chest and right arm. Give Sisamnes credit though - if he is conscious, he is doing an admirable job of maintaining frame. Cambyses oversees the flaying behind the table while holding a scepter of some kind, though he isn’t even really looking directly at Sisamnes and has an expression on his face which suggests he may be wondering if he left his stove on. Perhaps Cambyses has grown bored with his own atrocities. In the back right we can see a man seated on a throne or bench covered in what appears to be a sheet. This depicts Sisamnes' son, Otanes, who was appointed to his father's position soon after the execution. That is NOT a bed sheet. It is the throne made of Sisamnes' skin that Cambyses forced Otanes to sit upon while giving his judgments. You know, to keep him honest.
This is just another example of Herodotus’ entertaining but completely unverifiable anecdotes. True or not, the artwork of Gerard David inspired by the Sisamnes story is utterly masterful and never fails to get under my skin.