The Flayed Man

The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew bible, instructs the priesthood on the sacrifice that must precede the slaughter of animals for food. Roberto Calasso writes in Ardor of Yājñavalkya’s comparable philosophy in the Vedic Shatapatha Brahmana, but argues further that sacrifice was a way of dealing with the ancients’ guilt about killing and destroying the living for food and clothing. The chapter from which the following passage is taken,  Animals, is wonderful. Not only does it deal elegantly with the transition from gatherer-hunted to hunter-gatherer, but also with the source of our embarrassment at being naked, particularly in front of another species.

As for the Vedic ritualists, they gave it [using cows for clothing] credence through a story the others would one day have called a myth, but which in their words sounded like a dry, anonymous account of how things began. Everything started when the gods, watching events of earth, realised that the whole of life was supported by the cow. Men were its parasites. One of the gods-we don’t know which-urged humans to allow their skin to be used to cover cows. So the gods flayed man. If we try to go back to the very beginning, this is therefore the natural human state: the Flayed Man, as sixteenth-century anatomical drawings. Unlike the naive positivists, who presented primordial man in natural history museum display cabinets with a monkey-like covering of hair, the Vedic ritualises saw him not as the mighty lord of creation, but as a being who was most exposed, most easily vulnerable from the world outside. For them, man didn’t just conceal a wound, but was a single wound. They wanted to add an eloquent detail: man is hemophiliac by vocation, as even a blade of grass can make his blood gush forth

Roberto Calasso, Ardor, trans. Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 (2010)

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