All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

flesh An anecdote from the material culture of the late twentieth century may serve to introduce the layers of meaning associated with flesh; its epistemological, moral, and biological implications.

From the 1960s the manufacturers of Crayola crayons included in their colour range a tone called ‘flesh’, a salmon-pink which was intended to approximate the skin tone of Caucasians. In recent years, the heightened sensitivity, particularly in North America, to politically incorrect designations of race and colour, has caused Crayola to withdraw its ‘flesh’ tone, replacing it with a separately packaged selection of oranges and browns, appropriately named ‘Skin Tones of the World’.

The action of Crayola crayon manufacturers in removing the offensive ‘flesh’ from their colour palate is an illustration, albeit a very historically specific one, of the problematic connotations associated with the flesh in the West. But ‘flesh’ refers usually to that which lies under the skin, or on the bones — fat and muscle — rather than to the skin itself. In the current affluent West, where surfeit is a far more common phenomenon than famine, excess flesh and lack of bodily ‘fitness’ is interpreted as a sign of laxity, overindulgence and weak will. Anorexia nervosa, the medical condition in which food is deliberately avoided, results from a loathing of the flesh and a desire to discipline bodily appetites. Unlike medieval Christian asceticism or other religious movements which seek to discipline the body to strengthen or elevate the spirit, anorexia victims have as their principal aim the attainment of a less fleshly, and therefore to their mind a better, body.

‘The flesh’ has long carried overtones of transgression, rebellion, and disgust, particularly strong in Christian cultures. This is due largely to a number of commentaries on the Old and New Testaments by early Church Fathers such as St Augustine and St Jerome. By elaborating on the opposition and struggles for supremacy between the spiritual and physical parts in a human being, they denigrated the desires and promptings of the body, or ‘the flesh’, as emblematic of original sin and of man's fallen state.

The first reference to flesh in the Bible is neither a negative nor a condemnatory one. It appears in Genesis 2, when God removes a rib from Adam while he is sleeping, and from it creates Eve to be his companion and helpmate. On waking, Adam declares,
‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh’ (21–5).

Flesh and bone, or, as in the later idiom, flesh and blood, thus epitomizes kinship, the tangible bonds between family members. The physical union between man and wife is symbolized and ritually celebrated, by their becoming ‘one flesh’, or one body.

This description of the state of matrimony before the Fall was tendentiously placed by Jerome, as occurring after Adam and Eve had sinned, thus tainting all fleshly union with evil. Jerome further points out that Jesus himself remained ‘a virgin in the flesh and a monogamist in the spirit’, faithful to his only bride, the church. The passage to which Jerome alludes is that in Romans (7:24–5), in which Paul says,
‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? … with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.’The response to Paul's desperate call is, of course, Jesus Christ, whose law of the spirit will free mankind from the law of sin and death: ‘For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’ (8:13).

In the Confessions, Augustine identifies the question of self-government with the rational control of sexual impulses. He recalls how, ‘in the sixteenth year of the age of my flesh … the madness of raging lust exercised its supreme dominion over me.’ The first government in Creation was the rule, within Adam, of the rational soul over the body. This hierarchy reflected the obedience and subjection of all Creation to the Creator, an order which was first overturned by Adam's transgression and rebellion against God's rule. Augustine points out the aptness of the punishment for this uprising, which was none other than disobedience within Adam's own self:
‘After Adam and Eve disobeyed … they felt for the first time a movement of disobedience in their flesh, as punishment in kind for their own disobedience to God … The soul, which had taken a perverse delight in its own liberty and disdained to serve God, was now deprived of its original mastery over the body.’In the beginning, Augustine insists, Adam and Eve enjoyed mental mastery over the procreative process: the sexual members, like the other parts of the body, enacted the work of procreation by a deliberate act of will, ‘like a handshake.’ Ever since Eden, however, spontaneous sexual desire is, Augustine contends, the clearest evidence of original sin. What epitomizes our rebellion against God, is the ‘rebellion in the flesh — the spontaneous uprising in our ‘disobedient members’.

The battle specifically for chastity, or freedom from sexual urges of the flesh, is discussed by Cassian, the first-century ascetic, in his Institutiones, and in several of his Conferences. Within the deadly sins, fornication is coupled with greed: like greed it is rooted in the body; they are ‘natural’ vices and hence difficult to cure. While sins like anger or despair can be fought only in the mind, fornication cannot be eradicated without chastizing the body. There must therefore be severe mortification which still permits us to ‘depart from this flesh while living in the body’, to gain deliverance from the corruption and moral vicissitudes of the flesh.

The passage in Romans quoted above inspired legions of physically punitive practices of worship in Christianity, in which the filth of the world was combatted by the discipline of the self, the voluntary annihilation, self-torture, and deformation, of the foul and bestial flesh. Self-flagellation and mutilation, prolonged fasting or the eating of distasteful or rotten food, sleep deprivation through night vigils, continuous kneeling in prayer upon stones or nails, the wearing of vermin-infested clothes, exposure to extreme cold and heat, degrading and backbreaking labour, were expressions of the desire to subdue, castigate, and mortify the sinful body in order to liberate the soul imprisoned by its needs and desires. ‘Let us kill this flesh,’ cried the first-century monk, John Climacus, as he ascended the Santa Scala, the holy ladder to monastic perfection, ‘let us kill it just as it has killed us with the moral blow of sin.’ St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century wrote in his Meditationes that
‘This flesh … is no better than filthy Rags … froth and bubble, clothed with a gay, but frail and decayed beauty; and time will shortly come, when all its boasted charms shall sink into a rotten Carcass.’ Man, concluded Bernard, is nothing but stinking sperm, a sack of dung, and food for worms.The feelings of disgust and horror invoked by the body and the flesh in the Christian ascetic tradition find a distant parallel in the many and varied customs of flesh food avoidance found around the world. The use of living creatures for food is everywhere influenced by rules, prejudices, and conventions. The feelings associated with unacceptable foods of animal origin are much stronger than those associated with foods of plant origin, as animals are forceful vehicles for highly emotionally charged ideas.

Ideas of contact or contagion suggest that, by ingesting flesh, one can take on the undesirable qualities of the animal or part of the animal one eats. These reveal concerns over purity and pollution, and the disgust at different flesh foods derives from a dread of being contaminated or debased. This fear of defilement is generated principally by waste products of human or animal bodies, which in a broad sense may extend to anything coming from the body. As StBernard says, ‘Consider a little those constant evacuations, the discharges of thy mouth, and nose, and other passages … and ask thy self how much this differs from a Common Shore [sewer] …’ The dietary purity of the animal may enhance its status as flesh food: hence herbivores, especially those pastured or which graze in the wild, are considered ‘clean’ compared with carnivores, the disgusting qualities of whose flesh are enhanced by the disgusting things they may consume. Most unclean of all are those animals who are fed on refuse scraps, human or animal excrement, or who scavenge dead animals: omnivores such as pigs, dogs, or carrion crows.

Natsu Hattori


Camporesi, P. (1988). The incorruptible flesh: bodily mutation and mortification in religion and folklore, (trans. Tania Croft-Murray ). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Pagels, E. (1988). Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, London.
Simoons, F. J. (1994). Eat not this flesh. Food avoidances from prehistory to the present. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

See also asceticism.
views updated

flesh / flesh/ • n. the soft substance consisting of muscle and fat that is found between the skin and bones of an animal or a human: she grabbed Anna's arm, her fingers sinking into the flesh. ∎  this substance in an animal or fish, regarded as food: boned lamb flesh | [in comb.] a flesh-eater. ∎  the pulpy substance of a fruit or vegetable, esp. the part that is eaten: halve the avocados and scrape out the flesh. ∎  fat: he carries no spare flesh. ∎  the skin or surface of the human body with reference to its color, appearance, or sensual properties: she gasped as the cold water hit her flesh. ∎  (the flesh) the human body and its physical needs and desires, esp. as contrasted with the mind or the soul: I have never been one to deny the pleasures of the flesh. ∎  flesh color. • v. 1. [intr.] (flesh out) put weight on: he had fleshed out to a solid 220 pounds. ∎  [tr.] (flesh something out) add more details to something that exists only in a draft or outline form: the theorists have fleshed out a variety of scenarios. 2. [tr.] [often as n.] (fleshing) remove the flesh adhering to (a skin or hide): after fleshing, the hide is soaked again. PHRASES: all flesh all human and animal life. go the way of all flesh die or come to an end. in the flesh in person rather than via a telephone, a movie, the written word, or other means: they decided that they should meet Alexander in the flesh. lose flesh archaic become thinner. make someone's flesh creep (or crawl) see make someone's skin crawl at skin. one flesh used to refer to the spiritual and physical union of two people in a relationship, esp. marriage: my body is his, his is mine: one flesh. put flesh on (the bones of) something add more details to something that exists only in a draft or outline form: he has yet to put flesh on his “big idea.” put on flesh put on weight. sins of the flesh archaic or humorous sins related to physical indulgence, esp. sexual gratification.DERIVATIVES: fleshed / flesht/ adj. [usu. in comb.] a white-fleshed fish. flesh·less adj.

views updated


FLESH (Heb. בָּשָׂר, basar), a word used both in the Bible and Talmud for mortal man and for the flesh of animals (for the latter aspect, see *Meat). Eve is called by Adam "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23), i.e., "my close relative" (cf. Gen. 29:4). In Genesis 6:3: The basar of humans is contrasted with ru'aḥ of God, which animates them. "My breath shall not abide (?) in the human forever, for that he is also flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years." Whereas God's breath is eternal, flesh is mortal. At death the flesh returns to the dust whence it came while the eternal breath returns to God (Gen 2:7; Eccl.. 12:7.) In Psalms 84:3 – "my heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God" – it designates the whole physical part of man. In Isaiah 66:16 "all flesh" is used as a synonym for mankind as a whole, while in the Alenu prayer "the sons of flesh" is used with the same connotation. In Talmud and Midrash the more comprehensive phrase basar va-dam ("flesh and blood") is used, largely to indicate the mortality of man as against the eternity of God, particularly in the contrast between the frailty and ephemerality of a mortal king compared with the "supreme King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He."

The corruptibility of flesh in the grave is constantly referred to. "The more flesh, the more worms" (Avot 2:7); "Know … whither thou art going, to a place of dust, worms and maggot" (ibid. 3:1); and the word basar is regarded as an acronym of bushah ("shame"), seruḥah ("putrefaction") or she'ol ("the grave"), and rimmah ("worm"; Sot. 5a). At the same time, it is regarded metaphorically as the symbol of softness and pliancy in contrast with the hardness of bone (ibid.).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

views updated

166. Flesh

See also 67. CANNIBALISM .

the eating of human flesh generally not for nutritional purposes but for primitive sacramental rites. cannibalic, cannibalistic, adj.
creophagism, creophagy
the use of flesh meat for sustenance. creophagous, adj.
Rare. the eating of raw meat, especially as part of an initiation ritual. omophagic, adj.
Rare. the act, practice, or custom of eating flesh. sarcophagous, adj.
views updated

flesh sb. OE. flæsċ = OS. flēsk (Du. vlees), OHG. fleisc (G. fleisch), ON. flesk pork, bacon :- Gmc. *flaiskaz, -iz; rel. to FLITCH, the orig. meaning being ‘slice, slit, split’ (cf. Lith. pléišeti crack).
Hence vb. reward (a hawk, etc.) with a portion of the quarry; inure to bloodshed, gen. initiate; inflame, incite; plunge into flesh. XVI. fleshly OE. flæsċliċ. fleshpot XVI, fleshy XIV.

views updated

fleshafresh, Andhra Pradesh, Bangladesh, crème fraîche, enmesh, flesh, fresh, intermesh, Kesh, Madhya Pradesh, Marrakesh, mesh, nesh, thresh, Uttar Pradesh •parfleche • horseflesh • gooseflesh •micromesh • Gilgamesh •synchromesh

views updated

Flesh ★★★ Andy Warhol's Flesh 1968

An Andy Warholproduced seedy urban farce about a bisexual street hustler who meets a variety of drugaddicted, deformed, and sexually deviant people. Dallesandro fans will enjoy his extensive exposure (literally). 90m/C VHS, DVD . Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D'Arbanville, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Geri Miller, Barry Brown; D: Paul Morrissey; W: Paul Morrissey; C: Paul Morrissey.