The History of Body Piercing: Ancient and Fascinating Around the World

Body piercing has experienced a resurgence of interest in the last ten to twenty years and is increasingly becoming a part of mainstream Western culture. Take a look at any fashion or entertainment magazine and you will see many well-known celebrities with body piercings like belly button rings or a labret. You may be surprised to find out that piercing is actually an ancient form of expression that most cultures have practiced at one time or another for thousands of years. Egyptian body piercings reflected status and a love of beauty. The oldest known mummified remains of a human that was pierced are over 5,000 years old. This dignified gentleman had his ears pierced with larger gauge ear plugs, so plugs may be one of the oldest forms of body modification in existence. We also know that the Egyptians loved to adorn themselves in elaborate ways and even restricted certain types of body piercing to the royal family. In fact, only the pharaoh himself could pierce his navel. Anyone else who tried to obtain a belly button ring could be executed. (Tell that to Britney Spears!) Yet nearly all wealthy Egyptians wore earrings to show off their wealth and accentuate their beauty. Elaborate gold and enamel earrings often depicted elements of nature, such as lotuses. Body piercing is also mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament it is obvious that body jewelry is considered a mark of beauty and wealth, especially for Bedouin and nomadic tribes. In many cases, body jewelry was given as a bridal gift or as part of a dowry. It is clear that piercing was a sign of status and attractiveness in Biblical times. The Romans Were Handy Piercers The Romans were very practical people, and for them piercings almost always served a purpose. Roman centurions pierced their nipples not because they liked the way they looked, but to indicate their strength and virility. It was a badge of honor that demonstrated the centurion’s dedication to the Roman Empire. As a symbol, it was important and served a specific function, unifying and uniting the army. Even Julius Caesar had his nipples pierced to show his strength and his identification with his men. Genital perforation through the head of the penis was practiced on gladiators, who were almost always slaves, for two reasons. A ring through the head of the penis could be used to tie the organ to the testicles with a piece of leather. In gladiator combat, this prevented serious injury. With a large enough ring or bar, it also prevented the slave from having sexual intercourse without the owner’s consent. Since the gladiator was “property”, a stud fee could be collected from another slave owner for the highly prized opportunity to breed the next generation of great fighters. Making love or war, piercing makes it better Crossing the ocean at about the same time, the Aztecs, Mayans and some Native Americans practiced tongue piercing as part of their religious rituals. It was thought to bring them closer to their gods and was a kind of bloodletting ritual. The Aztecs and Mayans were warrior tribes, and they also practiced septum piercing to appear more fierce to their enemies. Nothing looks quite as terrifying as an opponent sporting a huge boar tusk through their nose!

This practice was also common among the tribes of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Some of the commonly used materials were bone, tusks, and feathers. Hundreds of years later, French fur trappers in Washington state discovered Native American tribes wearing bones through the septum and named them the Nez Perce, which means “pierced noses” in French. Interesting that civilizations separated by thousands of miles and even centuries often developed a love for the same type of body piercings to enhance certain features, isn’t it?

In Central and South America, lipsticks were popular for purely aesthetic reasons: women with pierced lips were considered more attractive. In fact, the holes were often stretched to incredible size as progressively larger wooden plates were inserted to emphasize the lips as much as possible. (Kind of like today’s collagen.) The Aztecs and Mayans also sported gold and jade lipstick, many of them elaborately carved into mythical or religious figures or sporting precious stones. These were seen as very attractive and to enhance sexuality. As the world moved into the Middle Ages, interest in piercings waned somewhat, and the medieval church began to condemn it as sinful. For a few hundred years, Western civilization abandoned the practice. However, as the Renaissance came into full swing, interest in drilling began to rise again. A new era and new interest in body piercing Sailors became convinced that getting an ear pierced would improve their long-distance site, so siteing a sailor with a gold or brass ring became common. Word has also spread that if a sailor comes ashore after a shipwreck, the finder must keep the gold ring in exchange for providing a proper Christian burial. Sailors were religious and superstitious, so they would usually spend big on a large gold earring to hedge their bets. Men became much more fashion conscious during the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, and almost any male member of the nobility would have at least one earring, if not more. Large pearl drops and huge diamond earrings were a great way to announce her wealth and standing in the community. It could also designate a royal favor if his earring was a gift from a member of the royal family. Women, not wanting to be outshone by men in all finery, began wearing plunging necklines, and the Queen of Bavaria introduced the most outrageous one, which consisted of not much above her waist. To adorn themselves, women began piercing their nipples to show off their jewelry. They soon began to wear chains and even strings of pearls between the two of them.

Both men and women found that these nipple piercings also made delightful toys in bed, increasing breast sensitivity and providing men with both visual and tactile stimulation. Men also started piercing themselves for sheer pleasure. While not entirely conventional, piercing of the nipples, and sometimes genitals, continued to arouse the interest of upper-class members of society in Europe on and off for the next several hundred years. Surprisingly, the next revival of interest came during the Victorian era, which is generally considered highly repressed. It is said that Prince Albert, the future husband of Queen Victoria, got the penis piercing that bears his name in order to wear the skinny trousers so popular at the time. The ring could then be attached to a hook on the inside of a pant leg, tucked securely between the legs for a neat, trimmed look. Although we have no record of Victoria’s response to the piercing itself, there is ample evidence that she was madly in love with her husband and she almost never left her side after they were married! Soon, Victorian men were getting Prince Alberts, braces, and a variety of other piercings purely for the pleasurable sexual effects, and women were doing the same. In the 1890s, a woman was almost expected to get her nipples pierced. In fact, some doctors at the time suggested that it improved lactation conditions, although not all agreed. It was an interesting double standard: lots of people were doing it, but no one was talking about it. Modern Body Piercing Over the past hundred years, body piercing in the Western world has been confined primarily to the ears, a standard holdover from the fact that earrings were worn by both men and women during Elizabethan times. However, the Puritan movement did away with men wearing earrings and it didn’t really regain its popularity until recently. Nose rings found a new interest when young people (then called hippies) from the US began traveling extensively across India in search of enlightenment in the 1960s. They noticed nostril rings being worn by most women there since the 16th century. In India this was an accepted traditional form of adornment and was often attached to an earring by a chain. For America’s rebellious teens, it was a great form of rebellion. After bringing nose piercing to the US, interest in body piercing of all kinds caught on rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s. Celebrities, sports stars, and singers began sporting a variety of piercings. Soon, high school students and even housewives showed off new body piercings. And the rest, as they say, is history! This article on the “History of Body Piercing” is reproduced with permission.
Copyright 2004 Evaluseek Publishing.

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