The history of body piercings: ancient and fascinating around the world

Body piercings have seen a resurgence of interest in the last ten to twenty years and are becoming more and more 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 navel rings or a labret. You may be surprised to find out that piercing is actually an ancient form of expression that has been practiced at one time or another by most cultures for thousands of years. Egyptian body piercings reflected status and love of beauty. The oldest known mummified remains of a human who was drilled are more than 5,000 years old. This dignified gentleman pierced his ears 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 get a navel ring could be executed. (Tell that to Britney Spears!) However, almost all wealthy Egyptians wore earrings to show off their wealth and accentuate their beauty. Elaborate enamel and gold earrings often represented elements of nature, such as lotus flowers. Body piercings are 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 wedding 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 Practical Piercers The Romans were very practical people, and for them piercing 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 demonstrating the centurion’s dedication to the Roman Empire. As a symbol, it was important and fulfilled a specific function, unifying and uniting the army. Even Julius Caesar pierced his nipples to show strength and his identification with his men. Genital piercing through the head of the penis was practiced on gladiators, who were almost always slaves, for two reasons. A ring may be used through the head of the penis to tie the organ to the testicles with a piece of leather. In gladiatorial combat, this prevented serious injury. With a large enough ring or bar, it also prevented the slave from having intercourse without the owner’s consent. Since the gladiator was “property”, a stud fee could be charged to another slave owner for the much-prized opportunity to breed the next generation of great fighters. Making love or war, piercing does it better Crossing the ocean around the same time, the Aztecs, Mayans, and some American Indians 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 ferocious to their enemies. Nothing looks as terrifying as an opponent sporting a massive boar tusk pierced through the 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 American Indian tribes using bone through the septum and named them Nez Perce, which means “pierced noses” in French. It’s 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 labial lips, 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 dwindled somewhat and the medieval church began to condemn them 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 a sailor’s site with a gold or brass ring became common. Word also spread that if a sailor washes ashore after a shipwreck, the prospector must keep the gold ring in return for providing a proper Christian burial. Sailors were religious and superstitious, so they usually spent a lot 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. Big pearl drops and huge diamond earrings were a great way to advertise her wealth and her 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 the men in all their finery, began to wear plunging necklines, and the Queen of Bavaria introduced the most outrageous, which consisted of not much above her waist. To adorn themselves, women began to pierce their nipples to show off their jewelry. They soon began wearing chains and even strands of pearls between the two of them.

Both men and women found that these nipple piercings were also delightful toys in bed, increasing breast sensitivity and providing men with both visual and tactile stimulation. Men also began to pierce themselves for pure pleasure. While not entirely conventional, the piercing of the nipples, and sometimes the genitals, continued to arouse the interest of members of the upper class of society in Europe on and off for the next several hundred years. Surprisingly, the next resurgence of interest came during the Victorian era, which is often seen as highly repressed. Prince Albert, the future husband of Queen Victoria, is said to have had his penis pierced after him to wear the tight trousers so popular at the time. The ring could then be fastened to a hook on the inside of a pant leg, safely hidden between the legs for a neat, cropped 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 got 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 have her nipples pierced. In fact, some doctors of the time suggested that she improved the conditions for lactation, although not everyone agreed. It was an interesting double standard: a lot of people were doing it, but no one was talking about it. Modern Body Piercing For the last hundred years, body piercing in the Western world has been mostly confined 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 new interest when young people (then called hippies) from the US began to travel extensively around India in search of enlightenment in the 1960s. They became aware of nose rings nasals that most women had been wearing there since the 16th century. In India this was an accepted form of traditional adornment and was often attached to an earring by a chain. For America’s rebellious teenagers, it was a great form of rebellion. After bringing nose piercings to the US, interest in body piercings of all kinds quickly caught on during the 1980s and 1990s. Celebrities, sports stars, and singers began sporting a variety of nose piercings. 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 Evaluateek Publishing.

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