Body piercings have seen a resurgence of interest in the last ten to twenty years and are 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 navel rings or a labret. You might be surprised to find that piercing is actually an ancient form of expression that most cultures have practiced at some point or another for thousands of years. Egyptian body piercings reflected status and love of beauty. The earliest known mummified remains of a pierced human are more than 5,000 years old. This worthy gentleman had his ears pierced with larger gauge ear plugs, so plugs may be one of the oldest forms of body modification out there. We also know that the Egyptians loved to adorn themselves elaborately, and even restricted certain types of body piercings to the royal family. In fact, only the pharaoh himself could get his navel pierced. Anyone who tried to get a belly button ring could be executed. (Tell Britney Spears!) However, almost all wealthy Egyptians wore earrings to show off their wealth and accentuate their beauty. The elaborate enamel and gold earrings often depicted 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 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 Practical Piercers The Romans were very practical people, and for them, piercing almost always had 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 fulfilled a specific function, unifying and uniting the army. Even Julius Caesar pierced his nipples to show his 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 could be used through the head of the penis 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 sex without the owner’s consent. Since the gladiator was “owned”, a stallion fee could be charged to another slave owner for the highly prized opportunity to breed the next generation of great warriors. Making love or war, piercing makes it better When crossing the ocean around the same time, the Aztecs, Mayans, and some American Indians practiced tongue piercings as part of their religious rituals. It was thought to bring them closer to their gods and was a type of ritual bloodshed. The Aztecs and Mayans were warrior tribes and they also practiced septum piercing to appear more ferocious to their enemies. Nothing looks as scary as an opponent with a huge boar tusk pierced through its nose!
This practice was also common among the tribes of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Some of the most used materials were bones, tusks and feathers. Hundreds of years later, French fur hunters in Washington state discovered Native American tribes carrying bones through their septum and named them Nez Perce, which means “Pierced noses” in French. It’s interesting that civilizations thousands of miles and even centuries apart often developed a love for the same type of body piercing to enhance certain features, isn’t it?
In Central and South America, lip labrets were popular for purely aesthetic reasons – women with pierced lips were considered more attractive. In fact, the holes were often stretched to an incredible size as larger and larger wooden plates were inserted to emphasize the lips as much as possible. (Something similar to collagen today). The Aztecs and Mayans also wore gold and jade lip labret, many of them elaborately carved into mythical or religious figures or sports gemstones. These were seen as very attractive and to enhance sexuality. As the world moved into the dark ages, interest in piercing faded a bit 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 enhance their long-distance site, so a sailor’s site with a gold or brass ring became common. Word also spread that if a sailor made it to shore after a shipwreck, the seeker should keep the gold ring in exchange for providing a proper Christian burial. Sailors were both religious and superstitious, so they generally 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. Large pearl drops and huge diamond earrings were a great way to publicize your wealth and reputation in the community. It could also designate a royal favor if your earring was a gift from a member of the royal family. Women, who did not want to be overshadowed by men in all their finery, began to wear plunging necklines, with the Queen of Bavaria featuring the most extravagant ones, which consisted of not much above the waist. To adorn themselves, women began piercing their nipples to show off their jewelry. They soon began to wear chains and even strands of pearls between the two of them.
Both men and women found that these nipple piercings were also lovely toys in bed, adding sensitivity to the breasts and giving men visual and tactile stimulation. Men also started getting pierced simply for pleasure. While not entirely conventional, piercing of the nipples, and occasionally genitalia, continued to interest members of the upper layer of society in Europe on and off for the next several hundred years. The next resurgence of interest was, surprisingly, during the Victorian era, which is generally considered highly repressed. It is said that Prince Albert, future husband of Queen Victoria, got the penis piercing that bears her name to wear the tight pants so popular at the time. The ring could then be attached to a hook on the inside of one of the pant legs, and stored securely between the legs for a sleek and elegant 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 almost never left his side after their marriage! Soon, Victorian men got Prince Albert braces and a variety of other piercings simply 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 conditions for breastfeeding, although not all agreed. It was an interesting double standard: a lot of people did it, but nobody talked about it. Modern Body Piercings In the last hundred years or so, body piercings in the Western world have been limited primarily to the ears, a standard carryover from the fact that both men and women wore earrings during Elizabethan times. However, the Puritan movement eliminated men who wore earrings, and it didn’t really regain popularity until recently. Nose rings found a new interest when young people (then called them hippies) in the US began traveling through India in search of enlightenment in the 1960s. They noticed the nostril rings that the Most of the women had been there since the 16th century. In India this was an accepted traditional form of adornment and was often attached to an earring with a chain. For America’s rebellious teens, it was a great form of rebellion. After bringing nose piercings to the US, interest in body piercings of all kinds quickly became popular during the 1980s and 1990s. Celebrities, sports stars, and singers began to sport a variety of piercings. Soon, high school students and even stay-at-home mothers showed new body piercings. And the rest, as they say, is history! This article on the “History of Body Piercing” was reprinted with permission.
Copyright 2004 Evaluseek Publishing.