The History of Body Piercings Ancient and
Fascinating Around the World
By Lucy P. Roberts
Body piercings have seen a resurgence of interest in the
last ten to twenty years and are becoming more and more a part of the mainstream Western
culture. Take a look at any fashion or entertainment magazine and youll see plenty
of well-known celebrities with body piercings like navel rings or a labret. You might be
surprised to find out that piercing is actually an ancient form of expression that most
cultures have practiced at some time or other for thousands of years.
Egyptian body piercings reflected status and love of
The earliest known mummified remains of a human that was
pierced is over 5,000 years old. This worthy gentleman had his ears pierced with
larger-gauge plugs in his ears, so plugs may be one of the oldest forms of body
modification there is! 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 pharaoh himself could have his navel pierced. Any one else who tried to get a
belly button ring could be executed. (Tell that to Britney Spears!) Almost every
well-to-do Egyptian wore earrings, though, to display their wealth and accent their
beauty. Elaborate enameled and gold earrings frequently portrayed items in nature such as
Body piercings are also mentioned in the Bible. In the Old
Testament its 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.
Romans were practical piercers
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 it looked, but to signify their strength and virility. It was a badge of
honor that demonstrated the centurions dedication to the Roman Empire. As a symbol,
it was important and served a specific function, unifying and bonding the army. Even
Julius Caesar pierced his nipples to show his strength and his identification with his
Genital piercing through the head of the penis was
performed 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 back to the testicles with a length
of leather. In gladiatorial combat, this prevented serious injury. With a large enough
ring or bar, it also prevented the slave from having sex without the owners consent.
Since the gladiator was property, a stud fee could be charged to another slave
owner for the highly prized opportunity to raise the next generation of great fighter.
Making love or war, piercing makes it better
Going across the ocean at around the same time, the
Aztecs, Maya 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 type of
ritual blood-letting. The Aztec and Maya were warrior tribes, and also practiced septum
piercing in order to appear fiercer to their enemies. Nothing looks quite as frightening
as an opponent sporting a huge boar tusk thrust through his nose!
This practice was also common among tribes in New Guinea
and the Solomon Islands. Some of the materials commonly used were bone, tusks and
feathers. Hundreds of years later, French fur trappers in Washington State discovered
American Indian tribes who wore bones through their septum and called them the Nez Perce,
meaning Pierced Noses in French. Its interesting that civilizations
separated by thousands of miles and even centuries often developed a love for the same
kind of body piercings to enhance certain features, isnt 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 incredible size as progressively larger wooden
plates were inserted to emphasize the lips as much as possible. (Kind of like collagen
today). The Aztecs and Maya also sported lip labrets of gold and jade, many of them
elaborately carved into mythical or religious figures or sporting gemstones. These were
seen as highly attractive and to enhance sexuality.
As the world moved into the dark ages, interest in
piercing died down somewhat and the medieval church began to condemn it as sinful. For a
few hundred years, Western civilization abandoned the practice. As the Renaissance went
into full swing, however, interest in piercing began to pick up again.
A new era and a new interest in body piercings
Sailors became convinced that piercing one ear would
improve their long-distance site, and so the site of a sailor with a gold or brass ring
became common. Word also spread that should a sailor be washed ashore after a shipwreck,
the finder 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 for 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 enormous diamond studs were a great
way to advertise your wealth and standing in the community. It could also designate royal
favor if your 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, with the Queen of Bavaria introducing the most
outrageous, which consisted of not much at all above the waist. In order to adorn
themselves, women began piercing their nipples to show off their jewelry. Soon they began
wearing chains and even strands of pearls draped between the two.
Men and women both discovered that these nipple piercings
were also delightful playthings in bed, adding sensitivity to the breasts and giving the
men both visual and tactile stimulation. Men began getting pierced purely for pleasure as
well. While not entirely mainstream, piercing of the nipples and, occasionally, the
genitals, continued to hold interest for members of the upper crust of society in Europe
on and off for the next few hundred years.
The next resurgence of interest was, surprisingly, during
the Victorian age, which is usually seen as very repressed. Prince Albert, future husband
of Queen Victoria, is said to have gotten the penis piercing that is named after him in
order wear the tight-fitting trousers so popular at the time. The ring could then be
attached to a hook on the inside of one pant leg, tucked safely away between the legs for
a neat, trim look. Although we have no record of Victorias response to the piercing
itself, there is ample evidence she was wildly in love with her husband and almost never
left his side after their marriage!
Soon, Victorian men were getting Prince Albert's, frenums
and a variety of other piercings purely for the pleasurable sexual effects, and women were
doing the same. By the 1890s, it was almost expected that a woman would have her
nipples pierced. In fact, some doctors at the time suggested it improved conditions for
breastfeeding, although not all agreed. It was an interesting double standard -
plenty of people were doing it, but no one was talking about it.
Modern-day body piercings
In the last hundred years or so, body piercings in the
Western world have mostly been limited to the ears, a standard hold-over from the fact
that both men and women wore earrings during Elizabethan times. The Puritan movement did
away with men wearing earrings, however, and it didnt really regain popularity until
Nose rings found new interest when young people (they were
called hippies then) from the U.S. began traveling in India extensively looking for
enlightenment in the 1960s. They noticed the nostril rings that most women had been
wearing there since the sixteenth century. In India, this was a form of traditional,
accepted adornment and was often linked to an earring by a chain. For rebellious teens
from America, it was a great form of rebellion.
After bringing nose piercings back to the U.S., the
interest in body piercings of all kinds quickly caught on during the 1980s and
1990s. Celebrities, sports stars and singers all began sporting a variety of
piercings. Soon, high school students and even stay-at-home moms were flashing new body
piercings. And the rest, as they say, is history!
This article on the "History of Body Piercings"
reprinted with permission.
Copyright 2004 Evaluseek Publishing.
About the Author:
Lori Wilkerson is a full-time freelance writer who loves her work because it gives her the
opportunity to learn more about the world every day. Right now, she knows a little bit
about almost everything, and a lot about body jewelry, belly button rings and tongue
rings. She has two dogs who are spoiled and one teenager who is not.