of Body Piercings
Ancient and Fascinating Around the World
By Lori Wilkerson
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 you’ll 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
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 lotus
Body piercings are also mentioned in the Bible. In the
Old Testament it’s 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
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
centurion’s 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 men.
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 owner’s 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. It’s 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, 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 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
Victoria’s 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 1890’s, 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
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 didn’t really regain popularity until recently.
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 1960’s. 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
1980’s and 1990’s. 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
button rings and tongue
rings. She has two dogs who are spoiled and one teenager who is not.