Body Modification – Body Piercing

Body piercing has become a significant trend in Western culture. Ear piercing came into practice in the early 1980’s when modern piercing techniques were invented and became hygienic. Western culture has no known history or tradition of body piercing but is seen by many as teenage rebellion and by the teens as significant, ritualistic body modification with a cult following, contributing to a sense of belonging. The body art scene started on the West Coast and now many kids and adults can be seen all over the world with nose rings, eyebrow and lip piercings and stretched ear loops. Another facet of body piercing called play piercing is performed purely for the sensation of being pierced, the holes made in the body are not permanent and done purely for adornment and aesthetics.

Piercing has its origins 4,000 years ago in the Middle East and mentions of ‘Shanf’ (nose ring) are recorded in the body. Traditionally, this practice is seen in the nomadic African Beja and Berber tribes and among the Middle Eastern Bedouins, denoting wealth and status upon a woman at the time of marriage. In 16th century India, nose piercing became fashionable as a trend from the Middle East and the Moghul emperors. The woman’s nose is most commonly pierced in the left nostril in association with Ayurvedic medicinal principles relating to the female’s reproductive organs, enabling an easier childbirth and easing menstrual pain. Western nose piercing came from hippies traveling to India during the 1960’s fascination with Indian culture and saw a further popularity in the late 1970’s Punk movement as a counter-culture, anti-conservative statement.

The ancient Aztecs, Mayans and American Northwest Native tribes used tongue piercing to offer blood and mollify the gods, often producing an altered state in the pierced priest or shaman to more effectively communicate with the gods. Pierced ears and earlobes are the earliest recorded examples of body piercing. Pierced ears in a body of a mummified man found in an Austrian Glacier in 1991 was found to be dated over 5,000 years old. Ear piercing has protective symbology in primitive cultures for averting evil spirits from entering the body through the ears. Ear piercing was not restricted to women’s adornment, “As the Roman Republic grew more effeminate with wealth and luxury, earrings were more popular among men than women; no less a he-man than Julius Caesar brought back to repute and fashion the use of rings in the ears of men.” “Jewels & Women; The Romance, Magic and Art of Feminine Adornment” Marianne Ostier, Horizon Press, New York, 1958

The Dogon tribe of Mali and the Nuba of Ethiopia pierce their lips for religious implications. In Central Africa and South American native tribes, lip or Labret piercing is performed with wooden or clay plates, stretching the lower and upper lips to large proportions. Aztec and Mayan ancients used labret piercings to signify weath and higher caste with gold serpent-shaped discs often decorated with brilliant stones, jade or obsidion. Walrus ivy, bone, wood or abalone shell were used for labrets in Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest as well as the Inuit of northern Canada and Alaska. Some of the most extreme examples of ritual lip piercing and stretching can be seen in the Djinja women in the Chari river area of the Central African Republic and Chad. Tribesmen stretch the lips of their prospective wives as part of a marriage ritual whereby the young woman’s lip is stretched up to 24cm by adulthood.

Warrior cultures of the Iranian Jaya, New Gunea and the Solomon Islands pierce the septum with pig tusks, feathers, wood and bone.

The Asmat tribe of the Jaya pierce the septum up to 25mm using leg bones from a pig or a tibia bone from a slain enemy for ornamentation and prestige. Aztecs, Mayas and Incas pierced the septum with gold and jade and this custom can be seen in the Panamanian tribe of Cuna Indians using thick gold rings. India and Nepal native tribes also practice septum piercing. The nose and septum piercings in Northern Indian nomadic tribespeople of Himichal Pradesh and Rajasthan called ‘bulak’ are the largest known nose-rings. The bulak are sometimes decorated with stones and large enough to cover most of the mouth and cheek and must be lifted while eating. Pendants are added to the septum piercing in Tibet.

In more civilized and traditionally sophisticated cultures, nipple piercing was created to accentuate the breasts. In the mid 14th century, Queen Isabella of Bavaria wore dresses with a neckline extending to the navel, exposing the breasts. This style of dress led to nipple adornment with diamond studded rings and piercing both nipples, extending a chain through both. This style of piercing appeared again in the 1890’s in Paris where ‘bosom rings’ were sold and became fashionable in upper class social circles.

Mildred K. Pearson

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