Having a piercing is not a modern phenomenon. We have used the human body as a canvas for expression extensively over time and culture. The oldest mummy found to date - Ötzi the Iceman - even had a 5300-year-old ear piercing 🥶😵
In some cultures, boys entering puberty got pierced as a symbol that they had reached adulthood. Others used piercings to indicate tribal affiliations, rebel against their culture, or enhance physical features. Somewhere, piercings are seen as a symbol of wealth: the more piercings you have, the higher your economic status.
Piercings have also played a role in the slave trade and were used in hunting. And in some societies, the sexual benefits of intimate piercings even played a role in rituals!
Here we explore the exciting and sometimes surprising history of piercings as one of the most ancient forms of body modification 🥰
In some cultures, adolescents are pierced when they reach puberty to symbolize that they are now joining the ranks of adults. In Borneo, for example, the father and mother would both pierce one of their child’s earlobes to symbolize the child’s independence.
Another interesting ritual piercing is said to keep demons and evil spirits away. Many native tribes believe that demons can access the body through the ear. They are then protected by putting a piece of metal in the ear, as they believe that metal repels demons and evil spirits 😈
Some tribes have even used intimate piercings both for sexual stimulation as well as to increase fertility. A bit later, in 1700s Europe, piercings were used for the contrary: to prevent masturbation and the supposed moral problems caused by it!
Sailors and piercings
Throughout Europe, people believed that sailors should pierce one ear after crossing the equator. But the earring also had another function. There used to be a widespread myth about ear piercings that it would give better sight ⚓️
Apart from that, the earring served another purpose. Especially in the Middle Ages, a Christian funeral was very important for most Europeans. Should the ship sink and the sailor be found or washed ashore, the sailor’s earring could be used as payment for a dignified, Christian burial. Most earrings were therefore made of gold at that time.
In the Arctic region, however, piercings were used to increase a hunter’s luck. Arctic hunters in the area tried to imitate the walrus to get closer to them and kill them. They did this by getting their lips pierced and putting on long jewelry to mimic the walrus' teeth.
Piercings and money
In some parts of the world, having a piercing is connected to one’s social status. The richer you are, the more piercings you have 💰
In ancient India, for example, piercing was often done at large expensive parties, where the host pays someone to come and pierce their children or grandchildren, thereby endowing them with more status. The jewelry’s material often made a big difference too. Wearing piercings from precious metals, such as gold, clearly showed that you were better off than those wearing horn or bone.
In some parts of India, people still use large and beautiful piercing jewelry as a status symbol. This is particularly the case with nose piercings, which a considerable number of women in India have. Besides, it is said in India that piercing your left nostril helps alleviate menstrual pain! 😉
Slave trade and piercings
The way piercings played a role in the transatlantic slave trade is an example of how piercings made you less attractive instead of enhancing your physical appearance. Women were often traded for sexual purposes during the slave trade, meaning that a woman's appearance was of great importance.
Women developed techniques to avoid being taken advantage of. So they significantly deformed their appearance by piercing their lower lip and eventually inserting a plate-like object called pelele. In addition to this, their front teeth were often ripped out to make room for a larger pelele as their piercing stretched. When taking out the pelele, the lower lip would hang like a thin leather ring under the chin, purposefully making women less attractive 😔
When ear piercings were out of fashion
There was a time when ear piercings almost disappeared from the map altogether, for several hundred years. From about the 6th to the 16th century, ears had to be covered by either hair or clothing. It is not practical to wear earrings with hair or clothes against them. Therefore, ear piercing disappeared from fashion for a while in Europe, at least for women. At that time, earrings were generally worn by the lowest classes of society: slaves and sex workers.
For men, however, earrings were very fashionable at one time. Shortly before earrings came back into fashion for women, there was a period when more men than women had holes in their ears. In the 16th century, several prominent figures wore an earring (in just one ear). These included Shakespeare, the King of England, and other important figures. However, that trend was relatively short-lived.
After World War II, piercings started to become more common in Western culture again. Subcultures, such as the punk movement and the male gay subculture wore piercings to set themselves apart. Then that trend quickly spread to the mainstream 🤘
Nowadays, having a piercing is almost more common than not having one. Piercings are subject to changing trends: what is fashionable today might or might not be fashionable again. Who knows what piercing trends will arise in the future! 😍