Body Piercings: A Modern Style that is rooted in Ancient Traditions

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What many seem like a simple puncture wound may have a very emotional and personal significance to the bearer. Body modification is just one way you can express your personality and make a statement. The ancient practice of piercing can mark spiritual rites of passage and liberation. Our , Kula Lumpur-based Shameena, delves into the antiquity of body piercings, in two parts. Here’s the first part of her in-depth research, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.  

Piercings may have only become widely popular in mainstream culture in recent years, but the practice of body piercing is far from new. Piercing dates back to the Biblical times and earlier.

What many seem like a simple puncture wound may have a very emotional and personal significance to the bearer. Body modification is just one way you can express your personality and make a statement, so be sure you pick the piercing that fits.

The ancient practice of piercing can mark spiritual rites of passage and liberation. Some people rely on erotic or intimate piercings to provide sexual enhancement and may enjoy the mere sensation of being pierced. Other people may wear a few select piercings to adorn and enhance their appearance.

Popular Types of Body Piercings

Some piercings offer pleasure while others are simply just an expression of self-identity. Here’s a brief overview of some of the most common forms of body piercings and their known origins.

Nose Piercing

The nose is the face’s most prominent feature; it sets the character for the whole face. It’s no surprise then that a nose piercing can positively accentuate one’s face, making nostril piercings, in particular, a very attractive type of piercing on many people.

The history of nose piercing dates back to ancient times; it was first recorded in the Middle East approximately 4,000 years ago. It’s also mentioned in The Bible in Genesis 24:22, where it’s recorded that Abraham asked his oldest servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant found Rebekah, and one of the gifts he gave her was a “golden earring”. The original Hebrew word used was Shanf, which translates to “nose ring”.

The practice of nose piercing is still followed among the nomadic Berber and Beja tribes of Africa and the Bedouins of the Middle East. The size of the ring gifted denotes a family’s wealth. It’s given by a husband to his wife when they marry, and it represents financial security for her in the event that she and her husband are divorced.

In the 16th century, nose piercing was brought to India from the Middle East by the Mughal emperors. In India, a stud (called a Phul) or a ring (Nath) is usually worn in the left nostril, although both are pierced in some areas. The reason the left nostril is more commonly pierced is due to that spot being associated with female reproductive organs in Ayurveda (i.e. Indian medicine); the piercing is supposed to make childbirth easier and lessen period pain. An Indian woman’s nose piercing is sometimes joined to her ear by a chain.

In the west, nose piercing first appeared among the hippies who had travelled to India in the Late 1960s. In the 1970s, the practice of nose piercing was adopted by the Punk movement as a symbol of rebellion against conservative values. Conservative people – particularly parents and employers – still don’t react well to it, so consider any reactions that could negatively affect you or your career carefully before having your nose pierced.

Nowadays, nose piercing is gradually becoming more socially acceptable. People sport little gem-topped nostril studs and fine hoops, too, including professionals in a variety of settings ranging from retail outlets to doctor’s offices.


Tongue piercing was practiced in a ritual form by the ancient Aztecs, the Maya of Central America, and the Haida, Kwakiutul, and Tlinglit tribes of the American Northwest. The tongue was pierced to draw blood to propitiate the gods and to create an altered state of consciousness so that the priest or shaman could communicate with the gods.

Tongue piercing is now one of the most popular piercings people get. It’s shocking, provocative and fantastic for oral sex (for both sexes), but at the same time, no one need know you have it.

Ear Piercing

It’s a common body piercing probably earlobe piercings were one of the first that Man attempted due to the ease with which earlobes can be pierced. In 1991, the oldest mummified body in the world was found frozen in an Austrian Glacier; tests showed the body to be over 5,000 years old. The body had pierced ears, and the holes had been enlarged to 7-11mm diameter.

Ears were probably first pierced for magical purposes. Many primitive tribes believe that demons can enter the body through the ear; ear piercing could prevent that from happening because demons and spirits are supposed to be repelled by metal. Sailors used to have an ear pierced due to the superstitious belief that doing so would improve their eyesight, keeping them safer at sea. Additionally, if a sailor’s body washed up on shore somewhere, a single earring could pay for a Christian burial. To this day, ear piercing is done as a puberty ritual in many societies. In Borneo, a mother and father each pierce, one of their child’s ears, to symbolise the child’s dependence on his or her parents. Even in the US, it isn’t uncommon for parents to pierce their little girls’ earlobes.

Ear piercing isn’t just for girls; it’s an almost universal practice for men and women alike. It’s only in the Western society that it has been deemed effeminate, although that prejudice has diminished in recent years, and rightly so. At various times in history, great men wore elaborate earrings. For instance, during the Elizabethan era, many famous men such as Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake wore gold rings in their ears.

Labret/Lip Piercing

Lip piercing history is richest in tribal cultures. Only two tribes pierce the lips with a ring: the Dogon tribe of and the Nuba of Ethiopia. Among the Dogon, lip piercing has religious significance; they believe the world was created by their ancestor spirit “Noomi” weaving thread through her teeth, but instead of thread, out came speech. All the other lip piercing that is practiced around the world is done with labrets, which can be made from a pin of wood, ivory, metal, or even quartz crystals. Among the tribes of Central Africa and South America, the labret piercing is stretched to extremely large proportions, and large wooden or clay plates are inserted in place of labret pins over time.

Among the ancient Aztecs and Maya, labret piercing (i.e. “Tentetl” to the Aztecs) was reserved for male members of the higher castes, who wore beautiful labrets fashioned from pure gold to look like serpents, golden labrets with stones inset in them, and labret jewellery made of jade or obsidian. The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Inuit peoples of northern and Alaska wore labrets fashioned from walrus ivory, abalone shell, bone, obsidian, and wood.

The Makololo tribe of Malawi wear lip plates called Pelele in the upper lip.

The plug of wood in the lips, which became little by little a disk, and then a real plaque, was in some manner a sign of possession of the husband of the Djinja woman. It is the man who is to marry her, and very often him alone who operates, transfixing the lips of the young girl with a blade of straw forms the first sign of the deformation to which she will be subject as an adult. It is in sum, a betrothal rite.

Septum Piercing

Septum Piercing is probably the second most common type of piercing among primitive peoples after ear piercing; it’s even more common than nostril piercing. The practice of septum piercing is likely as popular as it is for the same reasons as nostril piercing, with the added attraction that the piercing can be stretched so that large pieces of jewellery can be inserted–for instance, pigs’ tusks, pieces of bone, , pieces of wood, and other natural materials.

Septum piercing is particularly prevalent among warrior cultures, most likely due to the fact that a warrior with a large tusk through the septum looks especially fierce. The use of septum tusks is very prevalent in Irian Jaya, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, with pigs’ tusks being the most popular material used as septum jewellery. Among the Asmat tribe of Irian Jaya, the most prestigious septum tusk is the “Otsj”, which is a large bone plug that can be as thick as 25mm in diameter. Otsj is usually made from the leg bones of pigs, but occasionally they are made from the tibia bones of enemies slain in battle.

Septum piercings were a beloved tradition of the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas in particular. They wore a variety of jewellery in their pierced septum, but jade and gold were the most popular materials because of their religious connotations. The modern day Cuna Indians of Panama continue this practice by wearing thick, pure gold rings in their septum.

This type of piercing is also popular in India, Nepal, and Tibet, where a pendant ‘Bulak’ is worn. Some septum jewellery found in these cultures is so large that it prevents the wearer from being able to eat without manually lifting the jewellery during meals. In Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, Bulak are particularly elaborate and extremely large.

Septum piercing was widely practiced by many North American Indian tribes. The name of the Nez Perc tribe of Washington State stems from their practice of piercing the septum. Nez Perc is French for ‘nose pierced’, and it was given to the tribe by French fur traders.

Australian aboriginals pierced the septum with the goal of flattening the nose. They passed a long stick or bone through the piercing to achieve the desired effect because they believed a flat nose to be the most desirable looking.

The age at which septum piercing is done varies greatly between different tribes. Among the Bundi tribe of the Bismarck Ranges of Papua, New Guinea, septum piercing is performed using the thin end of a sweet potato plant (Ogai Iriva), usually between the ages of 18 and 22. However, some tribes perform the rite on children as young as age 9-10.

Navel Piercing

Navel piercing is a modern invention and has never been recorded in primitive cultures. However, the navel (belly button) has long been recognised as an erogenous zone, because of the difference between men’s and women’s stomachs. Women’s stomachs differ from men’s in that they are more rounded in the lower part, are longer than men’s, have a greater distance between the navel and genitals, and are more deeply recessed than men’s.

The invention of the bikini, in 1953, caused a big stir because the navel was seen as being sexually provocative due to its similarity to the female genitals. The bikini revolutionised women’s lives. Along with the liberation of their , their lives, in general, became more liberated. Navel piercing became popular eventually.

[To be continued]

©Shamina Abdurahiman

Photos sourced by the author from the .

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Shameena Abdurahiman

Shameena Abdurahiman

Shameena is a Self-made independent entrepreneur, Fashion Designer and Stylist, Artist,Photographer, Fitness freak, Poet, Blogger, Graphic Designer, Life strategist and many other things. Her collections cater to a broad range of women, from classic to modern, fusion and embrace all attitudes from romantic to dramatic. She is currently situated in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Shameena Abdurahiman