Ritual and Piercing: A Look at the Deeper Context of Body Modification
Chances are even if you don’t have piercings, you know someone who does. Family, friends, actors, celebrities, even politicians. Piercings are worn in every walk of life, at every level, around the globe. And if we take a peek back in history, piercings are still there as well. Even the oldest known mummy, Otis the iceman, sported roughly 00g lobe piercings. Egyptian pharos often depicted with stretched ears, and sometimes facial piercings. Aztecs are known for their beautiful septum rings, and even the greeks sported piercings, and in tribes around the world you could see a pierced septum, nostril, ear or lip.
So why do we modify our bodies? What is the appeal in adorning ourselves in metal, and why is it strong enough to call to us across the ages, across all civilizations and religions. Throughout time, we have seen as many different reasons for piercing as there are piercings to be done. Religious, spiritual, medical, symbolic, ritual. Long before written history we know many different ear piercings were thought to ward off demons and monsters, and the right to wear them was earned through age, feats of strength, and tribal rites. One of the earliest recorded mentions of piercing is a nose piercing used to signify status, and also marriage and possession in the Bible.
When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels. Then he asked, "Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father's house for us to spend the night?” She answered him, "I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor."And she added, "We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”
As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister's arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring.
Abraham gives Rebekah a gold nose ring and gold bracelets to solidify the deal and make her a bride for his son Isaac. We see nostril piercing as a tradition of marriage even up to modern times, in many areas of India and the middle east, as well as some of northern Africa. That belief surrounding piercings can grow, from a symbolic meaning to actual spiritual and medical purposes. For example, in parts of Northern India the Neem tree is believed to have medicinal properties, and wearing a branch from the tree in your nostril piercing is said to relieve a range of ailments. Most notable, ailments associated with childbirth and periods. How sensible then that it also aligns with a piercing known for marriage among women. There is some consideration among archeologists that some piercings were done to help with arthritis, fatigue, and birth. As we dig deeper, many piercings have a root in healing and spirituality under any desires of beauty and status.
Tongue piercings in South America have a rich religious background, of blood letting ceremonies and a pathway to an altered state to allow communication with the gods. The Moache of Peru who worshipped water and blood thought the art of puncturing the tongue to be sacred, and reserved for tribal leaders and shamans. Only those worthy of communion with the gods could be entrusted with this powerful ritual, not unlike labret and septum piercings in other South American cultures. And wearing the jewelry of a deceased loved one was sometimes thought to allow them to communicate to you through the piercing.
And of course piercings have always been practiced for beauty, from Makololo women with large stretched lips to symbolize beauty and wealth to 18th center high society French women, wearing nipple rings under risqué gowns to the highest courts in the land.
Despite the beauty of many piercings, or the use of ornate jewelry as a status symbol, we can trace many of these piercings and their history back to ritual. To spirituality, to healing, and to tribe. Getting pierced wasn’t a quick or simple thing. It was a celebration of the person who was prepared to endure pain to achieve something greater. It was something earned, something done to heal, or protect. It was regarded with a sacred nature that some feel is lost in western culture today. But it does still remain, even under the fleeting fashion trends. There is an underlying current in every act of body piercing that is infallible, it can not be changed or removed even as times have changed so greatly around the act of piercing. There is a bravery to submit oneself to pain, even in the slightest form as modern piercings are only a mild pinch. There is a confidence, a strength to know you endured discomfort, and a permanent reminder to adorn your body to tell you “I did this, I CAN do this.” That feeling around piercing has existed for centuries, it was the same emotion that pushed the Moache to pierce their ears or the Makololo to pierce their lips. This feeling is alive in modern piercing studios around the world.
Some clients come in not knowing why or what brought them here that day, just knowing this strong impulse to be pierced. Others have a plan, something they have been mulling over for weeks or months or years that they are finally ready to get. Both know this is something they need or want, deep down. Maybe to feel beautiful; to reclaim their bodies; to celebrate personal achievement like graduation, marriage, or even divorce; to commemorate an important time (18th and 21st birthdays anyone?). Maybe simply because they want it! No matter the reasoning, every client is still so beautifully brave for entering the studio and agreeing to be pierced. It may be a modern take on a centuries old ritual, but that ritual of finding that strength within yourself to celebrate or commemorate whatever it is you may want to, is still there today. You just need to know how to see it.
Not only that, but a piercing must heal, and as anyone with one knows, this is not an easy process. It is a labor of love that can span months and even years depending on the piercing. You must be present in your body daily, to clean the piercing, to check it, and to ensure it’s healing well. That presence can be powerful, if you allow it to be. I have had the honor to watch clients struggling, lost, depressed, lacking confidence or just on hard personal times. I have seen them go from disconnected to their body, to beautifully, wonderfully present. I have seen the way piercings can pull you back into yourself and make you aware of your body again. Make you look in the mirror every day and find something to love, something worth value. And, slowly, I have seen that gentle love spread to the client themselves. I have seen clients numb with the loss of loved ones, slowly learn to feel again through piercing. Clients recovering from an eating disorder reminded daily to be kind to their bodies through healing a piercing. Finding confidence, courage, and strength from not only the process of getting pierced but the healing as well.
Beyond that, there is a strength to make the decision to modify our bodies. I often hear clients say “well, it’s only a piercing, I can take it out if I don’t like it.” And while that may be true, do not minimize your strength by saying this is only a piercing. You have still made the conscious decision to change your body. From a simple earring to a face full of piercings you have stood up and made the choice to take control of how you look, and take it into your own hands with one of the most beautiful, primal rituals of body adornment history has to offer. From a child with their first earlobe to a middle aged woman who has always dreamed of that nostril piercing, there is an inherent strength when they look in the mirror. They stand taller, they smile brighter, and there is a shine in their eyes that comes from saying “this body is my temple, and I shall adorn and decorate how I please!”
Piercings have had a rich history, and I believe they have a beautiful future as well. But no matter what piercings change into, no matter what trends come and go, there will always be that undercurrent of ritual. As Fakir Musafar once said “Body Play is the deliberate, ritualized modification of the human body. It is a deep rooted, universal urge that seemingly transcends time and cultural boundaries.“ The potential in piercing to heal and to empower will always remain. Next time you sit down to be pierced, take pride in how strong you are to be here, and when you look in the mirror draw strength from the reminder that you did that! And when a client comes to you to be pierced, remember the beautiful strength within them that has brought them to your studio. Sometimes it’s easy to loose the ritual in the mundane, daily nature of the job we do as piercers, however each day we are blessed to get to guide our clients through this amazing, beautiful ritual. And help each of you sparkle just a bit brighter. <3
A special thanks to Eduardo Chavarria and Shawn Porter, who have kept the ritual in piercing for me for many years.