Why Do We Pierce Our Ears?

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There's something very odd about punching holes in your ears.

For many girls (and, I assume, many guys) there comes a time in your childhood when you reach a crossroads. Your eyes, like a magpie's, are drawn to the shining bolts in the lobes of other children and the question that is never far from a kid's lips finds voice once again.

"Am I old enough now?!"

So far as I can remember, I wasn't allowed earrings until I started secondary school, so there was always a waiting period of impotent frustration. Magnetic and clip on earrings were pointlessly painful and they would never beat the real thing.  I wanted full blown pierced ears, like the older girls, and the whole new world of jewellery that was suddenly open to you. So, when I sat on the chair at Claire's to have two assistants stab holes in my earlobes with what effectively looked like Orwellian torture devices, I was nothing but happy and excited.

Since then I've had another three holes stabbed into my ears and filled with little gold decorations that I never take out. These are inexplicably a part of my identity now and it's always struck me as rather bizarre. 

Why did early humans, who were surrounded by disease and death at even the slightest injury, decide that boring holes in themselves was a good idea?

The history of ear piercing is certainly ancient. In 1991 the oldest mummy in the world - Otzi- was discovered in a glacia in Austria. testing showed that he was over 5,000 years old and he has his ears pierced and gauged to holes that measured 7-11mm.

Interestingly enough, Otzi the iceman also has tattoos that covered parts of his body that, archaeologists believe, were subject to wear and tear and may have caused him pain. Given the theraputic nature of his tattoos, is it possible that Otzi's ear piercings also had a benefit to his health or spirituality? 

 Ancient Persians (525-330 BC) were known to pierce their ears, and many stunning examples of earrings have been recovered, as with this example made from turquoise, carnelian and lapis lazuli.

 The depiction of a figure with an erect phallus on the above example may lead to speculation about the spiritual worth or relation to fertility that such jewellery might have. Certainly many historians and archaeologists are keen to assign spiritual reasons to these unexplained and apparently superfluous decorations. While ear piercing may have always simply been for decoration, like Otzi's piercings, it's difficult to know whether they hold greater meaning. For example, throughout history sailors pierced their ears under the belief that it might improve their eyesight. What is to say that ear piercing might not be therapeutic? Or sexually helpful? Or a protection against evil spirits? Loaded with a greater significance, it would be easy to see why our ancestors decided that an earring was worth the ever-present risk of infection.

For me, as for many women throughout history, ear piercing is as linked to coming of age as it is for fashion. In some respects it is a threshold, where one's parents acknowledge your agency and responsibility.You're no longer a rough and tumble child who is likely to pull them out and hurt themselves. You're growing up and, in a way, through allowing yourselves another form of jewellry you are adding to your arsenal for expressing your identity and -given our western standards of beauty - attracting a mate. In the end, while we may think it more subtle, there is little fundamentally different about piercing in British society than there is from, for example, the Ethiopian Mursi tribe's treatment of piercing where, upon reaching puberty, a girl is given lip and ear piercings that will be gradually gauged her whole life and assist in increasing her status.

In the end, it's difficult to know why the first man or woman decided to put themselves through the pain and risk of stabbing a hole in their ear for this decoration. But I, for one, am glad that they tried.

Naturally it doesn't begin and end with ear piercings. Throughout history and into modern times, people can pierce all manner of parts of their bodies.

Note: Some of the below examples are rather 'Not Safe for Work' (NSFW) due to graphic nudity. These have been placed as links, click them to view the examples.
Nose Piercings
It is thought that nose rings first appeared in India during the Monghol period of the 16th century, and excavations in India have reportedly not upturned any nose piercings before that period. In Inida, for example, traditionally the left nostril was pierced as, in Ayurvedic medicine, this was linked with femininity and the ease of childbirth.Traditionally, for for many families to the modern day, nose piercing is linked with marriage.

Tongue Piercings
 While the history of tongue piercing is in debate, it was widely believed that the Aztecs practiced tongue piercing as a form of religious blood-letting. In modern western culture it has generally been linked to provacative rebellion due to the sexual benefits it gives. Body modifications have naturally built on this, and nowadays it's possible to completely split the muscle into a 'snake/demon tongue' so that each muscle can move independently.

Lip Piercings

Like almost every piercing, lip piercings can also be gauged.  Stick in a clear plug in there and this results in something that is equal parts awesome and horrifying.
Which is exactly how it was intended.

Septum Piercing
Septum piercing is a form of nose piercing that is inserted between the nostrils, as is commonly seen in bulls.
Personally, I first saw this as the ring facing downwards in the bull style, but recently the fashion seems to be to invert it, so that the balls of the piercing peek out of the nose.  For my taste this looks a little too much like a runny nose if you catch it in the corner of your eye, but it's certainly a delicate effect.

Belly Button Piercing
Naval piercings can take up to 12 months to heal, and the risk of infection is high, but this didn't stop it being very in fashion during my secondary school years which tallies with the western 1990s and 2000s fashion trend that was seen among many pop stars. Reportedly a modern invention, it has apparently not been seen in ancient records or as widely adopted in more modern 'primitive' cultures in the same way that lip stretching and ear piercing has. Generally it is favoured by women due to the gendered differences in the fat distribution of their stomachs.

Corset Piercing
This form of piercing was designed to emulate the historical practice of wearing corsets and the pretty criss-crossed ribbons and string that were incorporated into them. The piercing itself is believed to be  a modern invention, having emerged in the mid 1990s as a form of surface piercing primarily as an erotic expression. Like all surface piercings (that is, those done on skin alone) the piercings are likely migrate and cannot heal properly as is seen in other piercings. this, added to the danger of tearing due to it's location, means that corset piercing is a temporary measure used for decoration or in BDSM play. But, due to the surface nature of these piercings, they can be worn almost anywhere on the body to impressive decorative effect.

Nipple Piercings

It's debated when nipple piercings historically 'arrived'. Some people have pointed to specific pieces of roman armor where sculpted nipple rings on the breastplate were used to attach a cape, yet there is no documentation that actually physically piercing the nipples ever happened in ancient Rome. Again in other armour there are nipple decorations seen, but unsupported by evidence that the people themselves sported them.
Also, as a side note, nipple tattoos have also become a body mod trend, and many of the results are rather lovely.
(While either option personally make me wince, I have to admit that the angel wing rings are just lovely, especially with a tattoo combination.)

                                                                                   Genital Piercings: Female

Genital piercings are reportedly believed to have been first adopted by the tribes of Southeast Asia and it is thought that they were introduced into western culture through the reports brought back from such explorations. Despite the debate that had raged in the western world throughout history about whether the clitoris actually existed or not, and indeed for a long time it's existence was even actively denied, by the 1800s the discovery of the sexual benefits of clitoral hood piercings led to their adoption. Another piercing option is labia piercing which, like the labia-stretching practiced by some as part of traditional Rwandan culture, is viewed as aesthetically pleasing and  is also adopted for sexual reasons, whether due to heightened sensation or due to BDSM or chastity-play.

Genital Piercings: Male
Male genital piercings have as long a history as their female counterparts. One of the earliest  mentions on record was the Apadravya piercing mentioned in the Kama Sutra in the second century (though this is hotly debated as possibly a myth). A similar piercing has also been traditionally adopted by the Sarawak and Sabah tribes or Boreno. The apadravya passes vertically through the glans and uretha and, while reportedly the most painful male genital piercing, is believed to have sexual benefits. Alternative piercings that serve much the same purpose are the palang, fraenulum and foreskin piercings. The foreskin piercing especially had practical purposes: for example in Ancient Greece the practice if Infibulation was common in male athletics and first mentioned in the 5th century. Here, geneital piercings were used as an anchor (a practice called kynodesmē) so that the member could be pulled out of the way to one side for modesty or in order to affect the male voice. This manipulation of the genitals for practicality is said also to explain the emergence of the Prince Albert piercing. It is said that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, chose to have this piercing prior to his marriage so that his member was held to one side to avoid unsightly bulges in the tight trousers that were fashionable at the time. Called a 'dressing ring' at the time, this would then attach to a hook within the clothing. The story itself has come under debate, with some questioning whether the originator was actually Prince Albert the grandson, rather than Victoria's husband, and many questioning the practice at all. It seems that we may never know, but there is no denying it's modern popularity for entirely different reasons.
Finally, surface piercing further extends the creativity of male genital piercing, with some examples being the hafada  piercing on the scrotum and guiche piercings - the latter of which is also chosen by many women.

In the end, it seems that the variety of human piercings is only ever limited by our own imaginations. From ancient times to the modern day, they are still imbued with a fascinating arrange of meanings. Whether they work as marks of coming-of-age, as testaments of courage, badges of social rebellion, items of beauty, symbols of sexuality, or are for simply practical use, it is clear that piercings are a very important part of our culture.

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