The History of the Nose Piercing

Much like every other aspect of life, piercing culture has undoubtedly become more mainstream as a result of the internet, globalization, and the ability to connect with people from across the world. Seemingly overnight, nose piercings have shown up on mainstream celebrities, suburban middle class homemakers, college professors, and even physicians. Previously seen as counter culture driven in Western culture, nose piercings have been welcomed into mainstream society, allowing individuals the ability to express themselves freely in most settings. From dainty diamond studs, to chunky silver hoops, and every nose ring style in between, the rise of the nose piercing has been welcomed with open arms. However prevalent in today’s society, nose piercing has been a long-standing traditional practice that dates back thousands of years, and spans across many continents. With a rich history, multiple meanings across various cultures, and thousands of years of active practice, nose piercing has served many purposes across the world for thousands of years, rendering the practice an ancient ritual that has stood the test of time.

The Origins of Nose Rings

According to a published research study for the Journal of the American Medical Association, the history of nose piercing “originated more than 4,000 years ago in the Middle East, migrating to India in the 1500s and reaching Western civilization by the 20th century.” Throughout this vast timeline, nose piercings have been done as a sign of respect, dowry, healing practices, tradition, and finally, beautification. Researched by Dr. Barry Ladizinski of Johns Hopkins University, the same research study draws upon the earliest known reference to nose piercings, found in the Book of Genesis. Within the scripture, it is described that Abraham’s son, Isaac, provides his future bride, Rebekah, a golden nose ring. Called a “shanf”, this golden nose ring was given as a symbolic gift before marriage.

Nose Ring Insurance

Derived from the interpretation of the Book of Genesis’ story, the practice of a groom gifting his bride with a prized golden nose ring has been passed down since ancient times by the Berber and Beja tribes of Africa, and the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East. Much like excessively showy jewelry can be seen as a status symbol in modern times, the value and size of the gifted nose ring was indicative of a family’s wealth, status, and class. Utilized as a literal insurance policy, these gifted nose rings would also provide a sense of security for brides-to-be, who could sell their prized jewels in the event of their husband’s death, or divorce.

Healing Powers of Piercing

Carrying on the rich tradition of nose piercing throughout the Middle East, the 1500’s saw India’s growing usage of nose piercing as a medical practice. Popular in India to this day, the natural healing practice called Ayurveda, called for women to pierce their nostrils for the relief of various physical ailments. In the Ayurvedic practice, body parts are associated with various conditions, and the left nostril is believed to be associated with fertility, and the female reproductive organs. Thus, the widespread practice of females piercing their left nostrils at this time was believed to bring relief to menstrual symptoms, and to ease childbirth.

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South American Status Symbols

While nose piercings have been used to signify class designation across many cultures, they have also served as a visual representation of status amongst warrior tribes, signifying successful overtaking of enemies, and marking the ranks of tribal people in ancient Southern American culture. According to Wikipedia’s nose piercing coverage, “Numerous status ceremonies are carved into the North Temple of the Great Ballcourt at Chichin Itza”, a city built by the Mayans. Within these carvings, depictions of nose piercing ceremonies solidify the notion that the Mayans utilized nose piercings as a status symbol. “The two prominent lords, Ajpop and the Ajpop K'ama, of the K'iche were pierced through the nose at the pinnacle of an elaborate ceremony. Similar to the crowning of a king, the nose piercing was to show their new found leadership of the K'iche.”

Beginning of Westernization

After thousands of years of active practice within Middle Eastern and African civilizations, the first widely believed spotting of a nose piercing in the Western world was dated to roughly 1913, when French singer Polaire was seen with a left nose piercing while on a tour of the United States. The singer, who was seen as an eccentric icon of French flamboyance, was seen as a “side show” that attracted the gazes of Americans, and was known for her unique sense of style. Fifty years later, the counterculture and hippie movement generated the popularization of nose piercings in the hippie community. Many Western subscribers to the movement visited India, believed to be rich with cultural symbolism that aligned with the values of hippies, and adapted this custom upon returning to the United States.

Conservative Rebellion

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, as the United States became increasingly conservative as a direct backlash against the hippie movement, nose piercings became increasingly taboo. In an era that valued conformity and traditional views, nose piercings became the symbol of rebellion by goths and punks. Widely seen in the underground music scene, nose piercings became a symbolic declaration of rebellion against the status quo, and were popularized by the goth and punk music that prevailed within the counterculture.

Changing Mindsets

While the prevalence of nose piercings within underground culture has remained steady, increasing numbers of individuals began to recognize nose piercings as fashionable as a result of mainstream celebrities donning the trend. From Lenny Kravitz to Christina Aguilera, celebrities at the precipice of the new millennium propelled the acceptance of nose piercings in the mainstream media. With the rise of the internet, countless images of mainstream celebrities proudly donning nose piercings influenced public opinion, and created a trend for nose piercings that hasn’t slowed down since.

Girl with Nose Ring Hoop

With increasing numbers of individuals proudly wearing piercings, the general public has increasingly accepted piercings as a “normal” form of expression in Western culture. As was the case for the many civilizations and cultures that valued nose piercing before modern times, the widespread acceptance of the practice rendered the nose piercing as a staple in society. In modern times, the nose piercing is here to stay.

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Photo Credit - Oladimeji Odunsi, Chase Fade, Ergin Güçlü, Joanna Nix