Body modification has a long and rich history spanning back many years. One type of piercing that has evolved through the ages is the nostril piercing.
In this article, we’ll trace the history of the nostril piercing from its beginnings to its present history. We’ll also examine how the meaning and traditions surrounding the nostril piercing evolved.
The First Recorded Nostril Piercing
Believe it or not, the nostril piercing has a long history. According to the first record of a nostril piercing, it originated in the Middle East around 4,000 or 5,000 years ago.
Around the same time as this, the Bible was written, and it also mentions a nostril piercing. In Genesis 24:22, Abraham sends a servant to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. When the servant finds Rebekah, she is gifted a golden earring. However, the original Hebrew word used in the Bible was Shanf, which translates to “nose ring.”
This biblical practice is still enforced to this day by the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East and the African Berber and Beja tribes. Rather than the wife’s family gifting a man a dowry, this golden nose ring represents financial security. It’s essentially a life insurance policy should a woman’s husband die or choose to divorce her.
This isn’t to say that nose rings are not given as part of a daughter’s dowry. Some Middle Eastern and African tribes still engage in this practice. In fact, how big the nostril ring is and how much it is worth symbolizes a family’s wealth.
The Nostril Piercing in the Middle East & Asia
In the 16th century, the nostril piercing was introduced to Indian culture by the Moghul emperors. In fact, as they went to various other south Asian countries, they also spread it there.
Nostril Piercings & Indian Women
Ever since its introduction into Indian culture, the nostril piercing, specifically the nose ring, has been extremely popular among Indian girls and women. Many styles of nose rings in India have chains that link them to ear piercings or jewelry worn in the hair.
Additionally, there are specific practices as to which nostril Indian girls and women can pierce. In Northern India, the preference is outside of the left nostril. In Southern India, the preference is outside the right nostril because it’s supposed to make childbirth easier. Indian culture practices Ayurvedic medicine, which associates that region with female reproductive organs. This is why it is also said to help alleviate cramps during menstruation. Some say that nostril piercings in India are pierced through an acupuncture point on the nostril that induces submissiveness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the nostril piercing is also associated with good social standing and beauty. By getting a nostril piercing, women can honor the Hindu Mother Goddess Parvati.
One unique use of the nostril piercing, specifically large-gauge nostril piercings, is in the women of the Apa Tani tribe in the Apatani plateau in Jiro in India. In this tribe, tattooing and stuffing the nose with large plugs was popular. Because the Apa Tani women were considered the most beautiful among all the Arunachal tribes, the practice originally started to make the women of the tribe unattractive to male members of neighboring tribes.
The Nostril Piercing as a South American Status Symbol
Much like how the size and value of a nose ring determines a family’s wealth in Middle Eastern and African tribes, nose piercings represent a warrior’s status in tribes throughout South America. The piercing of a nostril also signifies a specific rank within ancient tribal culture or the successful overtaking of enemies.
In fact, there are numerous status ceremonies carved into the North Temple of the Great Ballcourt at Chichin Itza that depict piercing the nose as a way of indicating status. As an example, Ajpop and Ajpop K’ama, prominent lords of the K’iche, were pierced through the nose during a pinnacle moment of a ceremony. The nose piercing is a status symbol in the same way that wearing a crown is a symbol of royalty and upper class.
The Nostril Piercing: From Europe to the Western World
Piercing and body modification was introduced to the Western world once sailors and explorers brought back stories from their experiences in “faraway lands.” Some sailors even came home with piercings and tattoos. However, it wasn’t until Polaire, the famous European singer and actress, toured the United States in 1913 that the nose ring was really introduced to Western culture.
Polaire, whose real name was Émilie Marie Bouchaud, was known for her small waist and ahead of her time fashion. She wore very short skirts that did not become in vogue until the 1920s. During her full American tour, she wore a nose ring.
Ethel Granger & The Evolution of the Nose Piercing for Women
In the late 19th century, Ethel Granger made a splash all over Europe. She was once a plain girl who wore the typical clothes of the 1920s. At this time, even a single earlobe piercing was not acceptable on adult women.
When Ethel married her husband Wil Granger, he required her to wear a corset day and night, which ended up shrinking Ethel’s waist until she became the woman with the smallest recorded waist size in history, beating the fame of Polaire.
In addition to his interest in corsetry, Will Granger also wanted to experiment with fetish play. A fan of piercing herself, Ethel allowed Will to pierce her nostrils, septum, nipples, and ear cartilage. She’s the first Western woman in modern history to be so extensively pierced.
The 1960s, 70s, and 80s
While the nostril piercing started becoming popular throughout Europe and Asia, it wasn’t popular in the United States until the 1960s. During this time, men were coming back from their time abroad during World War II. Additionally, the hippie movement encouraged trips to India and Asia for spiritual enlightenment. Those that made the journey to India and Asia brought back the nostril piercing to the United States.
In the 70s and 80s, the punk and goth subcultures kept the nostril piercing in fashion. To them, the nostril piercing was a symbol of rebellion and being counter-culture. Nostril piercings also symbolized bodily autonomy and being able to make decisions about your own aesthetic without caring what anybody else thought.
The Nostril Piercing Today
Today it’s easy to walk down the street and see at least one person with a pierced nostril. Many celebrities from Lenny Kravitz and Travis Barker to Kesha and Demi Lovato have their nostril(s) pierced.
One thing that’s interesting is that there are a variety of reasons people are piercing their nostrils these days. Some do it because they simply like the look, others keep up the rebellious intent of the punks and goths, and others still practice the cultural traditions of nose piercings.
Today, nose piercings are much more widely accepted too. Even in the workplace, it’s much more common to find bosses and managers accepting of nostril piercings rather than requesting they are removed.
Now that you’ve traced the nostril piercing through time, are you ready to get one? Or perhaps you already have one and wanted to know the history behind it. Regardless of the reason you’re researching the nostril piercing’s history, you should also know that we have one of the largest collections of nose rings and nostril jewelry available. Browse through it today!
Photo Credit - Oladimeji Odunsi, Chase Fade, Ergin Güçlü, Joanna Nix