Friday, August 18, 2017

The History of Kissing

Once upon a time a crusty old (ha ha) Laurel named Imigla Venture leaned over to me while enjoying a few cocktails at an event and said very seriously - "I want to you find out the history of kissing".

And so I did.

I suspect she knew, having once been an Indian persona, that the origins lay there. But there was a lot more to cover.

This year at Pennsic I taught The History of Kissing, and while I'm still learning more and researching this is my handout: 

The History of Kissing
Baroness Fortune St Keyne

Lovers kiss at the fountain of Narcissus
Roman de la Rose c. 1390
The Morgan Library and Museum
Anthropologists are divided into two schools on the origins of kissing, one believing that it is instinctual and intuitive, and the other that it evolved from what is known as kiss feeding, a process used by mothers to feed their infants by passing chewed food to their babies' mouths. However it came to be the kiss is perhaps our primary form of emotionally currency.

The most plausible biological explanation for kissing is that it allows prospective mates to sample one another’s pheromones and test them for biological compatibility (although experiments have so far been unable to establish if human sex pheromones really exist). It takes a lot of muscular co-ordination to kiss properly – 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are involved. The average person will spend an estimated 20,160 minutes—or about two weeks–kissing in their
lifetime. You burn 26 calories in a one-minute kiss.

Terms: The word came from Old English cyssan ("to kiss"), in turn from coss ("a kiss"). Lip to lip kissing is called osculation specifically.  There are Twenty words for kissing in French and 30 words for kissing German including Nachkuss – “making up for kisses that have not been given” (Love the Germans, such an orderly people)

It’s Ancient History – India’s been kissing for a long, long time

The earliest literary evidence we have for kissing dates back to around 1500 B.C.E. from India’s Vedic Sanskrit texts, the foundations of the Hindu religion. There is no mention of the word “kiss,” but we do find intriguing references to “licking,” and “drinking moisture of the lips.”

Both lip and tongue kissing are mentioned in Sumerian myth from a tablet from near the city of Nippur, (2600 - 300 B.C.E.) about the birth (and conception of) of the Moon god Sin, in which goddess Ninlil speaks, resisting the advances of the god Enlil:
“My lips are too small, they know not to kiss.

My precious sweet, lying by my heart,
one by one "tonguemaking," one by one.

When my sweet precious, my heart, had lain down too,
each of them in turn kissing with the tongue, each in turn.”

Affectionate mouth-to-mouth kissing was also in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. 4th century BCE

By the third century A.D., the Vatsyayana Kamasutra (better known as the Kama Sutra), included an entire chapter lavishly instructing ways of kissing a lover. Highlights include the four methods of kissing Moderate, Contracted, Pressed, and Soft, as well as three types of kisses by a young woman:

Nominal Kiss: The girl touches lips with her lover but does not herself do anything
Throbbing Kiss: The girl setting aside her bashfulness a bit, responds with her lower but not upper lip
Touching Kiss: The girl touches her lover’s lips with her tongue, closes her eyes, and lays her hands on her lover’s hands.

Kiss Like an Egyptian

Kissing is described in surviving ancient Egyptian love poetry from the New Kingdom 1540-1087 BCE, found on papyri excavated at Deir el-Medina:

The Wine Of Love

Oh! when my lady comes, And I with love behold her,
I take her into my beating heart And in my arms enfold her;
My heart is filled with joy divine
For I am hers and she is mine.
Oh! when her soft embraces Do give my love completeness,
The perfumes of Arabia Anoint me with their sweetness;
And when her lips are pressed to mine
I am made drunk and need not wine.
When we kiss, and her warm lips half open,
I fly cloud-high without beer!
What paradise gained, what fulfillment,
what a heavenly turn of affairs!
Oh, raise one to Menkat, Our Lady of Liquor,
but keep your mouth tight on the girl!

Plutarch’s Lives also depicts Cleopatra dreaming about her first kiss with Mark Anthony and plotting her seduction from there.

The Spread of Kissing

It seems that once Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab region of India in 326 BCE, that kissing began to spread slowly into the Western World.

The Romans are also thought to have spread the habit to most of Europe and North Africa. The Romans couldn’t shut up about it. They made up words for different types of kissing: Kissing the hand or cheek was called an osculum. Kissing on the lips with mouth closed was called a basium, which was used between relatives. A kiss of passion was called a suavium

Roman couples would announce their intention to wed by kissing mouth to mouth in front of their families.

Poet Lucretius describes what we would call French kissing in his De Rerum Natura:
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart, As each would force their way t’other’s heart.”

Ovid and Catullus also mention romantic kissing.

STILL, the majority of the world didn’t kiss until it came into contact with Europeans. In fact, as recently as 1990 a Chinese newspaper warned against the strange imported practice of kissing.

The Bible and Kissing:

There is only one romantic kiss mentioned in the Bible from The Song of Solomon: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: For thy love is better than wine.
Most commonly the Bible mentions kisses of obedience:

The first mention of kisses in the Bible, comes in the first book: Genesis. Jacob deceptively kisses his blind and ailing father Isaac while dressed as his twin brother Esau, stealing Isaac’s blessing along with the power to rule.

And his father Isaac said unto him, Come near now, and kiss me, my son. Genesis 27:26

When Moses went to meet his father-in-law, he "did obeisance, and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent" Exodus 18:7

Judas gave Jesus a kiss, a sign of obedience, but still betrayed him. This sign of obedience is still seen in kissing the ring of high clergy in the Catholic Church (mostly no longer practiced) and the toe of the Pope.

It also mentions the kiss as an expression of profound gratitude: such as when the Apostle Paul took leave of the elders of the congregation at Ephesus, "they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck and kissed him" Acts 20:37

Greeting Kisses:

A Babylonian creation story known as the Enuma elish recorded on stone tablets in the seventh century B.C. contains several kisses in greeting and supplication.

The Ancient Persians kissed in greeting and departure: In Cyropaedia (370 BC), Xenophon wrote about the Persian custom of kissing in the lips upon departure while narrating the departure of Cyrus the Great (c. 600 BC) as a boy from his Median kinsmen. Herodotus also recorded that in Persia men of equal rank were greeted with a kiss on the lips, while lower rank was a kiss on the cheek.

Herodotus also reported that Egyptians would not kiss Greeks on their mouths because Greeks consumed their sacred animal, the cow.

The Odyssey mentions Odysseus’ faithful shepherds kissing him in greeting when he returned home (finally).

Ancient Romans kissed in greeting, again, based on social status you could kiss various body parts for cheek down to foot. The lower the bodypart kissed, the lower the rank of the kisser.

Ethiopian kings were kissed on the foot and Numidian kings were considered too supreme to be kissed at all.

Other Non-Romantic Kisses:

The kiss as an expression of deep emotion and sorrow appears in the Bible with Joseph and his father Isreal’s dead body in Genesis, and in Islamic lore it is told of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's first disciple, father-in-law, and successor, that, when the prophet was dead, he went into the latter's tent, uncovered his face, and kissed him.

There was an ancient belief that the kisses to the dead would follow mankind to the netherworld.

Throughout the Middle Ages, kisses served as a demonstration of one’s social standing. A king’s subjects would kiss his ring and robe, his hands, or even the ground before him. The kiss also served as a sign of trust between feudal lords and vassals.

Knights kissed at jousting tournaments and would receive one from the person they protected as thanks for a year of service.

During the early middle ages, literacy was rare, so a kiss was used as a legal way to seal contracts. They drew an “X” on the line and kissed it to make it legal, which has carried over into the way we now write “X” to symbolize a kiss today.

As Religious Ritual:

Blowing Kisses in Ancient Mesopotamia was asking the gods for favor.

The Hindu kiss the ground of temple to indicate it is sacred and pure.

The Jewish kiss the Wailing Wall during prayer and the Torah.

The Kiss of Peace (osculum pacis) was the greeting for early Christians. It was believed to carry the soul of the kisser, thus connecting him or her spiritually to the other.

This was so important – the Bible mentions it FIVE TIMES.
"Greet one another with a holy kiss" Romans 16:16
"Greet one another with a holy kiss" 1 Corinthians 16:20
"Greet one another with a holy kiss" 2 Corinthians 13:12
"Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss" I Thessalonians 5:26
"Greet one another with a kiss of love" 1 Peter 5:14

However, this also meant that early congregations were quickly segregated by the sexes, lest this holy ritual take on a more carnal twist. (spoilsports)

It’s believed that he Franciscans in the 13th Century started the tradition in Mass of congregants kissing the Pax Board, not each other.

Protestants, unsurprisingly, were against kissing and removed all kisses from worship ceremonies. (As it is a disgusting carnal act and you should all be ashamed of your innate sinfulness and wanton behavior)

Kissing icons was also a common practice still practiced today.

Often images of the saints or their relics themselves were kissed and many accounts claim that the sick were made well by these kisses.

The Romance Returns to the Kiss: The Middle Ages

The kiss became romantic again for the West during the Middle Ages. At a certain point in time (around the late 11th and early 12th centuries), the lip kiss started surfacing in stories, legends and other forms of popular writing. References to romantic kissing seem to disappear for more than a millennium (Dark Ages indeed), replaced by kissing as both greeting and indicator of status. 

No one knows why the romantic kiss disappears, although “discouragement of women’s sexuality” is one potential reason put forth by Marcel Danesi in the History of the Kiss! Danesi also proposes that the kiss played a significant role in romantic choice. Thus liberating women from being beholden to whichever partner their family picked for them, instead popularizing the notion of romantic choice.

Once kissing returns though, it became all the rage, with Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, after traveling through England in 1499, writing about kissing as an “unstoppable ‘fashion,’ ” and relaying:
The English girls are divinely pretty and they have one custom which cannot be too much admired. When you go anywhere on a visit, the girls kiss you. They kiss you when you arrive. They kiss you when you go away. They kiss you when you return. Once you have tasted how soft and fragrant those lips are, you could spend your life there” .

In the 16th century a Tunisian sheik Umar Ibn Muhammad el-Nefwazi descripted in the Perfumed Garden explains “The kiss on the mouth, on the two cheeks, upon the neck are gifts of God.”.

Medieval Kissing By the Book(s)

The kiss in Medieval literature is a device to show passion and relationships which were outside the norm. Secret lovers would kiss openly in defiance of society and their families.

Courtly love takes this a step further and begins to showcase the power of kissing, that it can make two people fall in love. De Amore(The Art of Courtly Love) by Andreas Capellanus in 1185 lists the principles of the chivalric code including “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving”, “No one can be bound by a double love”, and “He who is not jealous cannot love”. Clearly romance is becoming more and more important and with it, the kiss. The lip kisses of chivalric code are “pure love”.

Troubadours of southern France bring us the love song and spread the idea of romantic love and kissing in their works in the 12th and 13th centuries. One unknown bard wrote:
“Come let us kiss, dear lover, you and I,
Within the meads where pretty songbirds fly;
We will do all despite the jealous eye:
Ah God, ah God, the dawn! It comes how soon”

The famous 12th century romance of Heloise and Abelard features what could be considered the first star-crossed lovers, and Abelard recalls in his correspondence with Heloise that he dreamed of kissing her long before he did, how these kisses “inflamed” him and he could hardly keep to his bed. Much like the rest of their relationship it indicates great passion and defying the rules of polite society. Abelard also tells of how he plotted to kiss Heloise in the garden while she walked with her sister and succeeded… in slapstick fashion. Also mentioned are Heloise chastely kissing the hands of her tutor – revealing her “exalted soul”, and in direct contrast the illicit “violent” kisses of their nighttime rendezvous.

One popular theme in writing is the misdirected kiss, as featured in Chaucer The Miller’s Tale. The story clearly references romantic kisses, and classily makes a fart joke.

“No, my darling, it’s me, Absalom, sweet love. I’ve brought you a gold ring that my mother once gave me,” he said. “It’s very beautiful and even engraved. I’ll give it to you if you’ll give me another kiss!”
‘Why, nay,’ quod he, ‘God woot, my swete leef,
I am thyn Absolon, my dereling!
Of gold,’ quod he, ‘I have thee broght a ring;
My moder yaf it me, so God me save,
Ful fyn it is, and ther-to wel y-grave;
This wol I yeve thee, if thou me kisse!’

All the World’s A Stage

Commedia dell’Arte emerged in the 15th Century, with simple platforms traveling players use stock characters and perform plays, often satirizing popular culture. The first recorded Commedia performance is in Rome in 1551, and unlike the theater tradition in England, women played the female roles, as early as the 1560s. The stock characters were "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, a captain and a servetta (serving maid)", Commedia brought us improve comedy with a heavy dose of satire, and with it, kissing in public.

Shakespeare’s Kisses

Shakespeare talks about kisses in courtship in As You Like It. Rosalind (As Ganymede) instructs Orlando in how to woo: The lesson begins: when he says that he desires to kiss her before speaking, she suggests that he save his kiss for the moment when conversation lags. What, Orlando worries, should he do if his kiss is denied? Rosalind reassures him that a denied kiss would only give him “new matter” to discuss with his lover Act IV, scene i

Romeo and Juliet are the ultimate example of illicit love being a symbol of rebellion. The romance begins and ends with kisses.

When they first meet Romeo has approached Juliet and touched her hand. In a dialogue laced with religious metaphors that figure Juliet as a saint and Romeo as a pilgrim who wishes to erase his sin, he tries to convince her to kiss him, since it is only through her kiss that he might be absolved. Juliet agrees to remain still as Romeo kisses her. Thus, in the terms of their conversation, she takes his sin from him. Juliet then makes the logical leap that if she has taken Romeo’s sin from him, his sin must now reside in her lips, and so they must kiss again. (Act 1, scene 5)

And in the end, Romeo drinks of the poison flask and then kisses Juliet’s prone body “Thus with a kiss I die”.

Kissing BANNED

Emperor Tiberius outlawed kissing from AD14-37 in public ceremonies to stop the spread of a “fungoid disease” called mentagra, which inflamed the hair follicles and which was disfiguring the faces and bodies of noble Romans. Some articles describe this as herpes. (Shakespeare is also thought to have mentioned herpes in Romeo and Juliet  “O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream, Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues” Act 1, Scene IV)

Kissing is again banned on July 16, 1439. Fear of the Black Death lingered for decades especially as there was no explanation to the cause, but by the 15th century, there was some suspicion that humans might spread the plague through their saliva. So, when another outbreak started in the summer of 1439, Parliament petitioned King Henry VI to end the ceremony of knights kissing the king on the mouth when they did him a service.  As a precaution, the king took this a step farther by banning all kissing, with the hope that “small specks” of plague could be kept from spreading. This is believed to be when the greeting kiss moved from the lips to the cheek.

In 1562, officials in Naples, Italy banned kissing in public with the hope that it would stop another outbreak of the plague. Those caught kissing could be sentenced to death.

You may now… breath kiss the bride?

Both Catholic and Prostantant marriage ceremonies allowed for breath kisses as part of the marriage ceremony. This is where you comingle breath (and thus your souls) but your lips do not actually touch.

Ancient Celtic love rituals also used the “breath kiss” to exchange the breath of life, an intrinsic part of courtship.

Certain scholars believe the tradition of putting rings on your betrothed’s finger comes from the resemblance of a ring entering a finger to the act of intercourse.

The idea of the kiss containing your breath/soul is also seen in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, where the princess is woken with a kiss (true love’s kiss).

Kissing Games

Cloven fruit. Oh cloven fruit. The History of the Kiss by Marcel Danesi relates the game of cloven fruit (specifically an apple with cloves) as true history from 16th Century England. However, the tradition of cloven fruit in the SCA originates from the Barony of Carolingia.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe (Not Medieval):

The plant’s romantic overtones most likely started with the Celtic Druids of the 1st century A.D. Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, the Druids came to view it as a sacred symbol of vivacity, and they (and the Greeks) administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility. When the first Christians came to Western Europe, some tried to ban the use of Mistletoe as a decoration in Churches, however many churches continued to do so. The York Minster Church in the UK places a bough of mistletoe on their high alter, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, and performs a special Mistletoe Ceremony in the winter, pardoning wrong doers in the city of York.

Another famous chapter in mistletoe folklore comes from Norse mythology. As the story goes, when the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants of the natural world to secure an oath that they would not harm him. But Frigg neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant and saw that it was used to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur. According to one sunnier version of the myth, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur from the dead. Delighted, Frigg then declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it.

Mistletoe’s associations with fertility and vitality continued through the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that it became widely incorporated into Christmas celebrations. The kissing tradition appears to have first caught on among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing!

A Kiss on the Hand may be Quite Islamic

There are records of hand-kissing in the Islamic Caliphate as early as the 7th century.

In the Roman Catholic Church, a Catholic meeting the Pope or a Cardinal, or even a lower-ranking prelate, will kiss the ring on his hand.

Hand kissing became popular in England during the Industrial Revolution, some say evolving into the handshake.
A hand-kiss was considered a respectful way for gentleman to greet a lady. The practice originated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Spanish courts of the 17th and 18th centuries. The gesture is still at times observed in Central and Eastern Europe, namely, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Russia.

Traditionally, the hand-kiss was initiated by a woman, who offered her hand to a man to kiss. The lady offering her hand was expected to be of the same or higher social status than the man. It was a gesture of courtesy and extreme politeness, and it was considered impolite and even rude to refuse an offered hand. Today, the practice is very uncommon in Northern European countries, and has been largely replaced by a kiss on the cheek or a handshake.


The History of the Kiss!, Marcel Danesi, Palgrave Macmillan; 2013 edition

The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition

History of Kissing from Ancient Rome to Modern Day by Sheril Kirshenbaum The Daily Beast 02/13/11

The art, history and meaning of the kiss. Larry Getlen, The New York Post, November 30, 2013

The Kiss in History, Karen Harvey, Manchester University Press; 1 edition

Kiss and Tell, Kevin Dwyer, Quirk Books

History Begins at Sumer (3rd revised. ed.) Kramer, Samuel Noah (1981)  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press ISBN 978-0812212761.

The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford

The Ancient World According to Terry Jones (Love and Sex) Terry Jones (1998)

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?, By Evan Andrews,, 12/24/13

Embracing an ancient tradition, Yorkshire Post, 12/22/16

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