Piercing the tongue has been around for many moons. It has been traced back to the Mayans of Central America and Ancient Aztecs. Mayan people pierced their tongues regularly by bloodletting for ceremonies and rituals. To increase the blood flow, they would draw a string back and forth through the hole (McNab). It is has also been discovered that Mayan women would pull a thorn covered rope through a hole in their tongues in a ritualistic fashion. This was done as a blood sacrifice as an offering and to honor their Deities.
Tongue piercing has also been practiced by the Haida, Kwakiutl, and Tlingit tribes of the American Northwest. The shamans would pierce their tongues to create altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the powers that be and was considered a very holy practice.
In the Middle East Fakirs and Sufis also pierced their tongues as a sacrifice and to induce trance states. Fakirs are Holy men in India that are believed to have supernatural powers. They can walk on burning coals, pierce their body parts, and other acts without harm to their bodies. It is in a trance state that makes this possible for them. It is in this trance state that Sufis are also able to pierce their tongues and other acts to the body without bleeding or harm done. Further East, Asian Spirit Mediums also pierced their tongues for the same purpose. In Australia Aboriginal holy men also pierce their tongues though the reason has not yet been recorded.
During the turn of the twentieth century, western carnies learned to pierce their tongues from Fakirs. They brought this practice to a sideshow performance setting. It was the American and European folk’s first sightings of such practices.
During the Ecstatic Penang Thaipusam Festival in Thailand, one can see ritual tongue piercing on the streets as well as many other piercings. This festival is a major Hindu festival and it is a day of consecration to the Hindu deity, Lord Murugan. During the festival, those that are pierced enter a trance state. In this state next to no blood is spilled and no pain is felt.
In the modern historical sense, the piercing was “first” done on Tattoo Sammy, a German artist, using a 10ga Dermal Punch in 1978 (documented in PFIQ if memory serves). In addition, Ripley’s Archive contains photos of sideshow performers not long into the 20th century wearing barbells in what appear to be healed tongue piercings (Tongue Piercing).
Paul King believes Elayne Angel to popularize the tongue piercing in modern day culture. She is recognized as being the first person with a tongue tip and multiple tongue piercings.
Tongue piercing today has quite the following with celebrities such as Janet Jackson, Keith Flint, Mel B and Malcolm Jamahl Warner from The Cosby Show.
In today’s culture, the popular tongue piercing is very provocative and is mostly practiced to enhance* oral sex and other sexual acts as well as making a fashion statement.
*Note: It may only enhance. It cannot improve someone’s sexual skill. The piercing cannot do for you what you cannot do for yourself.
McNab, N. Body Bizarre Body Beautiful. new york: simon & schister.