Ötzi the Iceman has been mentioned a few times on the I-Kandy blog, and for good reason. The approximately 5300 year old natural mummy radically altered the known history of body modification; he had tattoos and piercings that had, until then, only been found on much younger mummies and in more recent cultures. Of particular interest to many were his seemingly stretched earlobes. Before his discovery, stretched lobes had been pretty well exclusively associated with African and Asian cultures, going as far back as Egypt’s famed pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, one of the first known people to have them. Ötzi is two thousand years older, and thousands of miles removed from Tut, however, which tells us the practice of stretching is both much older and more global than we had thought.
There are several famous examples of ear stretching, which offer us a bit of insight into the hows and whys of the practice. Both Tutankhamun and Gautama Buddha likely had stretched ears to symbolize their status: large jewels, unavailable to the common folk, would be worn in the ears, and the weight and size of them would cause the ears to stretch tremendously. It is said that when the Buddha renounced his earthly riches, he removed the jewels, but his ears remained elongated. This became a symbol of his sacrifice, and he was henceforth depicted with long, bare ears. The Moai statues of Easter Island sport very long ears, which may serve to elevate the status of their ancestors, whom the statues are thought to represent. One Moai myth even separates the tribes of the time into the “Long Ears” and “Short Ears”. Several Hindu and pre-Hindu deities are depicted with jewel-filled stretched lobes as well, which indicate a wisdom and wealth well beyond the average person. While all of these cultures and eras differed greatly, it seems that for all of them, stretched lobes were indicative of a higher status.
Status is not the only reason to stretch, however. Tribal cultures worldwide have long engaged in the same practice, but for very different reasons. From Kenya to Thailand, stretched lobes and lips symbolise religious beliefs, coming of age rituals, and exercises in patience and devotion. Several ancient cultures believed that spirits could enter a body through its orifices, and that metal could ward them off. The more metal one could place in their ears, the safer they would be, so stretched lobes were more practical than anything. Others saw stretching as a way to mark moments of enlightenment and understanding – the larger the hole, the wiser the wearer.
Today, stretching has become a common practice worldwide, largely for aesthetic purposes, and to some extent, as a way to reconnect with ancient cultures. Jewelry designed for stretched lobes has become a multi-million dollar industry, and techniques are constantly being refined. In this sense, professional piercers are also historians of sorts, many having researched and experimented with the various types and methods of stretching. Slow and steady is still, however, the oldest, safest, and most satisfying way to approach the practice. When it comes to stretching, “patience is a virtue” is both literally and figuratively true for us “long ears”.