From 'Physical Absurdity' to Valentine's Day, the History of Kissing

A kiss may be just a kiss, but when you pucker up with your sweetheart this Valentine's Day, you are participating in a tradition which has been shunned and even banned for millennia in Western culture, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University, is one of the world's foremost experts on the history of kissing.

He says in Europe right up to the mid 18th Century, the romantic kiss was largely unknown for many reasons.

One, Bryant says, was that modern dental and oral hygiene was unknown, and most people suffered from tooth and gum decay as early as their twenties, which made mouth to mouth kissing pretty gross.

"Personal hygiene was really quite bad, and, of course you had various plagues that would occur, and people thought that the plagues were transmitted by touching."

He says several Popes, in the days when Christianity was the dominant force in the culture, actually banned kissing, one even declaring kissing for 'carnal pleasure' to be a 'mortal sin.'

Bryant says throughout most of Western history, dating back to the days of Alexander the Great in the 300s BC and before, kissing was mainly a public sign of loyalty and respect.  You would kiss the Queen's hand or the Pope's ring, and, in the days before military insignia designated rank in an army, kissing was a public show of who was in charge in the unit.  Men would kiss other men on the foot, on the hand, or on the cheek, to publicly display their rank in society.

Bryant says the kiss is believed to have come from the ancient custom of smelling a person upon introduction, a custom which is still in place in many Pacific islands.  He says each individual has a unique smell around the contours of their nose, and the 'sniff kiss' was an early sign of greeting.

So how did was get to the point where we kissed for sexual pleasure>

Bryant says the romantic kiss is believed to have originated in India, where it is prominently displayed in several of the subcontinent's famous 'sex manuals.'

"By the time of the Kama Sutra, which is around the first century, we find that there are some 250 passages in the Kama Sutra on how to kiss."

The book, and the concept of romantic kissing was brought back to Europe from India by French and English sailors, merchants, and pilgrims in the mid 18th Century, and while it began to catch on, there were many who remained suspicious.  The early 19th Century British diplomat G.M. Trevelyan famously referred to the descriptions of sexual and romantic kissing as 'physical absurdities.'

But gradually, especially as oral hygiene and, later, depictions of kissing in popular media began to expand, the practice took hold.

So, Happy Valentine's Day.


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