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The History Of Kissing: Why Do We Kiss Each Other And Where Did It Come From?

Ancient History | August 26, 2020

Frescoes of the Baronial Hall (15th century), detail, Della Manta Castle, Manta (Cuneo), Piedmont. Italy, 13th–16th century. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

From a long, passionate kiss to a peck on the cheek to a smooch goodbye, kissing is a key component of our culture and an important ingredient in our relationships. But when did humans first start locking lips, and why? Not all cultures in history practiced kissing, so it seems like it must be something more than instinctual. Whatever the case, the history of kissing goes back much further than our modern notions of love and manners.

Kama ("desire, wish, or longing") scenes at a Hindu temple. (Kandukuru Nagarjun/Wikimedia Commons)

India, Alexander, And The Middle Ages

According to India's Vedic Sanskrit texts, circa 1500 B.C.E., people in India rubbed foreheads and noses together as a form of greeting. Several centuries later, the epic Indian poem Mahabharata described lip-on-lip kissing, while the Kama Sutra, a classic guide to all things erotic written around the third century C.E., includes numerous tips on kissing techniques. It's thought that Alexander the Great brought the practice of kissing back with him to Europe after he invaded India in the fourth century C.E.

A medieval ceremony of homage, sealed with a kiss. (Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

X Marks The Spot

From the classical era through the Middle Ages, kissing served many functions beyond romance. It could be used to seal business or political deals or as a form of greeting, particularly between men. By the Middle Ages, everybody was kissing everybody across Europe, but the practice was governed by specific rules based on social standing. One could only kiss someone at their own level on the lips, and superiors had to be kissed on the hand, check, foot, or knee. If the object of their kissy desire was a real big shot, they resorted to kissing the ground in front of them.

By the 14th century, the Catholic Church was becoming increasingly concerned about kissing, which they viewed as a gateway to other carnal acts, and more secular authorities were soon troubled by its potential for spreading the Plague. Pope Clement V issued a decree at the Council of Vienna in 1311–1312 to forbid "holy kissing," or the use of kissing as a gesture of peace and goodwill during church services, and Henry VI outright banned kissing in England in 1439 for Plague reasons. Instead, people were asked to use no-contact gestures, including bowing, tipping one's hat, and curtsying, as a form of greeting. The Catholic Church allowed their adherents to go so far as a handshake, and Catholics today still use the handshake in lieu of a kiss when they wish "Peace be with you." By the 18th century, hand kissing and handshaking had replaced full-on making out in the cultural zeitgeist.

Painting of a samurai and his lover, c. 1750. (Miyagawa Isshô/Wikimedia Commons)

Kissing Around The World

Ask any middle-schooler, and they will tell you that the French kiss with their tongues. That very well may be true, but they weren't the first to give themselves credit for it. It's thought that British and American soldiers during World War II coined the term "French kissing" after encounters with "sexually adventurous French nationals," but the French didn't have a specific word for the act until galocher, a slang term meaning "to kiss with tongues," was officially added to the dictionary in 2014.

It would horrify people in certain Asian cultures. In many parts of Asia, such as Thailand, lip-to-lip kissing was akin to cannibalism, and to this day, public displays of affection are uncommon. Hawn-gaem (A.K.A. sniff kissing, in which a person simply presses their nose against another's cheek or forehead and inhales deeply) is more common in these countries, as well as New Zealand and the islands of Polynesia.

Early European travelers to Japan believed that the Japanese people did not kiss because they never witnessed the practice, but what they didn't realize was that the ancient Japanese considered kissing an intimate act that was kept in the bedroom and not openly discussed. It seems that the Japanese loosened up a bit after contact with the Europeans, but public kissing was still frowned upon as recently as 50 years ago. In fact, the Japanese did not even have a word for kissing in their language. They borrowed one from English, kisu

"The cave boy of the age of stone." (Margaret A. McIntyre/Wikimedia Commons)

Kissing As Feeding

But why do we do this weird, unsanitary act? Some scientists believe that humans began kissing as a result of mouth-to-mouth feeding between mothers and their children. Many mammals chew tough food for their offspring to help them digest it, and early humans were among them. They would then transfer the semi-masticated meal from their mouth to their child's, and people eventually realized that it felt kinda good and started doing it for fun rather than survival. This doesn't explain why some civilizations didn't kiss until Alexander got around, however. We may never have a great explanation, but honestly, does it really matter? Just smooch while the smoochin's good.

Tags: ancient love | kissing | science

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.