The History of the Kiss
The Sex eZine - Love & Romance

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An Anthropological and Artistic Look at the History of Lipsmacking

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Kama Sutra

Anthropologists really don't know much about the early history of kissing. It is presumed that it happened as part of courtship and sexual foreplay, and therefore is rather instinctive (many animals also kiss, lick and nuzzle each other), but it was (for whatever reason) rarely depicted in art or writing. Artists/writers may have considered kissing too sexual or private to share publicly.

Kissing allows prospective mates to taste each other's pheromones for biological compatibility. It is a much stronger chemical reaction than merely sniffing each other. Humans also judge potential mates on the quality of the kiss as a sign of a potential lover's personality and ability to commit.

Four Vedic Sanskrit texts written in India around 1500 B.C. describe people kissing, and this is one of the earliest known examples of kissing in literature. Statues made roughly around the same time depicted kisses (ie. Khajuraho India, Chitragupta Temple - The Kiss - c.1000). The Indian epic poem "Mahabharata" describes kissing on the lips as a sign of affection. The "Mahabharata" was passed down orally for several hundred years before being written down and standardized around 350 A.D. The Indian religious text "Vatsyayana Kamasutram," or the "Kama Sutra" also describes a variety of kisses. It was written in the 6th century A.D.

Some anthropologists believe that kissing is a learned cultural behavior and theorize that the Greeks learned about it when Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 B.C., but many other anthropologists disagree and believe kissing was part of courtship rituals for centuries before it was ever recorded.

Kissing was quite popular during the Roman Empire and Romans used kisses to greet friends and family members. Citizens kissed their rulers' hands. The Romans had three different categories for kissing: Osculum was a kiss on the cheek; Basium was a kiss on the lips; Savolium was a deep kiss (what we commonly refer to as French Kissing).

In Rome it was tradition that couples announce their wedding by kissing passionately in front of a group of people, including family. Today modern couples kiss at the end of wedding ceremonies.

The Romans also sealed letters and documents with a kiss and so the term "sealed with a kiss" comes as no surprise. Kisses were used like handshakes to seal legal and business agreements and even during political campaigns.

The British took it one step further with "kisses for votes" scandals in the 18th century which led some candidates to kissing only the very young and very old.

Most cultures around the world kiss today, but there are differing views on the appropriateness of kissing. In the 1990s there was a trend of young people kissing in public in Japan, where kissing had traditionally been viewed as a private activity and scandalous to be done publicly.

Religious Kissing

Like the Romans, early Christians often greeted one another with an osculum pacis, an holy kiss on the cheek. According to tradition, the holy kiss caused a transfer of spirit between the two people kissing. Some historians believe this was the result of the church wanting to foster a sense of "brotherly love amongst the clergy", but could also have been the result of rampant homosexuality within the clergy. (See Papal Impropriety.)

In the 13th century the Catholic Church substituted a pax board, which the congregation kissed instead of kissing one another. The Protestant Reformation in the 1500s removed kissing from religious services entirely. The holy kiss doesn't usually play a role in modern Christian religious services, although some Christians do kiss religious symbols, including the Pope's ring.


Works of literature like "Romeo and Juliet" have portrayed kisses as dangerous or deadly when shared between the wrong people. Some folklorists and literary critics view kissing as a form of physical vampirism, symbolic of the physical and emotional dangers that can come from kissing the wrong person.

The Holy Bible (in the gospels of Matthew and Mark) for example shows the betrayal of Judas by singling out Jesus with a kiss, while Sleeping Beauty is awakened by a princely kiss and stories of succubi tell of women sucking the life out of men with a kiss (ie. Hans Baldung Grien - Death and the Maiden - 1518-20 or John William Waterhouse - La Belle Dame Sans Merci - 1893).

In the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (an older version of Sleeping Beauty) a romantic kiss is used by a male to awaken or breathe life into a female statue (ie. Jean Leon Gerome - Pygmalion and Galatea - c.1890).

In modern American versions of the fairy tale "Frog Prince" it is the male who is transformed into the prince from the frog kissed by the beautiful female princess. A similar account occurs in "Beauty and the Beast".

French Kissing

A French kiss, tongue kiss, pash, snog or deep kiss is a passionate romantic or sexual kiss in which one participant's tongue touches the other's tongue (or lips) and usually enters his/her mouth.

Although family members may sometimes kiss on the lips, a kiss using the tongue almost always indicates a romantic relationship. French kissing stimulates the lips, tongue and mouth, which are all areas very sensitive to touch. It is considered by many to be both very pleasurable and highly intimate.

Unlike other forms of "casual" kissing (such as brief kisses of greeting or friendship), episodes of French kissing will often be prolonged, intense, and passionate. Because of the intimacy associated with it, in many regions of the world tongue kissing in public is not acceptable to most, particularly for an extended time. In Israel, legal precedent has been set for considering a French kiss without consent, as opposed to a kiss without involvement of the tongue, indecent behavior.

In a tongue kiss participants exchange saliva, something which would be considered disgusting in other contexts. Although most sexually transmitted diseases are not transmitted by kissing, the exchange of saliva in a French kiss may increase the chances of catching an orally transmitted disease. Infectious mononucleosis (American: Mononucleosis or, colloquially, "mono"; European: glandular fever), a disease spread through saliva, is colloquially referred to as "the kissing disease."

A French kiss is often used by lovers to express their intimate feelings toward each other, whether in passing or as a prelude to sexual intercourse (as a part of foreplay). French kissing also occurs frequently throughout actual intercourse. A French kiss is thus a highly intimate affair, and in a manner of speaking symbolizes a side of the physical love one has for the other. In essence it can also be called a passionate or loving kiss.

Homosexual Kisses

Generally speaking kissing between two women is much more accepted in Western culture. Two men kissing usually means politicians meeting foreign dignitaries.

In some countries kissing is only considered proper when between two men, two women, or parents kissing their children. Traditionally kissing between two men on the lips as a greeting or a farewell was as normal as the modern Western handshake. The rise of various plagues and widespread illness caused this custom to become frowned upon in Western culture.

At the Diocleia festival at Megara a kissing contest was held in which boys would kiss a male judge, who awarded a laurel wreath to the boy he deemed the best kisser.

Lord Nelson, the British naval commander, famously requested "Kiss me, Hardy", as he lay dying (they were not his last words).

The history of homosexual kisses is relatively short and has few examples in art history or film. There is Tanya Chalkin's photograph of two women kissing, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec's The Kiss and also Kissing in the Bed and of course plenty of erotica and X-rated material, but not many popular art examples.

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Kissing in Film

The first kiss on film was in 1896 and made by Thomas Edison. "The Kiss" features the first known screen kiss, a forty-seven second recreation of a stage kiss from the musical The Widow Jones. The movie was considered scandalous at the time of its release but has since entered film history as one of the most memorable early films.

Andy Warhol made an avant-garde film, the kiss, closeups of couples kissing.

The first interracial kiss shown on television was between characters Uhura and Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series.

Examples of Kissing in Art

Khajuraho India, Chitragupta Temple - The Kiss - c.1000

India - Mithuna - c.1250

Briseis Painter - Lover and Beloved Kissing - 480 BC

Hans Baldung Grien - Death and the Maiden - 1518-20

Palma Vecchio - Jacob Rachel - c.1525

Bronzino - Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time - c.1545

Francois Boucher - Hercules and Omphale - c.1730

Jean Honore Fragonard - The Stolen Kiss - 175661

Jean Honore Fragonard - The Stolen Kiss - 1787-88

Antonio Canova - Cupid and Psyche - 1787-93

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - Paolo and Francesca - 1819

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) - A Kiss in the Kitchen - Date Unknown

Francesco Hayez - The Kiss - 1859

Pierre Auguste Renoir - Dance at Bougival - 1883

Sir Frank Dicksee - Romeo and Juliet - 1884

Auguste Rodin - The Kiss (White Version)- 1886

Auguste Rodin - The Kiss (Black Version)- 1886

Jean Leon Gerome - Pygmalion and Galatea - c.1890

Camille Claudel - The Waltz - 1891-1893

John William Waterhouse - La Belle Dame Sans Merci - 1893

Sir Frank Dicksee - La Belle Dame Sans Merci - Date Unknown

Edvard Munch - The Kiss - 1902

Gustav Klimt - The Kiss - 1907-08

Contantin Brancusi - The Kiss - 1908

Marc Chagall - The Birthday Kiss - 1915

Alfred Eisenstaedt - V-J Day at Times Square, New York City - 1945

Robert Doisneau - Le Baiser de l'Hotel-de-Ville - 1950

Roy Lichtenstein - The Kiss - 1962

Yoko Ono - The Kiss - Date Unknown

J. Seward Johnson - Unconditional Surrender - Date Unknown

Tanya Chalkin - Kiss - Date Unknown

Charles Moffat - Love Ripple - 1997

Charles Moffat - Eternal Lovers - 1998

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