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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Human branding is the process in which a mark, usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, is burned into the skin of a living person, with the intention that the resulting scar makes it permanent. This is performed using a hot or very cold branding iron. It therefore uses the physical techniques of livestock branding on a human, either with consent as a form of body modification; or under coercion, as a punishment or imposing masterly rights over an enslaved or otherwise oppressed person.

Modern strike branding



The English verb to burn, attested since the 12th century, is a combination of Old Norse brenna "to burn, light," and two originally distinct Old English verbs: bærnan "to kindle" (transitive) and beornan "to be on fire" (intransitive), both from the Proto-Germanic root bren(wanan), perhaps from a Proto-Indo-European root bhre-n-u, from base root bhereu- "to boil forth, well up." In Dutch, (ver)branden mean "to burn", brandmerk a branded mark; similarly, in German, Brandzeichen means "brand" and brandmarken, "to brand."

Sometimes the word cauterize, known in English since 1541, via Medieval French cauteriser from Late Latin cauterizare "to burn or brand with a hot iron", itself from Greek kauteriazein, from kauter "burning or branding iron," from kaiein "to burn" is used. However cauterization is now generally understood to mean a medical process - specifically to stop bleeding.

Historical use

Marking the rightless

The origin may be the - symbolically dehumanizing - treatment in Antiquity of a slave (by the harshest definition legally not even a person) as mere livestock: just a biological entity owned and sold for arbitrary use and abuse (as agricultural work unit, house slave or toy).

  • European, American and other colonial slavers branded millions of slaves during the period of trans-Atlantic enslavement. Sometimes there were several brandings, e.g. for the Portuguese crown and the (consecutive) private owner(s), an extra cross after baptisement as well as by African slave catchers.

To a slave owner it would be logical to mark his property on two legs just like cattle, or even more since humans are more adroit at escaping.

  • The Greeks branded slaves with a Delta, Δ, for Δουλος doulos "slave".
  • Runaway slaves were marked by the Romans with the letters FUG (for fugitivus).
  • An intermediate case between formal slavery and criminal law is when a convict is branded and legally reduced, with or without time limit, to a slave-like status, such as on the galleys (in France branded GAL or TF travaux forcés 'forced labour' until 1832), in a penal colony, or auctioned to a private owner.

As punishment

In criminal law, branding with a hot iron was a mode of punishment by which marking the subject as if goods or animals, sometimes concurrently with their reduction of status in like.

Brand marks have also been used as a punishment for convicted criminals, combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public humiliation (greatest if marked on a normally visible part of the body) which is here the more important intention, and with the imposition of an indelible criminal record. Robbers, like runaway slaves, were marked by the Romans with the letter F (fur); and the toilers in the mines, and convicts condemned to figure in gladiatorial shows, were branded on the forehead for identification. Under Constantine I the face was not permitted to be so disfigured, the branding being on the hand, arm or calf.

The Acts of Sharbil record it applied between the eyes and on the cheeks in Parthian Edessa at the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan on a judge's order to a Christian for refusal to sacrifice, amongst other tortures.

In the 16th century, German Anabaptists were branded with a cross on their foreheads for refusing to recant their faith and join the Roman Catholic church.[1]

In the North-American Puritan settlements of the 17th century, men and women sentenced for having committed acts of adultery were branded with an "A" letter on their chest (men) or bosom (women).

The mark in later times was also often chosen as a code for the crime (e.g. in Canadian military prisons D for Desertion, BC for Bad Character, most branded men were shipped off to a penal colony). Branding was used for a time by the Union Army during the American Civil War. Surgeon and Oxford English Dictionary contributor William Chester Minor was required to perform human branding on deserters at around the time of the Battle of the Wilderness.

The canon law sanctioned the punishment, and in France, in royal times, various offences carried the additional infamy of being branded with a fleur de lys, also galley-slaves could be branded GAL or once the galleys were replaced by the "bagne"s on land TF (travaux forcés, 'forced' labor, i.e. hard labour) or TFP (travaux forcés à perpetuité, forced labour for life) until 1832. In Germany however, branding was illegal.

Branding tended to be abolished like other judicial mutilations (with notable exceptions, such as amputation under sharia law), sooner and more widely than flogging, caning and similar corporal punishments, which normally aim 'only' to pain and at worst cause stripe scars, although the most severe lashings (not uncommon in penal colonies) in terms of dosage and instrument (such as the proverbial knout) can even turn out to be lethal.

Branding in Britain

The punishment was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, and the ancient law of England authorized the penalty. By the Statute of Vagabonds (1547) under King Edward VI, vagabonds and Gypsies were ordered to be branded with a large V on the breast, and brawlers with F for "fravmaker"; slaves who ran away were branded with S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in 1550. From the time of Henry VII, branding was inflicted for all offences which received Benefit of clergy (branding of the thumbs was used around 1600 at Old Bailey to ensure that the accused who had successfully used the Benefit of Clergy defence, by reading a passage from the Bible, could not use it more than once), but it was abolished for such in 1822. In 1698 it was enacted that those convicted of petty theft or larceny, who were entitled to benefit of clergy, should be "burnt in the most visible part of the left cheek, nearest the nose." This special ordinance was repealed in 1707. James Nayler, a Quaker who in the year 1655 was accused of claiming to be the Messiah, convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicized trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament and had his tongue bored through and his forehead branded B for 'blasphemer'.

In the Lancaster criminal court a branding iron is still preserved in the dock. It is a long bolt with a wooden handle at one end and an M (malefactor) at the other; close by are two iron loops for firmly securing the hands during the operation. The brander would, after examination, turn to the judge exclaiming "A fair mark, my lord." Criminals were formerly ordered to hold up their hands before sentence to show if they had been previously convicted.

In the 18th century, cold branding or branding with cold irons became the mode of nominally inflicting the punishment on prisoners of higher rank. "When Charles Moritz, a young German, visited England in 1782 he was much surprised at this custom, and in his diary mentioned the case of a clergyman who had fought a duel and killed his man in Hyde Park. Found guilty of manslaughter he was burnt in the hand, if that could be called burning which was done with a cold iron" (Markham's Ancient Punishments of Northants, 1886).

Such cases

Persisting practices

  • Generally voluntary, though often under severe social pressure, branding may be used as a painful form of initiation, serving both as endurance and motivation test (rite of passage) and a permanent membership mark, seen as male bonding in violent 'macho' circles. Branding is thus practiced:
    • By some street gangs
    • In organized crime as "stripes" to signify a violent crime that the person committed. Typically on the upper arm or upper torso.
    • In prisons
    • As an extreme initiation in the increasingly less common tradition of painful hazing (otherwise mostly paddling).
  • Branding can be used as a strictly voluntary body decoration, permanent body art rather like many tattoos.
  • In the sadomasochistic scene, it is practiced as a form of bodily mutilation with consent. See: Branding (BDSM)
  • In extreme BDSM dominance and submission relationships, a consensual slave may desire/accept a branding as a mark of belonging and commitment (possibly to slavery rather than to the specific master).

Branding in Vaishnava Sect of Hinduism in South India[citation needed]

Branding is prevalent in the "Vaishnavism" sect of Hinduism since its foundation.[citation needed] Vaishnavism stresses submission to worship of Vishnu or his associated avatars, principally Rama and Krishna, as the original and supreme God. "Narada Panchratra" The oldest text which describes the five-fold process of initiation to the Vaishnava faith, gives elaborate description of the process of branding the aspirant body with sacred symbols "Panchjanaya Shankha" (conch shell held by Vishnu) and Sudarshana Chakra (Divine Disk). This process of religious branding of humans is called "Taapa" [2] or "Samasanam", the first among the fivefold initiation process including of "Taapa" (branding), "Pundhra" (smearing forehead with special V like symbol signifying feet of lord), naama (special naming of person in accordance to principles of canon), "mantra" (sacred syllable for chanting) and "yoga" (the mode of meditation and worship). The branding process in religious initiation of Vaishnava sect involves elaborate set of rituals. The aspirant is told to sit beside the sacred fire burning in 'Kunda' (the alter to keep sacred religious fire) after ablution with sacred water and mantra-chanting. The spiritual master 'Guru' and his aspirant 'sishaya' perform 'homam' (offering of grains, herbs, wood and clarified butter to lord Vishnu in fire). After completion of this process branding strike shaped as 'Chakra' and 'Shankha', usually made up of gold, silver and copper alloy, are heated in the sacrificial fire and till it become red hot and the devotee's body is marked with these strikes at shoulders along with chanting of mantra. This process is believed to purify body, mind and soul, essential for evoking divine grace in the devotee.

In Film

  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow is shown as having a P branded on his left forearm, for "pirate".
  • In the movie Angels and Demons the four cardinals are each branded with a separate ambigram, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and the Camerlengo brands himself with two crossed upside-down keys to frame the Head of the Swiss Guard. (In the book version, he brands himself with the "Illuminati Diamond," an amalgamation of all four of the ambigrammatic brands that itself is also ambigrammatic.)

See also



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