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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mutilation or maiming is an act or physical injury that degrades the appearance or function of any living body, usually without causing death.


Usage of term

The term is usually used to describe the victims of accidents, torture, physical assault, or certain premodern forms of punishment. Mutilation can also refer to forgery of documents, letters and brochures, letters of recommendation and other pieces of evidence or testimony.

The traditional Chinese practices of língchí and foot binding are forms of mutilation that have captured the imagination of Westerners, as well as the now tourist centered "long-neck" people, a sub-group of the Karen known as the Padaung where women wear brass rings around their neck.[1] The act of tattooing is also considered a form of self-mutilation according to some cultural traditions, such as within the Muslim religion.[2][3] A joint statement released by numerous United Nations and other international bodies oppose female genital cutting (female circumcision) as a form of mutilation.[4] Denniston et al. have argued that male circumcision is a form of mutilation;[5] their arguments have been criticised by Benatar and Benatar.[6]

Some tribes practice some ritual mutilation, e.g. scarification, as part of a rite of passage (e.g. initiation ritual). (injury)|burning]], flagellation or wheeling. In some cases, the term may apply to treatment of dead bodies, such as soldiers mutilated after they have been killed by an enemy.

Use as punishment

Maiming, or mutilation which involves the loss of, or incapacity to use, a bodily member, is and has been practised by many societies with various cultural and religious significances, and is also a customary form of physical punishment, especially applied on the principle of an eye for an eye.

The Araucanian warrior Galvarino suffered this punishment as a prisoner during the Spanish conquest of Chile.

In law, maiming is a criminal offence; the old law term for a special case of maiming of persons was mayhem, an Anglo-French variant form of the word.

Maiming of animals by others than their owners is a particular form of the offence generally grouped as malicious damage. For the purpose of the law as to this offence animals are divided into cattle, which includes horses, pigs and asses, and other animals which are either subjects of larceny at common law or are usually kept in confinement or for domestic purposes.

In Britain under the Malicious Damage Act 1861 the punishment for maiming of cattle was three to fourteen years penal servitude; malicious injury to other animals is a misdemeanour punishable on summary conviction. For a second offence the penalty is imprisonment with hard labor for over twelve months. Maiming of animals by their owner falls under the Cruelty to Animals Acts. Usually this takes place where no government will find them but sometimes, in very rare circumstances, this may be used as a punishment for unthinkable crimes.

Mutilation as human punishment

In times when even judicial physical punishment was still commonly allowed to cause not only intense pain and public humiliation during the administration but also to inflict permanent physical damage, or even deliberately intended to mark the criminal for life by docking or branding, one of the common anatomical target areas not normally under permanent cover of clothing (so particularly merciless in the long term) were the ears.

In England, for example, various pamphleteers attacking the religious views of the Anglican episcopacy under William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had their ears cut off for those writings: in 1630 Dr. Alexander Leighton and in 1637 still other Puritans, John Bastwick, Henry Burton and William Prynne.

In Scotland one of the Covenanters, James Gavin of Douglas, Lanarkshire, had his ears cut off for refusing to renounce his religious faith.

Notably in various jurisdictions of colonial British North America even relatively minor crimes, such as hog stealing, were punishable by having one's ears nailed to the pillory and slit loose, or even completely cropped; a counterfeiter would be branded on top (for that crime, considered lèse majesté, the older mirror punishment was boiling in oil).

Independence did not render American justice any less bloody. For example in the future state of Tennessee, an example of harsh 'frontier law' under the 1780 Cumberland Compact took place in 1793 when Judge John McNairy sentenced Nashville's first horse thief, John McKain, Jr., to be fastened to a wooden stock one hour for 39 lashes, and have his ears cut off and cheeks branded with the letters "H" and "T".

In Sharia law, mutilation is, in certain cases, used as a punishment for crimes. For example, thieves may be punished by having a hand amputated.

Another example from a non-western culture is that of Nebahne Yohannes, an unsuccessful claimant to the Ethiopian imperial throne who had his ears and nose cut off, yet was then freed. This form of mutilation against unsuccessful claimants to thrones has been in use in middle-eastern regions for thousands of years. To qualify as a king, formerly, one had to exemplify perfection. Obvious physical deformities such as missing noses, ears, or lips, are thereby sufficient disqualifications. The victim in these cases is typically freed alive to act (a) as an example to others, and (b) as no longer a threat.


  1. ^ Karen Long Neck hilltribe - Padaung, Northern Thailand
  2. ^ What Islam Says on Tattoos - - Ask The Scholar
  3. ^ Can I lead others? I have tattoos on my body
  4. ^ (pdf) Eliminating Female genital mutilation - An interagency statement, World Health Organization, ISBN 978 9241596442,  
  5. ^ Denniston, G. C., F. M. Hodges, M. F. Milos (1999). "Preface". Male and female circumcision: Medical legal and ethical considerations in pediatric practice. Kluwer. pp. i–vii.  
  6. ^ Benatar M, Benatar D (2003). "Between prophylaxis and child abuse: the ethics of neonatal male circumcision". Am J Bioeth 3 (2): 35–48. doi:10.1162/152651603766436216. PMID 12859815.  

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

MUTILATION (from Lat. mutilus, maimed). The wounding, maiming and disfiguring of the body is a practice common among savages and systematically pursued by many entire races. The varieties of mutilation are as numerous as the instances of it are widespread. Nearly every part of the body is the object of mutilation, and nearly every motive common to human beings - vanity, religion, affection, prudence - has acted in giving rise to what has been proved to be a custom of great antiquity. Some forms, such as tattooing and depilation, have stayed on as practices even after civilization has banished the more brutal types; and a curious fact is that analogous mutilations are found observed by races separated by vast distances, and proved to have had no relations with one another, at any rate in historic times. Ethnical mutilations have in certain races a great sociological value. It is only after submission to some such operation that the youth is admitted to full tribal rights (see Initiation). Tattooing, too, has a semireligious importance, as when an individual bears a representation of his totem on his body; and many mutilations are tribe marks, or brands used to know slaves.

Mutilations may be divided into: (1) those of the skin; (2) of the face and head; (3) of the body and limbs; (4) of the teeth; (5) of the sexual organs.

i. The principal form of skin-mutilation is tattooing (q.v.), the ethnical importance of which is very great. A practice almost as common is depilation, or removal of hair. This is either by means of the razor, e.g. in Japan, by depilatories, or by tearing out the hairs separately, as among most savage peoples. The parts thus mutilated are usually the eyebrows, the face, the scalp and the pubic regions. Many African natives tear out all the body hair, some among them (e.g. the Bongos) using special pincers. Depilation is common, too, in the South Sea Islands. The Andaman islanders and the Botocudos of Brazil shave the body, using shell-edges and other primitive instruments.

2. Mutilations of the face and head are usually restricted to the lips, ears, nose and cheeks. The lips are simply perforated or distended to an extraordinary degree. The Botocudos insert disks of wood into the lower lip. Lip-mutilations are common in North America, too, on the Mackenzie river and among the Aleutians. In Africa they are frequently practised. The Manganja women pierce the upper lips and introduce small metal shields or rings. The Mittu women bore the lower lip and thrust a wooden peg through. In other tribes little sticks of rock crystal are pushed through, which jingle together as the wearer talks. The women of Senegal increase the natural thickness of the upper lip by pricking it repeatedly until it is permanently inflamed and swollen. The ear, and particularly the lobe, is almost universally mutilated, from the earrings of the civilized West to the wooden disks of the Botocudos. The only peoples who are said not to wear any form of ear ornament are the Andaman islanders, the Neddahs, the Bushmen, the Fuegians and certain tribes of Sumatra. Ear mutilation in its most exaggerated form is practised in Indo-China by the Mois of Annam and the Penangs of Cambodia, and in Borneo by the Dyaks. They extend the lobe by the insertion of wooden disks, and by metal rings and weights, until it sometimes reaches the shoulder. In Africa and Asia earrings sometimes weigh nearly half a pound. Livingstone said that the natives of the Zambesi distend the perforation in the lobe to such a degree that the hand closed could be passed through. The Monbuttus thrust through a perforation in the body of the ear rolls of leaves, or of leather, or cigarettes. The Papuans, the inhabitants of the New Hebrides, and most Melanesian peoples carry all sorts of things in their ears, the New Caledonians using them as pipe-racks. Many races disfigure the nose with perforations. The young dandies of New Guinea bore holes through the septum and thrust through pieces of bone or flowers, a mutilation found, too, among New Zealanders, Australians, New Caledonians and other Polynesian races. In Africa the Bagas and Bongos hang metal rings and buckles on their noses; the Aleutians cords, bits of metal or amber. In women it is the side of the nose which is usually perforated; rings and jewelled pendants (as among Indian and Arabic women, the ancient Egyptians and Jews), or feathers, flowers, coral, &c. (as in Polynesia), being hung there. Only one side of the nose is usually perforated, and this is not always merely decorative. It may denote social position, as among the Ababdes in Africa, whose unmarried girls wear no rings in their noses. The male Kulus of the Himalaya wear a large ring in the left nostril. Malays and Polynesians sometimes deform the nose by enlarging its base, effecting this by compression of the nasal bones of the newly born.

The cheeks are not so frequently mutilated. The people of the Aleutian and Kurile Islands bore holes through their cheeks and place in them the long hairs from the muzzles of seals. The Guaranis of South America wear feathers in the same manner. In some countries the top of the head or the skin behind the ears of children. is burnt to preserve them from sickness, traces of which mutilation are said to be discoverable on some neolithic skulls; while some African tribes cut and prick the neck close to the ear. By many peoples the deformation of the skull was anciently practised. Herodotus, Hippocrates and Strabo mention such a custom among peoples of the Caspian and Crimea. Later similar practices were found existing among Chinese mendicant sects, some tribes of Turkestan, the Japanese priesthood, in Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and the south seas. In Europe it was not unknown. But the discovery of America brought to our knowledge those races which made a fine art of skull-deformities. At the present day the custom is still observed by the Haidas and Chinooks, and by certain tribes of Peru and on the Amazon, by the Kurds of Armenia, by certain Malay peoples, in the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides. The reasons for this type of mutilation are uncertain. Probably the idea of distinguishing themselves from lower races was predominant in most cases, as for example in that of the Chinook Indians, who deformed the skull to distinguish themselves from their slaves. Or it may have been through a desire to give a ferocious appearance to their warriors. The deformation was always done at infancy, and often in the case of both sexes. It was, however, more usually reserved for boys, and sometimes for a single caste, as at Tahiti. Different methods prevailed: by bands, bandages, boards, compresses of clay and sandbags, a continued pressure was applied to the half-formed cranial bones to give them the desired shape. Hand-kneading may also possibly have been employed.

3. Mutilations of the body or limbs by maiming, lopping off or deforming, are far from rare. Certain races (Bushmen, Kaffirs and Hottentots) cut off the finger joints as a sign of mourning, especially for parents. The Tongans do the same, in the belief that the evil spirits which bring diseases into the body would escape by the wound. Diseased children are thus mutilated by them. Contempt for female timidity has caused a curious custom among the Gallas (Africa). They amputate the mammae of boys soon after birth, believing no warrior can possibly be brave who possesses them. The fashion of distorting the feet of Chinese ladies of high rank has been of long continuance and only recently prohibited.

4. Mutilations of the teeth are among the most common and the most varied. They are by breaking, extracting, filing, inlaying or cutting away the crown of the teeth. Nearly every variety of dental mutilation is met with in Africa. In a tribe north-east of the Albert Nyanza it is usual to pry out with a piece of metal the four lower incisors in children of both sexes. The women of certain tribes on the Senegal force the growth of the upper incisors outwards so as to make them project beyond the lower lips. Many of the aboriginal tribes of Australia extract teeth, and at puberty the Australian boys have a tooth knocked out. The Eskimos of the Mackenzie River cut down the crown of the upper incisors so as not to resemble dogs. Some Malay races, too, are said to blacken their teeth because dogs have white teeth. This desire to be unlike animals seems to be at the bottom of many dental mutilations. Another reason is the wish to distinguish tribe from tribe. Thus some Papuans break their teeth in order to be unlike other Papuan tribes which they despise. In this way such practices become traditional. Finally, like many mutilations, those of the teeth are trials of endurance of physical pain, and take place at ceremonies of initiation and at puberty. The Mois (Stiengs) of Cochin-China break the two upper middle incisors with a flint. This is always ceremoniously done at puberty to the accompaniment of feasting and prayers for those mutilated, who will thus, it is thought, be preserved from sickness. Among Malay races the filing of teeth takes place with similar ceremony at puberty. In Java, Sumatra and Borneo the incisors are thinned down and shortened. Deep transverse grooves are also made with a file, a stone, bamboo or sand, and the teeth filed to a point. The Dyaks of Borneo make a small hole in the transverse groove and insert a pin of brass, which is hammered to a nail-head shape in the hollow, or they inlay the teeth with gold and other metals. The ancient Mexicans also inlaid the teeth with precious stones.

5. Mutilations of the sexual organs are more ethnically important than any. They have played a great part in human history, and still have much significance in many countries. Their antiquity is undoubtedly great, and nearly all originate with the idea of initiation into full sexual life. The most important, circumcision, has been transformed into a religious rite. Infibulation (Lat. fibula, a clasp), or the attaching a ring, clasp, or buckle to the sexual organs, in females through the labia majora, in males through the prepuce, was an operation to preserve chastity very commonly practised in antiquity. At Rome it was in use; Strabo says it was prevalent in Arabia and in Egypt, and it is still native to those regions (Lane, Modern Egyptians, i. 73; Arabic Lexicon, s.v. "hafada"). Niebuhr heard that it was practised on both shores of the Persian Gulf and at Bagdad (Description de l'Arabie, p. 70). It is common in Africa (see Sir H. H. Johnston, Kilimanjaro Expedition, 1886), but is there often replaced by an operation which consists in stitching the labia majora together when the girl is four or five years old. Castration is practised in the East to supply guards for harems, and was employed in Italy until the time of Pope Leo XIII. to provide "soprani" for the papal choir; it has also been voluntarily submitted to from religious motives (see Eunuch). The operation has, however, been resorted to for other purposes. Thus in Africa it is said to have been used as a means of annihilating conquered tribes. The Hottentots and Bushmen, too, have the curious custom of removing one testicle when a boy is eight or nine years old, in the belief that this partial emasculation renders the victim fleeter of foot for the chase. The most dreadful of these mutilations is that practised by certain Australian tribes on their boys. It consists of cutting open and leaving exposed the whole length of the urethral canal and thus rendering sexual intercourse impossible. According to some authorities it is hatred of the white man and dread of slavery which are the reasons of this racial suicide. Among the Dyaks and in many of the Melanesian islands curious modes of ornamentation of the organs (such as the kalang) prevail, which are in the nature of mutilations.

Penal Use. - Mutilation as a method of punishment was common in the criminal law of many ancient nations. In the earliest laws of England mutilation, maiming and dismemberment had a prominent place. "Men branded on the forehead, without hands, feet, or tongues, lived as examples of the danger which attended the commission of petty crimes and as a warning to all churls" (Pike's History of Crime in England, 1873). The Danes were more severe than the Saxons. Under their rules eyes were plucked out; noses, ears and upper lips cut off; scalps town away; and sometimes the whole body flayed alive. The earliest forest-laws of which there is record are those of Canute (io16). Under these, if a freedman offered violence to a keeper of the king's deer he was liable to lose freedom and property; if a serf, he lost his right hand, and on a second offence was to die. One who killed a deer was either to have his eyes put out or lose his life. Under the first two Norman kings mutilation was the punishment for poaching. It was, however, not reserved for that, as during the reign of Henry I. some coiners were taken to Winchester, where their right hands were lopped off and they were castrated. Under the kings of the West Saxon dynasty the loss of hands had been a common penalty for coining (The Obsolete Punishments of Shropshire, by S. Meeson Morris). Morris quotes a case in John's reign at the Salop Assizes in 1203, where one Alice Crithecreche and others were accused of murdering an old woman at Lilleshall. Convicted of being accessory, Crithecreche was sentenced to death, but the penalty was altered to that of having her eyes plucked out. During the Tudor and Stuart periods mutilations were a common form of punishment extra-judicially inflicted by order of the privy council and the Star Chamber. There are said to be preserved at Playford Hall, Ipswich, instruments of Henry VIII.'s time for cutting off ears. This penalty appears to have been inflicted for not attending church. By an act of Henry VIII. (33 Hen. VIII. c. 12) the punishment for "striking in the king's court or house" was the loss of the right hand. For writing a tract on The Monstrous Regimen of Women a Nonconformist divine (Dr W. Stubbs) had his right hand lopped off. Among many eases of severe mutilations during Stuart times may be mentioned those of Prynne, Burton, Bastwick and Titus Oates.

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Simple English

Mutilation is when the way a human body looks is permanently changed. This change may be due to an accident, or it may be the result of torture.

Losing a part of the body (like a hand), or permanent scars (different looking skin after a bad injury heals) on the body, might be a result of mutilation.


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