A kiss is the touch or pressing of one’s lips against another person or an object. Cultural connotations of kissing vary widely. Depending on the culture and context, a kiss can express sentiments of love, passion, romance, sexual attraction, sexual activity, sexual arousal, affection, respect, greeting, friendship, peace, and good luck, among many others.
In some situations, a kiss is a ritual, formal or symbolic gesture indicating devotion, respect, or sacrament. The word came from Old English cyssan (“to kiss”), in turn from coss (“a kiss”).
Anthropologists are divided into two schools on the origins of kissing, one believing that it is instinctual and intuitive and the other that it evolved from what is known as kiss feeding, a process used by mothers to feed their infants by passing chewed food to their babies’ mouths. Cesare Lombroso, Italian criminologist, physician, and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology, supported this idea.
The earliest reference to kissing-like behavior comes from the Vedas, Sanskrit scriptures that informed Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, around 3,500 years ago, according to Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University who specializes in the history of the kiss.
Both lip and tongue kissing are mentioned in Sumerian poetry:
My lips are too small, they know not to kiss.
My precious sweet, lying by my heart,
one by one “tonguemaking,” one by one.
When my sweet precious, my heart, had lain down too,
each of them in turn kissing with the tongue, each in turn.
Kissing is described in the surviving ancient Egyptian love poetry from the New Kingdom, found on papyri excavated at Deir el-Medina:
Finally I will drink life from your lips
and wake up from this ever lasting sleep.
The wisdom of the earth in a kiss
and everything else in your eyes.
I kiss her before everyone
that they all may see my love.
And when her lips are pressed to mine
I am made drunk and need not wine.
When we kiss, and her warm lips half open,
I fly cloud-high without beer!
His kisses on my lips, my breast, my hair…
…Come! Come! Come! And kiss me when I die,
For life, compelling life, is in thy breath;
And at that kiss, though in the tomb I lie,
I will arise and break the bands of Death.
The earliest reference to kissing in the Old Testament is in Genesis 27:26, when Jacob deceives his father to obtain his blessing:
And his father Isaac said unto him, Come near now, and kiss me, my son.
Genesis 29:11 features the first man-woman kiss in the Bible, when Jacob flees from Esau and goes to the house of his uncle Laban:
And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.
Much later, there is the oft-quoted verse from the Song of Songs:
May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your love is better than wine.
In Cyropaedia (370 BC), Xenophon wrote about the Persian custom of kissing in the lips upon departure while narrating the departure of Cyrus the Great (c. 600 BC) as a boy from his Median kinsmen. According to Herodotus (5th century BC), when two Persians meet, the greeting formula expresses their equal or inequal status. They do not speak; rather, equals kiss each other on the mouth, and in the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek.
During the later Classical period, affectionate mouth-to-mouth kissing was first described in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.
Academics who have studied it say kissing spread slowly to other parts of the world after Alexander the Great and his army conquered parts of Punjab in northern India in 326 BC.
The Romans helped to spread the habit to most of Europe and north Africa. The Romans were passionate about kissing and talked about several types of kissing. Kissing the hand or cheek was called an osculum. Kissing on the lips with mouth closed was called a basium, which was used between relatives. A kiss of passion was called a suavium.
Kissing was not always an indication of eros, or love, but also could show respect and rank as it was used in Medieval Europe.
The study of kissing started sometime in the nineteenth century and is called Philematology, which has been studied by people including Cesare Lombroso, Ernest Crawley, Charles Darwin, Edward Burnett Tylor and modern scholars such as Elaine Hatfield.
Kristoffer Nyrop identified a number of types of kisses, including kisses of love, affection, peace, respect and friendship. He notes, however, that the categories are somewhat contrived and overlapping, and some cultures have more kinds, including the French with twenty and the Germans with thirty.
Expression of affection
Kissing another person’s lips has become a common expression of affection or warm greeting in many cultures worldwide. Yet in certain cultures, kissing was introduced only through European settlement, before which it was not a routine occurrence. Such cultures include certain indigenous peoples of Australia, the Tahitians, and many tribes in Africa.
A kiss can also be used to express feelings without an erotic element but can be nonetheless “far deeper and more lasting”, writes Nyrop. He adds that such kisses can be expressive of love “in the widest and most comprehensive meaning of the word, bringing a message of loyal affection, gratitude, compassion, sympathy, intense joy, and profound sorrow.”
Nyrop writes that the most common example is the “intense feeling which knits parents to their offspring”, but he adds that kisses of affection are not only common between parents and children, but also between other members of the same family, which can include those outside the immediate family circle, “everywhere where deep affection unites people.” The tradition is written of in the Bible, as when Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and when Moses went to meet his father-in-law, he “did obeisance, and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent”; and when Jacob had wrestled with the Lord he met Esau, ran towards him, fell on his neck and kissed him. The family kiss was traditional with the Romans and kisses of affection are often mentioned by the early Greeks, as when Odysseus, on reaching his home, meets his faithful shepherds.
Affection can be a cause of kissing “in all ages in grave and solemn moments,” notes Nyrop, “not only among those who love each other, but also as an expression of profound gratitude. When the Apostle Paul took leave of the elders of the congregation at Ephesus, “they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him” . Kisses can also be exchanged between total strangers, as when there is a profound sympathy with or the warmest interest in another person.
Folk poetry has been the source of affectionate kisses where they sometimes played an important part, as when they had the power to cast off spells or to break bonds of witchcraft and sorcery, often restoring a man to his original shape. Nyrop notes the poetical stories of the “redeeming power of the kiss are to be found in the literature of many countries, especially, for example, in the Old French Arthurian romances (Lancelot, Guiglain, Tirant le blanc) in which the princess is changed by evil arts into a dreadful dragon, and can only resume her human shape in the case of a knight being brave enough to kiss her.” In the reverse situation, in the tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, a transformed prince then told the girl that he had been bewitched by a wicked fairy, and could not be recreated into a man unless a maid fell in love with him and kissed him, despite his ugliness.
A kiss of affection can also take place after death. In Genesis, it is written that when Jacob was dead, “Joseph fell upon his father’s face and wept upon him and kissed him.” And it is told of Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s first disciple, father-in-law, and successor, that, when the prophet was dead, he went into the latter’s tent, uncovered his face, and kissed him. Nyrop writes that “the kiss is the last tender proof of love bestowed on one we have loved, and was believed, in ancient times, to follow mankind to the nether world.”
Kissing on the lips can be a physical expression of affection or love between two people in which the sensations of touch, taste, and smell are involved. According to the psychologist Menachem Brayer, although many “mammals, birds, and insects exchange caresses” which appear to be kisses of affection, they are not kisses in the human sense.
Surveys indicate that kissing is the second most common form of physical intimacy among United States adolescents (after holding hands), and that about 85% of 15 to 16-year-old adolescents in the US have experienced it.
Kiss on the lips
The kiss on the lips can be performed between two friends or family. This move aims to express the affection that you have for a friend. Unlike kissing for love, a friendly kiss has no sexual connotation. The kiss on the lips is a practice that can be found in the time of Patriarchs (Bible). In Ancient Greece, the kiss on the mouth was used to express a concept of equality between people of the same rank. In the Middle Ages, the kiss of peace was recommended by the Catholic Church. The kiss on the lips was also common among knights. The gesture has again become popular with young people, particularly in England.
Romantic or sexual kiss
In many cultures, it is considered a harmless custom for teenagers to kiss on a date or to engage in kissing games with friends. These games serve as icebreakers at parties and may be some participants’ first exposure to sexuality. There are many such games, including Truth or Dare?, Seven Minutes in Heaven (or the variation “Two Minutes in the Closet”), Spin the Bottle, Post Office, and Wink.
The psychologist William Cane notes that kissing in Western society is often a romantic act and describes a few of its attributes:
It’s not hard to tell when two people are in love. Maybe they’re trying to hide it from the world, still they cannot conceal their inner excitement. Men will give themselves away by a certain excited trembling in the muscles of the lower jaw upon seeing their beloved. Women will often turn pale immediately of seeing their lover and then get slightly red in the face as their sweetheart draws near. This is the effect of physical closeness upon two people who are in love.
Romantic kissing in Western cultures is a fairly recent development and is rarely mentioned even in ancient Greek literature. In the Middle Ages it became a social gesture and was considered a sign of refinement of the upper classes. Other cultures have different definitions and uses of kissing, notes Brayer. In China, for example, a similar expression of affection consists of rubbing one’s nose against the cheek of another person. In other Eastern cultures kissing is not common. In South East Asian countries the “sniff kiss” is the most common form of affection and Western mouth to mouth kissing is often reserved for sexual foreplay. In some tribal cultures the “equivalent for our ‘kiss me’ is ‘smell me.’
The kiss can be an important expression of love and erotic emotions. In his book The Kiss and its History, Kristoffer Nyrop describes the kiss of love as an “exultant message of the longing of love, love eternally young, the burning prayer of hot desire, which is born on the lovers’ lips, and ‘rises,’ as Charles Fuster has said, ‘up to the blue sky from the green plains,’ like a tender, trembling thank-offering.” Nyrop adds that the love kiss, “rich in promise, bestows an intoxicating feeling of infinite happiness, courage, and youth, and therefore surpasses all other earthly joys in sublimity.” He also compares it to achievements in life: “Thus even the highest work of art, yet, the loftiest reputation, is nothing in comparison with the passionate kiss of a woman one loves.”
The power of a kiss is not minimized when he writes that “we all yearn for kisses and we all seek them; it is idle to struggle against this passion. No one can evade the omnipotence of the kiss …” Kissing, he implies, can lead one to maturity: “It is through kisses that a knowledge of life and happiness first comes to us. Runeberg says that the angels rejoice over the first kiss exchanged by lovers,” and can keep one feeling young: “It carries life with it; it even bestows the gift of eternal youth.” The importance of the lover’s kiss can also be significant, he notes: “In the case of lovers a kiss is everything; that is the reason why a man stakes his all for a kiss,” and “man craves for it as his noblest reward.”
As a result, kissing as an expression of love is contained in much of literature, old and new. Nyrop gives a vivid example in the classic love story of Daphnis and Chloe. As a reward “Chloe has bestowed a kiss on Daphnis—an innocent young-maid’s kiss, but it has on him the effect of an electrical shock”:
Ye gods, what are my feelings. Her lips are softer than the rose’s leaf, her mouth is sweet as honey, and her kiss inflicts on me more pain than a bee’s sting. I have often kissed my kids, I have often kissed my lambs, but never have I known aught like this. My pulse is beating fast, my heart throbs, it is as if I were about to suffocate, yet, nevertheless, I want to have another kiss. Strange, never-suspected pain! Has Chloe, I wonder, drunk some poisonous draught ere she kissed me? How comes it that she herself has not died of it?
Romantic kissing “requires more than simple proximity,” notes Cane. It also needs “some degree of intimacy or privacy, … which is why you’ll see lovers stepping to the side of a busy street or sidewalk.” Psychologist Wilhelm Reich “lashed out at society” for not giving young lovers enough privacy and making it difficult to be alone. However, Cane describes how many lovers manage to attain romantic privacy despite being in a public setting, as they “lock their minds together” and thereby create an invisible sense of “psychological privacy.” He adds, “In this way they can kiss in public even in a crowded plaza and keep it romantic.” Nonetheless, when Cane asked people to describe the most romantic places they ever kissed, “their answers almost always referred to this ends-of-the-earth isolation, … they mentioned an apple orchard, a beach, out in a field looking at the stars, or at a pond in a secluded area .
Kiss as ritual
Throughout history, a kiss has been a ritual, formal, symbolic or social gesture indicating devotion, respect or greeting. It appears as a ritual or symbol of religious devotion. For example, in the case of kissing a temple floor, or a religious book or icon. Besides devotion, a kiss has also indicated subordination or, nowadays, respect.
In modern times the practice continues, as in the case of a bride and groom kissing at the conclusion of a wedding ceremony or national leaders kissing each other in greeting, and in many other situations.
A kiss in a religious context is common. In earlier periods of Christianity or Islam kissing became a ritual gesture, and is still treated as such in certain customs, as when “kissing… relics, or a bishop’s ring.” In Judaism, the kissing of prayer books such as the Torah, along with kissing prayer shawls, is also common. Crawley notes that it was “very significant of the affectionate element in religion” to give so important a part to the kiss as part of its ritual. In the early Church the baptized were kissed by the celebrant after the ceremony, and its use was even extended as a salute to saints and religious heroes, with Crawley adding, “Thus Joseph kissed Jacob, and his disciples kissed Paul. Joseph kissed his dead father, and the custom was retained in our civilization”, as the farewell kiss on dead relatives, although certain sects prohibit this today.
A distinctive element in the Christian liturgy was noted by Justin in the 2nd century, now referred to as the “kiss of peace,” and once part of the rite in the primitive Mass. Conybeare has stated that this act originated within the ancient Hebrew synagogue, and Philo, the ancient Jewish philosopher called it a “kiss of harmony”, where, as Crawley explains, “the Word of God brings hostile things together in concord and the kiss of love.” Saint Cyril also writes, “this kiss is the sign that our souls are united, and that we banish all remembrance of injury.”
Kiss of peace
Nyrop notes that the kiss of peace was used as an expression of deep, spiritual devotion in the early Christian Church. Christ said, for instance, “Peace be with you, my peace I give you,” and the members of Christ’s Church gave each other peace symbolically through a kiss. St Paul repeatedly speaks of the “holy kiss,” and, in his Epistle to the Romans, writes: “Salute one another with an holy kiss” and his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, he says: “Greet all the brethren with an holy kiss.”
The kiss of peace was also used in secular festivities. During the Middle Ages, for example, Nyrop points out that it was the custom to “seal the reconciliation and pacification of enemies by a kiss.” Even knights gave each other the kiss of peace before proceeding to the combat, and forgave one another all real or imaginary wrongs. The holy kiss was also found in the ritual of the Church on solemn occasions, such as baptism, marriage, confession, ordination, or obsequies. However, toward the end of the Middle Ages the kiss of peace disappears as the official token of reconciliation.
Kiss of respect
The kiss of respect is of ancient origin, notes Nyrop. He writes that “from the remotest times we find it applied to all that is holy, noble, and worshipful—to the gods, their statues, temples, and altars, as well as to kings and emperors; out of reverence, people even kissed the ground, and both sun and moon were greeted with kisses.”
He notes some examples, as “when the prophet Hosea laments over the idolatry of the children of Israel, he says that they make molten images of calves and kiss them.” In classical times similar homage was often paid to the gods, and people were known to kiss the hands, knees, feet, and the mouths, of their idols. Cicero writes that the lips and beard of the famous statue of Hercules at Agrigentum were worn away by the kisses of devotees.
People kissed the Cross with the image of the Crucified, and such kissing of the Cross is always considered a holy act. In many countries it is required, on taking an oath, as the highest assertion that the witness would be speaking the truth. Nyrop notes that “as a last act of charity, the image of the Redeemer is handed to the dying or death-condemned to be kissed.” Kissing the Cross brings blessing and happiness; people kiss the image of Our Lady and the pictures and statues of saints—not only their pictures, “but even their relics are kissed,” notes Nyrop. “They make both soul and body whole.” There are legends innumerable of sick people regaining their health by kissing relics, he points out
The kiss of respect has also represented a mark of fealty, humility and reverence. Its use in ancient times was widespread, and Nyrop gives examples: “people threw themselves down on the ground before their rulers, kissed their footprints, literally ‘licked the dust,’ as it is termed.” “Nearly everywhere, wheresoever an inferior meets a superior, we observe the kiss of respect. The Roman slaves kissed the hands of their masters; pupils and soldiers those of their teachers and captains respectively.” People also kissed the earth for joy on returning to their native land after a lengthened absence, as when Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War.
Kiss of friendship
The kiss is also commonly used in American and European culture as a salutation between friends or acquaintances. The friendly kiss until recent times usually occurred only between ladies, but today it is also common between men and women, especially if there is a great difference in age.
According to Nyrop, up until the 20th century, “it seldom or never takes place between men, with the exception, however, of royal personages,” although he notes that in former times the “friendly kiss was very common with us between man and man as well as between persons of opposite sexes.” In guilds, for example, it was customary for the members to greet each other “with hearty handshakes and smacking kisses,” and, on the conclusion of a meal, people thanked and kissed both their hosts and hostesses.