Human branding or stigmatizing 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. It may also be practiced as a "rite of passage" such as within a tribe, or to signify membership in an organization such as a college fraternity or sorority.
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.
Marking the rightless
- 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 such property just like cattle, moreso since humans are more able to escape.
- The Ancient Greeks branded slaves with a Delta, Δ, for Δουλος doulos "slave".
- Ancient Romans marked runaway slaves 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.
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.
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 led to branding becoming obsolete, and it was abolished in 1829 except in the case of deserters from the army, which were marked with the letter D, not with hot irons but by tattooing with ink or gunpowder. Notoriously bad soldiers were also branded with BC (bad character). The British Mutiny Act of 1858 provided that the court-martial may, in addition to any other penalty, order deserters to be marked on the left side, 2 inch below the armpit, with the letter "D", such letter to be not less than an inch long. In 1879 this was abolished.
Branding in Russia
Prisoners transported to Siberia in the late 19th century were sometimes branded on their foreheads with irons with the letters VRNK meaning V thief, R robber, and NK punished by the Knout. This branding lead to the Siberian slang word Varnok to mean either a settler or deportee.
- 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
- Sometimes as an extreme initiation in the increasingly less common tradition of painful hazing (otherwise mostly paddling).
- Some members of college fraternities and sororities voluntarily elect to be branded with their fraternity/sorority letters. Usually on the arm or upper back in fraternities and on the hip, lower back, or thigh in sororities.
- 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 is prevalent in the "Vaishnavism" sect of Hinduism since its foundation. 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 fivefold 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"  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 altar 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 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 TV show LOST, Juliet Burke is branded with four inter-crossing lines as punishment for killing one of her people.
- 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.)
- In the movie Jarhead also.
- In Jackass Number Two, Bam Margera was branded with a cow brand.
- In the BDSM movie "Story of O"
- In the TV show Metalocalypse, servants/roadies of the band Dethklok are branded with a gear on the back of their necks.
A variation of branding called Cell Popping involves a dot matrix brand made of individual very small circular brands which taken at large form a design.
- Scarification for details on cosmetic branding
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Brand & Cauterize on EtymologyOnLine
- W. Andrews, Old Time Punishments (Hull, 1890)
- A. M. Earle, Curious Punishments of Bygone Days (London, 1896).
- Edward Bean Underhill, Marytrology of the Churches of Christ Commonly Called Baptists during the Era of the Reformation, (1850), pg 118
- Book. Rasputin, the saint that sinned by Brian Moynahan 1997
- Sri.R.V.Seshadri. "Vaishavism" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2014-06-21. http://web.archive.org/web/20140621010957/http://www.cincinnatitemple.com/articles/Vaishnavism.pdf. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
- ["http://www.artisticdomme.com/index.htm" "Artistic Domme"]. "http://www.artisticdomme.com/index.htm".
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- Human Branding and Scarification Article
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