Sunday, April 5, 2009
The curious origins of foot kissing
Proskunew describes a Persian custom which involved kneeling and putting the face to the ground. This sometimes involved kissing the ground. Taken as the act of submission, respect, gratitude, supplication, neediness, and humility. This was used on all sorts of occasions. Thought to have originated as a non-verbal greeting where men of equal rank would kiss each other on the lips. An inferior kissed his superior on the cheeks, and where one was much less noble rank than the other, he fell to the ground in homage. Considered to have become ritualized at the oriental courts, depending on rank, visitors would prostrate themselves, kneel in front of, bow for, or blow a kiss to the king. There may have been practical reasons for blowing a kiss as halitosis was thought to be common. Magicians would use the same technique in order to prevent contamination of the sacred fire.
Alexander the Great (327) spread his empire to incorporate others and naturally took Iranians to serve at his court. To win his or her respect and support he had to act like a Persian king, and ordered everybody to behave according to the oriental court ritual. The court custom, caused consternation amongst the Greeks as prostration, bowing or kneeling, to anyone other than the Gods was unacceptable. Despite violent opposition it is not clear whether Alexander the Great's attempt at cultural infliction, succeeded. However, proskynesis was commonly practiced at the courts of his successors and remnants remain today occidentals, still bow for kings and queens.
By the time of the Old Testament the custom had passed in judicial behaviour and when an accused was brought before the judge, he lay prostrate. If found guilty, the judge would place his foot on their neck. If innocent the judge would stoop over and lift their face with his hand. Lifting the face was a Hebrew concept, which equaled a declaration of innocence in a judicial, proceeding.
When Muslims bow towards Mecca this is another reference to proskynesis and by contrast the posture of early Christian worship, was standing.
According to Brasch (1989), kissing the feet was a gesture of homage and deference, far removed from its erotic roots. Millions of pilgrims with loving pressure have worn down the feet of the statue of Saint Paul in Rome with their lips.
At the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire it was the custom for the faithful to kiss the right hand of the Papal Father. In the eigth century, a rather passionate woman took liberties and according to legend, the Pope cut off his hand in disgust.
The custom of kissing the Pope's right foot was adapted as more appropriate. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had kings and churchmen kiss his feet. Today the act of homage involves kissing the Pontiff's right shoe. Lips are aimed at the cross-depicted on the shoe and the act is either taken as a tribute to his authority or the simulation of servitude.