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Branding refers to refers to the use of the same physical techniques as in livestock branding on a human, notably the scarification of the body by a hot ( or sometimes cryogenically cold ) object. Persons are branded either with consent as a form of body modification; or under coercion, as a punishment or imposing masterly rights over a slave or other legally subservient inferior. It can also happen accidentally, for example from careless use of a violet wand, or purposely to create a slave mark.



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" (intrans.), both from the Proto-Germanic root brenwanan, perhaps from a Proto-Indo-European root bhre-n-u, from base root bhereu- "to boil forth, well up."

An alternative verb is 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."

BDSM practice

Branding is usually done with a hot metal object to scar the body. It is sometimes seen as an ultimate act of submission and commitment, to slavery if not to the relationship. A brand will be with the slave for many years, and is likely to show a mark for the rest of the person's lifetime. Brands are normally placed high on the outer thigh, on the belly just above the crotch or on the breast.

A mark, normally indicating identity or ownership, is burned into the skin just as might be done on the hide of a animal, with a hot iron. The human skin is much more fragile than, say, a bull's rawhide and a lot more care needs to be taken. A human branding mark is normally much smaller than one for cattle, so care needs to be taken with the design as something too complex is unlikely to work or last.

For some slaves and owners, branding is an intense desire, indicating total commitment and psychologically stamping the slave as property so the slave truly feels owned and wanted. Branding is a common issue in Gorean slavery, often talked about in the novels.

For those with a low pain tolerance or just wanting to pretend about branding, a mark can be applied with an ink marker. Cheat 'brands' can also be applied with tattoos.

Branding is not part of play; serious branding should not be considered as a 'scene' but should only be done by a knowledgeable practitioner.

Historical Use

Marking the rightless

The origin may be the literally dehumanizing treatment 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). This was practiced by the European slavers (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 slaveowner 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 letter F (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, it was a mode of punishment by marking the victim like goods or animals using a hot iron.

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 (Latin fur); and the toilers in the mines, and convicts condemned to figure in gladiatorial shows, were branded on the forehead for identification. Under emperor 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 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).

The canon law (of the church) 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 TF (travaux forcés) until 1832. In Germany however, branding was illegal.

Like other judicial mutilations, it was sooner abandoned to 'mere' flogging and similar corporal punishments which at worst only cause stripe scars on the sorely punished backside.

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 Edward VI of England vagabonds, gypsies and brawlers were ordered to be branded, the first two with a large V on the breast, the last with F for "fravmaker" Slaves who ran away were branded with S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in 1636. From the time of Tudor king Henry VII of England, branding was inflicted for all offences which received Benefit of clergy (a one-off pardon on appeal to the Bible) (branding of the thumbs was used around 1600 at Old Bailey (London court) 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 mad Quaker who in 1655 claimed to be the Messiah, 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, after examination, would turn to the judge and exclaim, "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, London. 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, in addition to any other penalty, may order deserters to be marked on the left side, 2 inch below the armpit, with the letter ii), such letter to be not less than an inch long. In 1879 this was abolished.

File:Strike Branding.jpg
Toronto, ON. Modern strike branding by Blair, 2005. Dylan Hayward

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, mainly in violent 'macho' circles. Branding is thus practiced:
    • by some street gangs
    • in prisons
    • as an extreme fraternity initiation in the (now minorized) tradition of painful hazing (otherwise mostly paddling); it has been widely reported (even in a BBC feature) that U.S. president George W. Bush, while president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter at Yale, was involved in introducing a practice in which pledges has to strip to be branded on the buttocks with a hot coat hanger bent into the shape of a capital delta [1], a surprising practice among the richest families' privileged youth in an Ivy League college
Miami, FL. Fraternity buddies displaying their new brands.
  • Branding can be used as a strictly voluntary, even decorative, permanent body modification rather like many tattoos.
  • In the sadomasochistic scene, it is practiced as a form of body modification with consent.
  • 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).


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