The Meaning and Place of Scars

“The meaning of scars is to make you better.” Scarification has been used in almost every human culture, no matter the era. It’s a powerful way to express oneself and understand one’s own personal history.

Scars are physical reminders of the past and carry with them a spiritual significance. They serve as a reminder to never forget your mistakes, so that you can learn from them and grow.

A man with hat and mustache on face.

According to tradition, when Odysseus was a young man, he went to see his grandpa Autolycus, who had given him the name Odysseus when he was a baby. Odysseus feasts with his grandpa and uncles before joining them on a hunt on Mount Parnassus’ forested slopes. Odysseus, although being the youngest in the group, is the first to dive for the beast with his spear as the men and hounds flush a gigantic boar from his den. The animal, on the other hand, deflects the hit and gores the courageous youngster above the knee. Odysseus, undeterred, resurfaces and slays the boar with his spear. His relatives look after the body, tie the young man’s severe wound, and return him to Autolycus’ house to recuperate. Odysseus returns to Ithaca with a fresh scar and a new narrative; when his parents inquire about how he received the wound, he proudly describes how he held his own among a company of men.

For Odysseus, it’s a rite of passage: his first large hunt, a chance to put his bravery to the test and acquire the skills and masculine collaboration required for war success. The event also plays a part in a very different homecoming some decades later.

After 20 years of epic war and travelling, Odysseus returns to Ithaca as an older man, first concealing his actual status as king. He disguises himself as a beggar and schemes to assassinate the suitors who attempted to seize his power while he was abroad, as well as determining if his wife Penelope has stayed true. Penelope is so moved by his stories that she invites his childhood nurse, Eurycleia, to wash his feet after he tells her he’s crossed paths with Odysseus and shares facts about his travels.

As Eurycleia starts to wash the still-disguised king’s naked legs in a pot of water, she quickly recognizes his old hunting scar and understands who sits before her. “My lovely child, I am convinced you must be Odysseus himself, except I did not recognize you until I had really touched and handled you,” the elderly nurse says to her former charge, her eyes welling up with tears.

“While the scar shows Odysseus’ identification…the incident that generated the scar contributed to establish his identity in the first place,” as one classicist put it.

In other words, getting the scar helped Odysseus grow into a man, and it distinguished him as one for the rest of his life.

Scars on the body have a long and fascinating history in the history and anthropology of masculinity. Scars left from being beaten as a slave were emasculating, while scars left from being branded as a punishment for a crime might be ostracizing. However, scars acquired while hunting, fighting, or pursuing other adventures were and continue to be seen as badges of honor and a source of both public and personal pride. Today, we’ll look at how men have perceived their scars throughout history and throughout the globe.


Scars as Initiation Markers

African boy with scars on face body.

Many tribes across the globe, notably in Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, have performed intentional scarification. For these individuals, scars were the equal of tattoos, since darker skin is more difficult to ink but more prone to noticeable, severe keloid scars.

Scars were cut into the skin with shells, flints, or pointed sticks and came in a variety of shapes and sizes. To enhance color and aggravate the wound so it would produce a more noticeable scar, the wounds were occasionally massaged with ash, lime, bird down, or the fur of a hunted animal. A man or woman’s social and marital position, genealogy, and membership in a certain tribe or clan might all be denoted by the scar’s pattern. The scar was a physical reminder of who you were and who you belonged to. When a warrior caught a member of a rival tribe, he would occasionally superimpose his clan’s sign upon the prisoner’s scar, which represented his. The message was plain, and it was heartbreaking to a guy whose ancestry was his whole identity: You’re ours now.

Scars were often given as part of a young man’s manhood initiation. Having the bravery and self-discipline to endure the agony of the procedure without screaming out exhibited courage and self-discipline, both of which are vital attributes for a successful hunter and warrior. A young guy who has previously felt his skin being ripped and wounded — and survived it — is less likely to be afraid of the point of an enemy’s spear or an animal’s tusk.

Watch this video of Papua New Guineans acquiring their “crocodile teeth” to become men for an interesting look at a scarification process.

One such rite was recounted by a 19th-century observer of a tribe in South Australia, who noted that it came after giving the males a new name and served as the culmination of their coming-of-age ceremony:

“As soon as everything is ready, several men open veins in their lower arms, while the young men are raised to swallow the first drops of blood: they are then directed to kneel on their hands and knees, so as to give a horizontal position to their backs, which are covered all over with blood: as soon as this is sufficiently coagulated, one person marks with his thumb the places in the blood, where the incisions are to be made, namely, one in the middle of the neck, and These are known as Manka, and they are held in such high regard that mentioning them in the sight of women is considered a grave profanation. Each incision needs many cuts with the blunt quartz chips to get it deep enough, and then it is gently dragged apart; the unfortunate creatures, however, do not shrink or make a sound.”

While a young man’s scar when he was initiated into manhood was important, it was merely a foreshadowing — a sign that he was ready and capable of acquiring a set of even greater marks: spontaneous scars earned in the process of completing his primary tasks as hunter and warrior. These were the scars that guys all across the globe took the greatest pride in.


Scars as a Symbol of Valor Statue with scars on face.

Honor was formerly seen as a reputation deserving of respect and adoration, rather than an inner virtue. A man’s claim to honor was reviewed by his peers, therefore his acts, as well as the visual evidence of them, were highly appreciated.

Manly honor was based on strength, toughness, and bravery, as well as the willingness to face up to an insult or assault, at its most basic level. A guy had to demonstrate that if he was struck, he would strike back. The ensuing brawls were often staged in organized duels or rounds of single combat rather than in the heat of the moment.

The Yanomamo of Amazonia give an interesting illustration of how this played out at the most basic level. If a Yanomamo man thought that someone had slandered him, stolen his tobacco or food, or attempted to seduce or abduct his wife, the affront would be redressed by a club combat. Two men would face up, with one allowing the other to strike first. The initiator would arc the end of his club from the ground to the top of his opponent’s head, passing through the air. The victim of the wallop was instructed to take the punch without moving or collapsing. According to archaeologist Napoleon Chagnon, the receiver would then get to give a counter strike to his opponent, with “huge portions of their scalp knocked away, flying up and down on their crania.” The winner was the one who stayed standing the longest.

A child seeing a fighting scars on top of head.

“Many competent and persistent club fighters have scalps that are crisscrossed with as many as a dozen large, protuberant, lumpy scars two or three inches long after their scalps have healed,” Chagnon noticed as a consequence of these horrific duels. And they’re extremely pleased with their appearance:

“Men like them who have a lot of club-fighting scars aren’t afraid to show them off.” To accentuate their multiple deep wounds, they shave the tops of their heads in a tonsure and then dab crimson dye into them. If a guy lowers his face and head to you, he is typically not demonstrating deference: he is blatantly flaunting his ferocity.”

Men fencing illustration.

Though duels took on a more regulated form in Western society, the same dynamic of honor — and pride in the wounds that came with protecting it — was very much a part of manly culture in both Europe and America. In the 19th and 20th centuries, dueling scars were especially popular among Prussian and Austrian teenagers. For these young men, having a visible dueling scar was a mark of dignity and gentlemanliness, while not having one was a source of embarrassment.

A men with bandages over dueling wounds illustration.

Prussian students enjoyed flaunting the bandages that covered their dueling wounds in public.

Prussian university students were especially prone to duels, since they couldn’t be properly admitted into the school’s fraternities without first engaging in one and receiving a scar as a consequence. The encounters were often a source of fun, and were seen as a friendly test of ability rather than a life-threatening situation. The goal for a participant was not to kill his opponent (though fatalities did occur), but to cut him across the face. Scars crisscrossed their cheekbones, lined their foreheads, split their noses, and chopped off the points of their ears. Such scars were not seen to detract from one’s attractiveness, but rather to enhance it; since scars were a source of pride for males, the more obvious and prominent they were, the better. Students of theology, on the other hand, preferred to battle with handguns; although this increased the risk, it wasn’t appropriate for a future minister of the gospel to wear a mincemeat cup.


Regardless of the society in which duels were fought– as anthropologist David D. Gilmore recounts in Manhood in the Making–

“What seems to matter most is not necessarily winning the battle, while that is important, but rather the willingness to engage or react to challenge, as well as the display of indifference to suffering.” A true gentleman is unconcerned with personal hurt, and he laughs at the sight of his own blood. Fighting, win or lose, a man corroborates his claim to masculinity while also enhancing his group’s reputation for strength if he acquits himself heroically in the heat of battle. Honorable defeat does not always imply a loss of face; what seems to matter most is demonstrating a willingness to take blows and spill blood. Bruises and scars only add to a man’s and his family’s status.”

Scars on a man’s body not only displayed his willingness to fight, but also helped to strengthen his identity as a leader in other ways.

Scars as Authority Marks, Credibility Marks, and Respect Marks

A painting of senate meeting in rome.

When Alexander the Great’s army revolted against him in 324 BC, according to the ancient historian Arrian, he attempted to rally their support with a speech in which he used his wounds as physical proof of his leadership:

“Which of you realizes he has worked more for me than I have for him?” Come on in! Let whomever has wounds strip and reveal them, and I will display mine in return; because there is no area of my body, in front at least, that is free of wounds, and there is no weapon employed for close combat or throwing at the adversary whose traces I do not carry on my person. For though I have been wounded with swords in close combat, shot with arrows, and struck with missiles launched from war engines, and though I have been hit with stones and wood bolts for the sake of your lives, glory, and wealth, I am still leading you as conquerors over all the land and sea, all rivers, mountains, and plains.”

Alexander’s message to his soldiers was clear: I haven’t asked you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, and the scars are proof of that.

Prior to Alexander, ancient Greek society was apprehensive of any infirmities or disfigurements, such as scars, that detracted from one’s exterior attractiveness, which was regarded to be a mirror of one’s inner beauty. However, the legendary conqueror’s openly wounded physique turned combat scars into a source of unbridled pride.

The Romans, on the other hand, would carry the habit of bragging about one’s wounds from the battlefield to the corridors of power, raising it to an unmistakable way of establishing ethos and a rhetorical show-stopper.

The most essential trait of masculinity for the Romans was virtus, or martial bravery. As members of an honor culture, each man aspired to be better than his peers in this regard, and his reputation for it had to be gained via visible, tangible actions. On the battlefield, putting oneself in danger — in activities that went above and beyond the call of duty – demonstrated a man’s virtus. This was especially true in hand-to-hand warfare; fighting an adversary one-on-one was considered braver and more noble than shooting him with an arrow from afar or impaling him with a javelin while mounted on horseback.


Roman plutarch.

Close battle also resulted in a fine set of scars, which Plutarch referred to as “inscribed pictures of perfection and heroic virtue.” A Roman’s battle scars were symbols of glory that denoted his manhood. Smooth, unblemished skin was considered disgraceful, since it denoted excessive caution and fear. Scars on a man’s back were just as bad – getting wounded while fleeing was not something to be proud of.

Scars gained a man a respectable reputation among his fellow troops, but they also carried over into public life. While campaigning for office or disputing with a debate opponent, opening your tunic to display your scars was an excellent means of strengthening your authority and trustworthiness. Scars were commonly used to contrast the emptiness of mere conversation with the ultimate evidence of a man’s virtue.

When Lucius Aemilius Paullus returned triumphant from the Macedonian war, the senate sought to proclaim a “triumph” for him – an official public celebration and sanctification of a military commander’s victory — and the senate voted to do so. Paullus’ men, on the other hand, were dissatisfied since their commander had maintained rigorous discipline throughout the expedition and had not given them as much plunder as they believed they deserved. Servius Sulpicius Galba, a military tribune whose service had been unremarkable and who had a personal grudge towards Paullus, took advantage of the men’s unhappiness and went about encouraging them to vote against the vote.

Marcus Servilius, a battle hero, stepped out in front of the assembly in Paullus’ defense and to condemn the shady processes. He informed the soldiers that by turning on the man who had led them to triumph, they had disrespected and disgraced their previous leader. He next attempted to persuade the audience to turn away from Galba and toward himself by articulating and then showing his masculine credentials:

“Pay attention to the senate’s resolution rather than Servius Galba’s romancing. Instead than listening to him, pay attention to what I’m saying. He’s just learned how to give speeches, and how to bash and defame others. I’ve battled three and a half times in response to challenges, and I’ve taken the prizes from everyone I’ve met. My body is adorned with respectable scars, each of which was bestowed upon me in advance.”

Servilius then removed his tunic and revealed which conflicts had resulted in each of his scars. After that, he concluded his defense by saying:

“As an elderly soldier, I’ve frequently showed the new ones this body of mine, chopped with the sword.” Allow Galba to undress and reveal his beautiful, scar-free skin. Please, Tribunes, summon back the tribes to vote.”

Non-aristocratic men were even more driven than their aristocratic counterparts to execute daring acts in combat, since establishing a reputation for virtus may help them achieve office and enter Rome’s political class. In the lack of an illustrious ancestry, a guy may rely to his heroism for support; if that courage was etched on this physique, all the better.


As a result, when Gaius Marius, the son of a plebian farmer, ran for consul, he placed his credentials on the true virtue he had nurtured and the respect he had won as a military leader who had consistently proven himself ready to participate in his men’s hardships:

“Compare me now, fellow people, with those pompous nobility, as a ‘new man.’ I have either seen with my own eyes or done with my own hands what they know through rumor and literature. What they learnt from books, I learned through field duty; decide for yourself if words or acts are more valuable…

I can’t exhibit family portraits or my ancestors’ successes or consulships to justify your trust, but if the situation calls for it, I can show spears, a flag, trappings, and other military awards, as well as wounds on my breast. These are my pictures, my nobility patents, which I earned by my own numerous labor and hardships, not by inheritance as theirs were.”

The widespread habit of displaying one’s scars to boost credibility might be flipped on its head in hilarious yet rhetorically effective ways. When Cicero was prosecuting Gaius Verres, Sicily’s corrupt and decadent former ruler, he remembered a previous case in which a man was acquitted of his crimes after his lawyer tore apart the defendant’s robe and displayed the defendant’s many scars to the judges and the assembled public. “That the Roman people may see his wounds, caused by the bites of women — the traces of love and luxury,” Cicero humorously inquired, “that the Roman people may see his scars, inflicted by the bites of women — the traces of passion and luxury.”

The ordinary men of Roman society may likewise make an appeal based on their wounds. In 495, for example, the consul Appius Claudius began issuing draconian penalties to debtors, enslaving them to their creditors. When a group of soldiers received this punishment, they complained to the consul Servilius and showed him with their wounds; he consented to intercede.

“I’ve been in the arena; I’ve battled for the Republic; I, too, am a man,” such a display essentially declared. “Treat me with respect.”

Scars as a Reminder of Past Adventures

Profile photo of Richard Francis Burton.

Richard Francis Burton, a writer and explorer, was speared in the cheek by a Somali tribesman while on an expedition in Africa.

“I’m heading to my Father’s, and while I’ve gotten here with considerable effort, I don’t regret all the difficulties I’ve gone through to get here.” I will offer my sword to whomever will succeed me on my trip, as well as my bravery and expertise to whoever can get it. My wounds and markings serve as a reminder to me that I have fought His battles, and that He is now my rewarder.” – John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (after learning of Theodore Roosevelt’s death, the secretary of his Harvard graduating class sent out this extract to his classmates)


Men, of course, have scars from activities other than fighting. Scars from difficult jobs and a variety of dangerous adventures. Scars like this served as a type of epidermal relief map, indicating where a man had been and what he had done along the route.

Sailors, maybe more than any other group, had similar markings. Ships have a lot of moving pieces that had to be handled on a constantly changing deck. If the task didn’t scare them enough, the lengthy travels afforded plenty of opportunities to break up the boredom by getting into fights, whether friendly or not. It’s no surprise that a 16th-century register of sailors documented large scars for identifying reasons, revealing that over half of the mariners at the period had such markings.

Scars were not only used by ship owners and commanders to identify crew members, but they were also utilized by sailors to read and feel each other. The number, position, and character of a sailor’s scars revealed who were the seasoned sailors, who were the obstinate troublemakers, and who had been beaten for mutiny to his fellow sailors. Scars might therefore convey a variety of messages, such as that a man was not to be trifled with or that he had sage knowledge and was someone to seek advice from. As a result, the markings had to be interpreted in the context of other psychological and physical characteristics.

A scar head of Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway received this scar when he thought a toilet chain was a skylight and pulled it down on his head. He was hesitant to discuss it since it wasn’t the product of a brave, virulent act like most of his other scars.

Few guys represent the essence of adventuresome wounds like Ernest Hemingway when it comes to individual persons. He was injured as a child in boyhood romps and high school football games; as an ambulance driver and war correspondent, he was wounded by mortar shells and machine gun fire; as a traveler, he was involved in two plane crashes and three serious car accidents; and as a sportsman, he was involved in boxing matches, bullfighting bouts, safari hunts, and deep sea fishing expeditions, all of which resulted in bruises, gashes, and broken bones. He was injured hundreds of times in all, and his body was covered with scars from the point of his heels to the top of his head. His skin was transformed into a canvas for action and adventure. And he was pretty pleased with his “work.”

Wounds and scars figured prominently in many of Hemingway’s literary work. His protagonists place a high importance on self-control, bravery, endurance, and love, and they commonly suffer wounds as a kind of initiation into deeper interactions with these aspects of life. Consider Santiago, a grizzled fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, whose “hands had deep wrinkled scars from carrying big fish on the cords.” These scars, on the other hand, were not new. They were as ancient as erosions in a desert devoid of fish.” Santiago’s scars foreshadow the discipline and endurance he’ll be able to show when the wounds in his hands reopen during his epic struggle with the marlin; he’s been there before, and he’ll be able to do it again.


A soldier holding up helmet with bullet fire.

Scars’ noble associations started to fade in the aftermath of WWI, at the same time that an honor culture as a whole began to collapse. The discussion over the meaning and value of battle wounds got entwined with the debate over the meaning and value of war.

Hemingway, on the other hand, represents the evolution of the twentieth century’s more difficult connection with wounds. His own physical wounds, as well as the wounds of his characters, often remained undetected, affecting the mind. He was captivated by, and disillusioned by, war as a member of the “Lost Generation,” and concerned in how it may leave behind hidden scars of mental anguish.

This tension may be seen in The Sun Also Rises. Count Mippipopolous has survived seven battles and four revolutions, and he has the scars to show for it. He’s steady and well-balanced in character, and he’s able to appreciate his indulgences and “enjoy everything so well” because he’s been through the crucible of war and lived life to the fullest. Jake Barnes, the protagonist of the novel, seems to have had his life hindered rather than enriched by his combat wound. He’s suffering from an injury that has rendered him impotent and insecure in his manhood. His combat experiences have left him disoriented, and he floats and drinks his way through an aimless life interrupted by episodes of brutal conduct.

The narrative reflected a greater cultural change in the West: physical scars were no longer seen as outward symbols of inner power, but as apparent symptoms of psychological misery. They started to inspire sympathy and anxiety rather than respect and trust.

Scars in Today’s Smooth-Skinned World

“All I want is to die with a few scars… It’s no longer enough to have a stunning stock physique. I always think, “What a waste,” when I see automobiles that are fully stock cherry, straight off of a dealer’s showroom in 1955. –From the film Fight Club

Men still love telling one other tales about their wounds in this day and age. The public’s impression of scars, on the other hand, might be understood as a continuation of Hemingway’s tension. A man’s scar may still excite admiration and curiosity, but we’re more likely than ever to question whether a psychical wound indicates a psychic one. Though necessary and well-intentioned, our heightened awareness of PTSD has had the terrible side effect of generating the image that all troops are potential basket cases who may explode at any moment.

Of course, in certain cases, the physical and psychological wounds are one and the same; troops with traumatic brain injuries are increasingly returning home. These wounds complicate the usual presentation and acknowledgment of scars; neither the veteran nor the general public can see them, and both parties may struggle to understand their significance.

The fact that the gap between the general public and the military — or really any risky employment at all — has never been bigger hasn’t helped our culture’s fear of scars. In today’s society, most guys work and live in such a frictionless environment that it’s easy to go through life without big scars. At worst, we could receive a paper cut at work or slice a finger trying to cut open the plastic wrap around our store-bought meat.


As a child, I acquired a minor scar on my chin from landing on a Christmas ornament, and as an adult, I suffered a burn on my hand from touching a hot lawnmower. That’s all there is to it. My flawless skin would have been a source of public disgrace if I had been an ancient Roman.

All of this makes me question whether the popularity of tattoos in Western society has anything to do with their use as a substitute for the acquisition of natural scars. Tattoos have mostly served as a means of commemorating past activities or as a foreshadowing of future deeds throughout history. Or they linked a guy to a group of individuals for whom he would sacrifice his life. Spontaneous scars were either a replacement for tats (as in ancient Rome) or a complement to them (as in many tribal cultures).

Tattoos are seldom used nowadays as reminders of previous acts or as promises of future ones. Of course, tattoos may be used to commemorate real-life occurrences. We’ve never gone through barbed wire, but it’s wrapped around our arm; we’ve never seen a tiger, but it’s on our back; we’re not a member of any tribe, yet we have tribal emblems on our breast. We paint on symbols of what we’d want to have done and how we’d like to view ourselves instead of wars and risky experiences to mark our flesh with wounds signifying where we’ve gone and what we’ve done. While scars formerly served to identify us to others, tattoos today serve to identify us to ourselves.

Of course, there are still some men out there with some great scars that have been acquired in unique ways and serve as well-earned badges of valor and adventure. If you have one, tell us about it (and include a photo!) in the comments section below!



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Scar on cheek meaning is the idea that a scar can represent the person’s struggle to overcome adversity. Scars are often seen as badges of honor, and signify personal bravery. Reference: scar on cheek meaning.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do the scars represent?

A: The scars were caused by a fight with another person.

What is a scar place?

A: A scar is a permanent mark or a wound left on the skin after an injury has healed.

What is the full meaning of scar?

A: I am not programmed to answer questions about meaning of words so please consult a dictionary.

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