The Gruesome History of Paying Through the Nose

Have you ever wondered where a saying like this comes from? Or why would anyone even cut off their nose, unless it was for medical reasons? The Old World was full of people whose noses had been cut off.

A group of nuns in the 9th century cut off their own noses with a razor blade in order to render themselves hideous, so that Viking raiders would not rape them. Their leader was Saint Ebbe — the Abbess of Coldingham Priory in Scotland — in 870 A.D.

The Vikings were at their doorstep, and Ebbe was in a panic that she and the sisters would lose their virginity. Unfortunately, the nuns did not have the choice of committing suicide, as suicide was a sin, so to make herself odious to the Viking Danes, she took a razor and cut off her nose, and her upper lip. She convinced the other sisters to do the same.

When the Vikings entered the hallowed halls they were stunned, and angered. They did not rape the nuns; but instead, locked them in the abbey and burned it to the ground. The nuns went to their Lord intact.

The nuns at the Monastery of St. Cyr in Marseilles did the same. According to a medical journal from the 1800s, no deformity is more disgusting than the loss of a nose, so the chaste Abbess Eusebia and forty of her nuns cut their own noses off. Saracen invaders had taken over the town, and like Ebbe, they did not want to be raped.

Sometimes your nose was cut off to mark you, like a brand, for a wrongdoing. The noses of all the inhabitants of Kistipoor were cut off, so that these “robbers and assassins might be known wherever they went.” Their village was forever after called Nasica-Tipoor.

In ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, they cut off your nose as a punishment for adultery, and it was the injured husband who performed the ugly deed. As no mention is made of husbands going under the knife, one could only assume that they were free to diddle wherever they chose.

Even as late as 1820, people were losing their noses. Dr. M. Leon-Mirza Labat Khan (usually written as M. Labat) traveled through Egypt in 1824, and in the village of Foha, he saw a great many people wandering around noseless. His guide explained that the neighboring district was infested with bandits, and that cutting off their noses when caught was designed to intimidate wanna-be robbers from following the same ugly path.

Sometimes just mocking someone for having a big nose was enough to get your own nose cut off. According to the same medical journal, The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Practical Medicine, Volume 19, published in 1833, Queen Elizabeth of England decreed that speaking ill of her personally, or of the government, was a crime punishable by cutting off your nose and ears. Apparently she had a big nose that people made fun of.

Another ruler who cut off noses as a punishment was Balor of the Evil Eye. He was a Fomorian giant who ruled over Ireland, and he had a quite a collection of cut off noses. Losing your nose was the penalty for not paying taxes. At one time, the Fomorians collected an ounce of gold ‘per nose’ in taxes, and if you didn’t pay your ounce of gold, it was off with your nose. Did the noseless still have to pay taxes if this was a ‘nose tax’? Probably. One could only guess what got cut off the second time around.

Balor was a giant, who lived in an era when giants still roamed freely over the Earth. His Fomorian brothers did not get a biblical mention like the Nephilim giants, but they did worship one of the gods that the Bible warns against — Moloch (aka Molech.)

Balor’s reign coincided with the arrival of the Tuatha dé Danann of ancient Ireland who did away with such horrors, and though there is no definitive date, they may have taken the throne sometime between 1897 B.C. and 1477 B.C., depending on which dating system is used. Unfortunately the reign of these “good gods” did not last forever.

The concept of a nose tax wasn’t limited to the Fomorians. The 9th century Danes instituted a “nose tax” reminiscent of Balor’s. Pay one ounce of gold, or have your nose slit. The Norse god Odin collected either a Scotpenny or a penny a nose from the Swedes.

Snorri Sturluson in the 12th century was the historian who brought us much of what we know about the Norse gods, which include Odin and Thor. According to Snorri, there was a nose tax in both Norway and Iceland of a penny a nose. The Norsemen who followed, such as King Thorgils who conquered Ireland in the 9th century, levied a tax of one ounce on each hearth. The penalty for non-payment? They cut off your nose. Aren’t you glad you didn’t live in the 9th century?

Ireland suffered under another conqueror as well — Turgesius the Viking chief. Turgesius by his many names may have been the same as King Thorgils, and indeed he reigned during the same century. His legends also refer to “nose-money” — a nose tax that resulted in having your nose cut off if you didn’t pay up.

These legends vary in whether the nose was slit, or cut off at the tip, or cut off in its entirety. Perhaps this is the origin of the phrase “paying through the nose.”

Whether the phrases “cut off your nose to spite your face” or “paying through the nose” are derived from any of these gruesome events, we can only guess, but if you’re curious about the Fomorian giants, you can get a dose of what life was like under their thumb in the book Fomorian Earth: Star Borne: 1.

Fomorian Earth is science fiction, but it was inspired by the legends of the Fomorian giants of Irish history, which like the Tuatha dé Danann, came down from the stars according to ancient astronaut theorists.

  • Star Borne Series

    Fomorian Earth


    Shades of Moloch


    Renegade Genius


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