Search This Blog

Monday, March 27, 2023

Sacred Tattooing

I have always seen tattooing as a sacred process, a way to permanently embed images and symbols into the flesh that have a transcendent meaning. All of my tattoos contain this level of meaning and are first and foremost for me spiritual and secondarily art work. Even the process of being tattooed has spiritual implications for me, and I have often approached the experience as an offering to the gods and spirits. There is, so far, no concrete evidence of the Irish* using tattooing but there is evidence of tattooing in similar cultures, including the Picts and Britons which made me want to explore the concept of tattooing in the ancient world, specifically in Europe.

The earliest know tattoo work found was on the so-called Ice Man, a preserved body found in the area between Italy and Austria. This body was dated to 3000 BCE, making it over 5000 years old(Lineberry, 2007). The body displayed tattooed patterns on the lower back, knee, and ankle which led researchers to conclude the tattoos were mostly therapeutic in nature, being placed on areas with signs of degeneration (Lineberry, 2007). From this it would seem that the earliest tattoos could have been used in a medicinal fashion, although exactly how can only be guessed at.

Additionally tattooing was believed to have been used among the Scythians and Picts. Several preserved Scythian bodies have been found dating as far back as 2400 BCE and both the male and female bore tattoos, in some cases very elaborate, depicting animals and mythic images (Lineberry, 2007). In his writings Herodotus remarked that among the Scythians "tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.”. This could indicate that by the time Herodotus was writing - around 450 BCE - tattooing had become a sign of social standing. The stylized images seen in the Scythian tattoos are the same as those seen in other Scythain artwork, indicating that the tattoos reflected larger social concepts and symbolism (Kromarik, 2003). In the case of the Picts less is known with certainty because no preserved bodies have been found. Writings from secondary sources indicate that Pictish tattoos, like the Scythian, were a symbol of status and that they included images of animals (Lineberry, 2007). Herodian, writing around 200 CE says that the Celts 'draw figures of animals or symbols on their skin by pressing hot iron onto their limbs, causing great pain, and over this they rub the sap of a plant'. (Green, 2012). While this account is questionable because the writer never traveled to any of the Celtic lands and was likely repeating another person's experience there are other Roman sources that mention the use of iron implements to create permanent marks, which means it was either a widespread belief by the Romans or may have been the actual practice. As late as 600 CE a Christian bishop noted the practice of tattooing among the Picts, mentioning a process similar to that cited by Herodian, except pricking was used in place of hot iron (Green, 2012).

Drawing of ancient Britons, Netherlands, 1574
from wikimedia commons

There are Roman references to the practice of either body painting or tattooing in ancient Britain, although its uncertain which was being described. Caesar in his Gallic wars used a term which can be read as either paint or tattoo, and the stories of this practice gave them the name Pretani which can also mean either painted or tattooed (Cox, 2016). Later commentators using Caesar's writing as a source described the Britons as a people who tattooed themselves as children and who saw tattooing as a test of endurance and patience. While it is fair to be skeptical of Roman material, which was heavily biased, later 12th century writer William of Malmesbury would also comment on the Britons fondness for tattooing which he claimed was adopted by the Normans (Cox, 2016). 

Other historic cultures that used tattoos included the Egyptians, Nubians, some areas of the Americas, Austronesians, and Persians. Tattooing would spread to the Greeks and Romans, initially as a way to mark a person as being dedicated to a temple or as a slave (Lineberry, 2007). Most Roman commentators however pointed to tattooing is a barbaric practice done by outsiders, indicating that while it may have been done in those places it didn't convey social status, but rather the opposite. The advent of Christianity slowly discouraged tattooing which was seen as defiling the body, causing the practice to decline in Europe across the centuries.

The true meaning behind ancient tattoos in many of these cultures will never be known, but we do know that tattooing was a common practice among some pre-Christian European cultures, and widely found around the globe. The evidence also supports the theory that these tattoos, particularly among the Picts and Scythians, were more than mere decoration. Whether the pre-Christian Irish tattooed or not we may never know, although there is always the possibility of new evidence coming to light.

 I am comfortable with my own view of the sacredness of tattooing and will undoubtedly continue to add spiritually meaningful tattoos to my own body.

* tattooing appears to be a recent import to Ireland and thus far no evidence has been found in written material or archeology to support the presence of tattooing there in the pre-Christian period. 

Lineberry, C., (2007). Tattoos. Retrieved from
Kromarik, K., (2003). History of Tattooing. Retrieved from
Green, T., (2012). Ancient Celtic Tattooing. Retrived from
Cox, D., (2016) The Name Britian Comes From Our Ancient Love of Tattoos, retrieved from
Carr, G., (2005) Woad, Tattooing, and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early roman Britain retrieved from

No comments:

Post a Comment