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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

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Theosophy's Impact on the Pagan View of Fairies

 Note: In this piece I'm going to be making some generalizations which may not apply to all neopagans but which do hold true for a majority that I have looked into. 

A main influence on the neopagan view of fairies, which is rarely acknowledged, is theosophy and more particularly the writings of Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky herself is a controversial figure, accused of rampant plagiarism by her contemporaries and criticized today for her theories on race expressed in 'The Secret Doctrine'; that said her influence on neopaganism and western witchcraft traditions is profound if often ignored. In particular Blavatsky reimagined who and what fairies were and forwarded that in her writing; her ideas were picked up by occultists of her time, including WB Yeats, and seeped into esoteric thought on the subject. So, let us explore that. 

art by Arthur Rackham

First we must quickly establish the understanding of fairies in folklore. What we find across the breadth of western European material are beings who can be intangible or physical at will, who are intrinsically connected to humanity in ways that are both helpful and predatory, and who exist both in and outside of the human world. These are beings in some cases who were formerly human and who steal living humans without compunction and beings who were once Gods. They must be warded against and also propitiated to stay on good terms and avoid harm.

We must digress here for a space to discuss Paracelsus, because his views are foundational for later ideas, but are often misunderstood.
A common defense of the idea of fairies as elementals that I often see is the claim that it was actually the 15th/16th century Paracelsus who originated this idea and that it is therefore genuine. However its slightly more complicated than that, and the modern understanding that we have has been refined and influenced by other ideas, including those of theosophy.
The view Paracelsus was advocating wasn't based in the four (or five) element system or in a strict division of fairies into four groups. Rather he was discussing the nature of all things as relating to different elements - he mentions 7 - based on what they seem most connected to in his opinion. It is worth noting as well that initially he assigns sylphs to the earth, along with four other types of beings, 'sylvani' to air, and associates nymphs - not undine - with water:
"So it is to be known also further that the spirits are many, and they are each one differently than the other. For there are spiritus coelestes, spiritus infernales, spiritus humani, spiritus ignis, spiritus aëris, spiritus aquae, spiritus terrae, etc.. And the spiritus coelestes [spirits of heaven] are the angels and the best spirits, the spiritus infernales [spirits of Hell] are the devils, the spiritus humani [human spirits] are the dead human spirits, the spiritus ignis [spirits of fire] are the salamanders, the spiritus of the air are the sylvani, the spiritus aquatici [spirits of water] are the nymphs, the spiritus terrae [spirits of earth] are called the sylphs, pygmies, Schrötlein, Büzlein, and mountain men." - Paracelsus, Tractatus IV
Later in writing Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris, et Caetebus Spiritus [the book of nymphs, sylvanis, pygmies, salamanders, and other spirits] he would expand these groups and did include undine with water and gnomes with earth. However he didn't limit these beings to single elements, instead listing three elements that each needed, one that they existed in and two others that they were nourished by (Willard, 2020). His elementals then were more complex and nuanced than the modern versions, and were also part of a complex system through which they might reproduce with a human to create a spirit with a soul or with other elemental beings to create monsters which included by his reckoning dwarves, giants, and mermaids. He also understood these beings as having a middle nature between the physical and non-physical, and being inherently good beings who were open to evil influences but sought God and longed for souls (Willard, 2020). Paracelsus also, rather ironically to us perhaps, did not use the names he chose for these beings by choice but rather because he felt they were recognizable (despite appearing to be the source for sylph and gnome) and instead, as Willard discusses more eloquently than I can here, preferred to call them people and emphasize their likeness to humans*.

In Blavatsky's view however we see none of the folkloric fairy and only a shadow of Paracelsus' ideas. We find fairies - interchangeably called elementals and nature spirits - described as lesser beings who seek to evolve upwards into human souls and who are incapable of physical form or of higher intelligence:
"They are the Soul of the elements, the capricious forces in Nature, acting under one immutable Law, inherent in these Centres of Force, with undeveloped consciousness and bodies of plastic mold, which can be shaped according to the conscious or unconscious will of the human being who puts himself in rapport with them. . . . These beings have never been, but will in myriads of ages hence, be evolved into men. They belong to the three lower kingdoms....Elementals, as said already, have no form, and in trying to describe what they are, it is better to say that they are ‘centers of force’ having instinctive desires, but no consciousness, as we understand it. Hence their acts may be good or bad indifferently." (Blavatsky, 1893).
In modern theosophy all fairies, under any name, are lumped into the general categories of elemental or nature spirit (Theosophy World, 2023).  It is broadly understood that all named types of folkloric beings are actually cultural interpretations of specific categories of elementals/nature spirits. These beings are also more strictly limited to their single element and categorized into one of three kingdoms which all seek to evolve into mineral, seen as a transition point into higher evolution which leads eventually to human incarnation (Theosophy World, 2023).  While Paracelsus described these various spirits as very humanoid and capable of interacting with and even reproducing with humans, Theosophy sees them as entirely intangible, shaped or given appearance by human assumptions or projections, and as less intelligent and more primitive than humans. They are, from this view, nature embodied in spirit and exist in a world where humans are the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution, a state which all 'lesser' spirits seek to achieve by working their way up a hierarchy of incarnation, from the elemental state into form then into humanity. 
Another key aspect which is paraphrased by the Theosophy World website is that fairies/elementals are "neither individualized like human beings nor even yet entered on the way to such individualization, as animals and plants have been" or in other words elementals in this view are a collective consciousness, an expression of a natural force, rather than a unique or individual being. This is an aspect of the lower evolution of these spirits compared to humans, that they exist in a primitive state and are not conscious or self aware in a way that humans understand. This is also reflected in the idea that these beings lack any form of their own and are only given form by the humans they interact with. They are understood to be immoral or amoral in that they lack the cognitive ability to make moral judgements and instead act by 'natural law' (Theosophy World, 2023). This is of course sharply in contrast to Paracelsus' idea of elementals as inherently good but capable of being mislead into evil, as it positions them as incapable of any moral understanding or judgment. 

The Effect
So what are the key points that neopaganism/witchcraft have taken from Blavatsky that are at odds with folklore?

  1. fairies as incorporeal - a common idea seen in modern views that is rooted in Blavatsky but not found elsewhere is that fairies are incapable of being tangible or corporeal.
  2. fairies are beneath humans - Blavatsky placed fairies as less evolved souls and simple primitive spirits. While there are corners of neopaganism who view fairies as evolved guides there are also many who see fairies as animalistic and easily controlled by humans or existing in a hierarchy beneath humans. 
  3. fairies as nature spirits - while this is concurrent with Victorian imagery it was also a point that Blavatsky specifically wrote about, tying fairies intrinsically to the human natural world and particularly plants and minerals. In this view fairies are limited to and defined by the human natural world.
  4. fairies as elementals - widely popular now and seen even outside neopaganism is the Blavatsky idea of fairies as elemental spirits. This view generally removes the nuanced belief about fairies and reduces them to simple expressions of the qualities of an element. While claiming to be based on Paracelsus, often more strongly informed by Blavatsky. 
  5. fairies require human input to express forms - I have seen this in multiple contexts now, the idea that fairies are formless unless and until given form through interaction with a human. Put another way, humans see what they expect when encountering a fairy because they shape themselves to the human's expectation. 
  6. fairies seek human incarnation - while we have a plethora of material, including Paracelsus, which discuss the fairies desire for souls and Christian salvation it seems to be an effect of Theosophy to believe that fairies desire or seek physical form in a human body**. This seems to have blended into some neopagan/witchcraft ideas around reincarnation and the afterlife to give us a belief in witches as fairy souls incarnate in human bodies or humans being corporeal fairies who return to Fairy after death.
    We do find stories, such as that of Melusine, that discuss a fairy reproducing with a human so that their offspring will have a soul, but that is a rather different concept. 
  7. fairies as simple or childlike spirits - an outgrowth of Blavatsky's ideas of fairies/elementals as less evolved and less intelligent spirits, possibly blended with the Victorian infantilization of fairies, seems to be the idea of fairies as childlike spirits.

It should be understood that these ideas often work together or intertwine in modern thought, sometimes independent of other influences sometimes closely tied to related Victorian or new age beliefs, and sometimes woven into older folk material to create a new concept. If your understanding of fairies involves their being less than human, incapable of corporeal form, as childlike spirits, as beings who are bound to the natural world or as elemental beings embodying natural forces then you are being influenced by theosophical thought and its followers in occult and pagan philosophy. 

End Notes
*this is particularly worth noting in relation to the salamander which is envisioned as a kind of fiery amphibian creature but which Paracelsus saw as humanoid
**I am expressing no judgment on this belief, before people jump into the comments, simply tracing the available evidence for the source of the belief. 


Blavatsky, H., (1893) Elementals Retrieved from

Paracelsus (nd) Tractatus IV Retrieved from

Willard, T., (2020) The Monsters of Paracelsus Retrieved from 

Theosophy World (2023) Fairies Retrieved from