The history of tattoos is tightly bound up with that of paganism because the first people to create and receive them were pagans or, at the very least, their ancestors whose shamanistic ways gave birth to paganism. Tattoo is one of the oldest forms of art, right after cave and rock art from prehistoric times. In fact, the ancient history of tattoo is so varied and universal that simply picking a spot on the globe reveals a rich history of body art. Throughout history tattoos served many different purposes. Some were rites of passage that marked a person’s journey into adulthood. For some peoples, a tattoo was an attempt at healing or pain relief. Some tattoos labeled a person a criminal. Others were reserved for shamans, priests and priestesses. Still more were exclusive badges of nobility or royalty. Libraries full of books could be written about the history of tattoos but, for my purposes, I’ll highlight the most well-known or popular pagan forms.
Currently, the oldest evidence we have for tattoos comes from the affectionately named Otzi the Iceman. His body was found in the Alps and is dated to approximately 3300 BCE; his is the oldest mummified body ever found. And he just happens to have over 50 tattoos. While they are not very artistic tattoos, being only lines and a few crosses, they are numerous and, considering their placement on arthritic joints, are believed to be therapeutic.
And the ancient tattoo art doesn’t stop there. Tattooed mummies from Russia dating from approximately the 2nd century BCE have been found with beautiful factual and mythical animals. In ancient Egypt tattoos were restricted to women and were oftentimes placed for therapeutic reasons. For example, a circle of dots or lines was often tattooed over the belly in a pattern reminiscent of the growth of the belly during pregnancy. Also featured on ancient Egyptian women was the god Bes.
The history of tattoo in the formerly Celtic lands is a bit sketchier. We don’t have any tattooed mummies and, of course, no first person written records. What we do have is oftentimes questionable histories from Julius Caesar and Herodian, for example. They mention the use of woad body paint and the pricking or scarring of the skin which was then rubbed with pigment, but the dates and facts are inexact. So, while Celtic tattoos are incredibly popular today we don’t know with any certainty what kind of body art the ancient Celts may have practiced.
Speaking of the modern popularity of tattoos only people living under a rock for the last decade would be unaware of the immense rise of tattoo enthusiasts. You never can tell who might have tattoos because they’re not just for bikers, prisoners and gang members anymore. Mothers of small children have tattoos, doctors and lawyers and scientists have ink as do college professors, mechanics, artists, homemakers and everyone in between. Tattoos have become so main stream that several national and international newspapers have regular tattoo and body art sections. As the quality of the art has grown so have its adherents. Many artists are creating museum worthy tattoos. And it seems nearly everyone wants to carry this form of art with them forever. And neopagans are no exception.
As we all know neopagans are not always in a position to freely express their faith, their beliefs or their values. Whether it’s because of narrow-minded family members, on-the-job tensions, custody battles or simply one’s location some of us have to keep a low profile. But tattoos hidden under clothes can be an amazing answer to this problem. Even when one cannot show it off one knows it’s there. If a neopagan doesn’t feel comfortable openly wearing a pentagram or a Thor’s Hammer, etc. these symbols tattooed on the skin can provide comfort and an amazing sense of empowerment.
But that’s only part of the appeal that tattoos hold for neopagans of every stripe. Many of us tend to be freethinking, tree-hugging, nature lovin’, creative and individualistic spirits who were stifled by the religions of our youth. We are a faith set apart by our differences from the dominant Abrahamic religions which are generally anti-tattoo. Those folks say that tattoos are pagan and they are right. By getting and proudly wearing tattoos we are further distancing ourselves from the religions we knew as children.
Many of us consider our bodies to be temples and what better way to honor our gods or protective spirits than with beautiful art on our bodies? Tattoos representing specific deities, the elements, etc. enable our bodies to not only become temples but altars. Tattoos are magic for the skin, the needles entering the skin is a powerful ritual. By enduring the pain, letting it pass through us and owning it we are embracing the primal within ourselves. We are proving ourselves before the gods. Not only is the ritual of getting a tattoo a life changing one but the tattoo itself will last forever as a testament to our pagan ways.