ANCIENT TATTOOS: Theories of Heaven and Earth – TATUAJE ANTICE: Teorii cu Rai si Pamant

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Pleasure, Power, Duty

Archeologists, when asked if the ancients were tattooed, are typically left holding a sack of fleshless bones, reminding us that tattoo is an ephemeral art, rarely surviving death. But where evidence has survived – from entombed Egyptian mummies, to the burial mounds of horsemen of the Siberian Plain, to Paleolithic tattoo implements found in prehistoric caves in Spain – it would appear that tattoos were indeed a feature of prehistoric cultures. We know from studying indigenous peoples in the modern era that tattoos have not been merely decorative, rather, they were charms for protection, amulets for good luck, marks of shame or glory, symbols of faith, proof of maturity or readiness for marriage or battle. They served the sensual, erotic, and emotional aspects of the psyche, providing a source of power, and perhaps more importantly, a reminder of the tattooed citizen’s social duty.

Animals were the dominant tattoo motifs in ancient times, and represented personal or clan totems, sometimes imbuing the believer with its spirit. If it was a case of ‘mind over matter’, it’s a psychic feat that today’s tattoo aficionado still engages in. From the jungles of Borneo to the tattoo studios of L.A., we humans continue to adopt and display those symbols that resound with unnamed passions deep within us. Mysterious and powerful, this relationship of inner to outer – the skin being the dividing membrane – is nothing less than the psychic origin of tattoo. An examination of the most ancient tattoo cultures should shed light on this ‘imaginal’ world from where all tattoo motifs originate.

Due to the lack of preserved skin from ancient times – mummified bodies being exceedingly rare – the journey in search of the earliest tattoos finds us on our knees examining fragments of clay figurines that display tattoo-like etchings.

Detectives may even pick up the trail in a stanza of ancient poetry, or resort to examining myth. From Ancient Greece comes the famous story of Helen of Troy, in which the legendary beauty is abducted by the Trojan, Paris. For his protection, Paris was tattooed as a charm against the arrows of Helen’s jealous husband. (Alas, the resulting Trojan Wars saw Paris killed in the end.) Another legend, that of Orpheus, tells of that mythic poet’s failed attempt to retrieve his wife from the Underworld. In the aftermath of his grief he wooed young men with his seductive songs, which so enraged Orpheus’ female admirers that they tore him limb from limb. The point is not that Orpheus may or may not have deserved such a fate, but that the women tattooed themselves to commemorate their deed (or were tattooed as punishment). The point is – for tattoo hunters both professional and amateur – the ancient myths of Paris and Orpheus speak of tattooing.

The school of ‘depth psychology’ suggests that archetypal stories (myths) and images underpin our culture and are synonymous with ‘soul’. But the old-fashioned scientist in us wants to follow a real trail of blood back to ‘where it all started’. Which begs the question – was there a single source to tattooing, a dominant culture from which the art was disseminated around the world (the ‘diffusion theory’)? Or did tattooing emerge separately and individually in each culture (‘independent evolution’) as a common response to the very human need to feel more comfortable in one’s own skin? Once again, archeologists can’t provide us with definite answers. Diffusion, after all, is an entirely mental event, a phenomenon that leaves no archeological footprint.

Where did it all start?

The word ‘tattoo’ – or ‘tattaw’ – was imported to Europe by the British Capt. James Cook and his crew on their return from their trading expedition to Tahiti, arriving home in July, 1771. The word didn’t exist in the West because tattooing was virtually unknown. Disembarking at Plymouth, Cook must have been less excited by his cargo of exotic fruits than by his logbooks full of celestial observations from the Southern Hemisphere, and his journals describing Polynesian culture. His notes pin-point the moment in time when ‘tattoo’ entered the English lexicon:

“They stain their bodies by indentings, or pricking the skin with small instruments made of bone, cut into short teeth; which indentings they fill up with dark-blue or black mixture prepared from the smoke of an oily nut… This operation, which is called by the natives “tattaw”, leaves an indelible mark on the skin. It is usually performed when they are about ten or twelve years of age, and on different parts of the body.”

HMS Resolution of 1773 - Tahiti, Matavai Bay

For display purposes, Cook brought with him a heavily tattooed Tahitian chief, reinforcing the belief that tattoo was synonymous (exclusively so) with the culture of the South Seas. Had Cook’s expedition kept going, they might have discovered that headhunters in Borneo were applying tattoos to ensure their safe passage across the River of Death and into the afterlife. And, half a world away, the Aztecs were imprinting their skin with indelible reproductions of their powerful and ruthless gods, while the Yupik women of the Bering Strait were stitching tattoos into their faces to dispel evil and attract prey animals – and husbands as well. In Thailand, Buddhist monks were bolstering their spirits and attracting good fortune by tattooing each other with religious designs and icons. And tribes from Africa to North America were practicing body modification rituals in order to transform adolescents into responsible members of the tribe. Captain Cook’s crew would have been even more astonished to learn that Western cultures, too, had a long but forgotten history of tattooing. So complete was European amnesia that, even now, it’s difficult for many anthropologists to accept that Caucasians may have been responsible for disseminating tattoo culture (and other inventions) to much of the world.

One of these distant tattooed relatives was discovered less than twenty years ago, providing scientists with their best-preserved Bronze Age corpse – and some of the oldest evidence of tattoo culture.

Ötzi, the Iceman

In 1991, high in the Ötz Valley on the glaciated border between Austria and Italy, hikers found a frozen body. A melting glacier had only recently released it from its icy grip. But this was no missing tourist, but a prehistoric hunter (or was he a herdsman or a shaman?) complete with bow and arrows and bronze axe – 5200 years old. A forensic examination of the body revealed that the 45-year old man had been shot in the back with an arrow and left to die in a snowstorm. Buried and preserved by that long-ago winter, Ötzi then waited in his icy tomb for an era of global warming to once again show off his tattoos. He had 58 of them.

Ötzi’s tattoos weren’t decorative, however, since they were inked on parts of the body not easily displayed. Furthermore, they weren’t pictorial, rather they were dots and lines and small crosses.

“…two parallel stripes around the left wrist; four groups of lines to the left of the lumbar spine; one group of lines to the right of the lumbar spine; a cruciform mark on the inside of the right knee; three groups of lines on the left calf; a small cruciform mark to the left of the Achilles tendon; a group of lines on the back of the right foot; a group of lines next to the right outer ankle; a group of lines above the right inner ankle…” (from The Man in the Ice, 1994, by Konrad Spindler.)

A group of scientists from the University of Graz in Austria suspected a relationship between Ötzi’s tattoos and traditional acupuncture points. If they were correct, then acupuncture had been in use in Europe 2000 years earlier than previously thought. X-rays revealed many of Ötzi’s joints to be arthritic, including his lumbar region. Nine of the mummy’s tattoos were inked on the urinary bladder meridian, commonly associated with treating back pain. One cross-shaped tattoo is located by the left ankle (on point UB60) which many therapists consider to be a ‘master point for back pain’. Given the particular combination of points, it seems that Ötzi was being treated with a ‘meaningful therapeutic regime’. Furthermore, Ötzi’s intestines were infested with whipworm eggs, a sure sign he suffered from abdominal pain. Five more of his tattoos corresponded with points on the meridian traditionally used to treat stomach disorders.

If Ötzi’s tribe were practicing ‘Chinese medicine’, then according to the diffusion theory other shamanistic cultures must have done so, too. Civilizations from East and West must have crossed paths, transacted business and traded cultural practices long before most people believe. The evidence for just such a racial interaction comes from Central Asia, where Chinese authorities have been more or less successful at keeping the story under wraps.


Central Asian Caucasoids, tall people with red hair and green eyes, had long been the subject of Chinese legend. Then, in the early 20th century, archeologists digging in the Tarim Basin in western China, unearthed mummies resembling the legendary creatures. At first, no one leapt to any conclusions. The prehistoric graveyard must have marked the final resting place for an unfortunate band of migrants. But more recently, Chinese archeologists working in the Taklamakan Desert, made further discoveries that forced them to reconsider – hundreds more Caucasian mummies, many of them tattooed with geometric designs. They were clothed in garments resembling Celtic plaid, complete with tam-o’-shanters and Robin Hood caps. Perhaps the ancient Chinese legends were accurate.

Radiocarbon dating established the mummies as living during the height of the Bronze Age, in the 21st century BC. Italian geneticist, Paolo Francalacci, tested the DNA of a few of the mummies and found two of them to be related to modern-day Swedes, Finns, Tuscans, Corsicans, and Sardinians. Struck by the similarities between Ötzi the Iceman and these Caucasoid mummies, Sinologist, Victor Mair, remarked, “These guys out in the Tarim (Basin) are just like him – one’s in ice and the others are in sand.”

These were an Indo-European people, cousins of the Celts and Scythians, a branch of the family that may have controlled the Silk Road to Europe from 2500 BC to 400 BC. As traders, they would have influenced cultures as far as their travels took them, certainly to the tattooed horsemen of the Siberian plain, and possibly as far west as the Celts and the painted Picts, and southwards to the tribals of India. Possibly even to Japan, spreading their Caucasoid tattoo culture to the ancestors of Japan’s indigenous Ainu. If enterprising Caucasians might have once inhabited Xinjiang province, it was a theory that the Chinese government wanted ‘classified’. The version of history they guarded was of a Chinese civilization blossoming in isolation, without any Western influence. Consider, too, that the mummies were exotically tattooed – tattooing had been a crime in China for over two centuries. The less said, the better.

But not far from the Chinese discoveries, in Russia, on the western edge of the Siberian Plain, dramatic evidence of an ancient tattoo culture was unearthed. And this time, highly publicized.

Horsemen of the Siberian Plain

In 450 BC, the Greek writer Herodotus wrote about Scythian nomads to the north, tribes of horsemen who ruled the Eurasian Steppe by horseback, their tattoos acting as ‘a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.’ Sceptics assumed Herodotus was dreaming, and held to that opinion for over 2000 years. But in 1948, not far from the border with China, a Russian archeologist named Rudenko discovered an astonishingly well-preserved corpse in a frozen Pazyryk burial mound – and ice-bound Scythian chieftain covered with tattoos of mythical animals. He would have been alive as Herodotus was writing about him.

The Pazyryks were formidable Iron Age horsemen and warriors. The artifacts found with the mummies suggest they had an appreciation for art – saddles, rugs, clothing, jewelry, musical instruments, amulets and tools and fabrics from Persia and China. But the most artistic of all the wonders were the tattoos, an interlocking array of fantastic beasts on the mummy’s arms, shoulder, torso, and one leg. When the evidence was made public, much interest focused on a pair of stylized deer and a mountain ram on the chief’s right arm. Stylistically, they recalled the art of Persia, Assyria, India, and particularly China. Boldly graphic, this ‘animal style’ art influenced cultures wherever the Scythians roamed.

On the chief’s chest were a pair of fabulous griffin-like monsters. On his right leg, a fish extended downward from the knee to the foot, where a monster took over. Inside the shin Rudenko found a unified design of four rams on the run. The chief’s other leg was also tattooed but less clearly. On his back were a series of small circles in line with the vertebrae, most likely a strategy to ease back pain, since modern era horsemen in Siberia deploy a similar tactic.

Over the years, the Pazyryk burial mounds would produce more frozen mummies, but none more exciting than the ‘Ice Maiden’. In 1993, the Russian Academy of Sciences went hunting with the latest arsenal of archeological technology and were rewarded with the discovery of another frozen corpse, this one a young woman of obviously high birth, a ‘warrior-priestess’ buried with six horses. (Some of the burial mounds were up to 100 metres in diameter.) Her white silk dress, elaborate headdress and exotic jewelry were an exciting find, but upon discovering flesh they began peeling back the fabric over her shoulder to reveal dark blue tattoos – once again those familiar mythical creatures. One striking image portrayed a deer’s horns morphing into flowers, the muzzle becoming the beak of a bird.

Were these beasts simply imaginary? Or were their origins to be found deeper in the human psyche? Were they ‘imaginal’ – did they arise unbidden from some subtle realm from which we derive our humanity? To an ancient, the skin might have been perceived as the boundary between ‘inner and outer’ – between that which he did and didn’t understand. Our ancestors may have deployed these fantastical creatures to patrol this vulnerable membrane, this liminal zone between worlds.

“Their adornment of the human skin thus serves to draw attention to – and to reinforce the central significance of – this boundary between the chaos beyond, transgressed by the tattooing but thereafter protected by the powerful and dangerous entities.”

(The Archeology of Death and Burial, M. Pearson, 2002, Texas A&M University Press)

The Ice Maiden had more tattoos on her wrist, and one on her thumb. One of her tattoos so closely resembled the chieftain’s that it was either drawn from the same stencil, or perhaps by the same artist. This recurring ‘deer’ motif has puzzled the experts, not least because its convoluted posture with hind legs turned upward suggests an altered state. Signifying what? That those hooves no longer touched this earth? That the Pazyryks celebrated transcendence or spirituality has the support of author, A.C. Aufderheide. In The Scientific Studies of Mummies (2003) he describes the largest Pazyryk burial mound as being 100 metres across and containing not only the royal deceased but many of his horses arranged in spoke-like fashion around the central tomb. Aufderheide writes, “Alignments of the galleries with stone mounds in the surrounding area strongly implies that this burial structure has astrological and probably ritual relationships.”

If the Pazyryk horsemen had rituals, then rites of passage to adulthood might well have been one of them. An examination of the tattooed mummies’ subcutaneous fat revealed it to be free of ink, while the deeper layer of muscle was discoloured. Clearly, these tattoos were applied when the person was young, before he put on that layer of fat, later in life.

It’s impossible to walk a mile in a Pazyryk tattoo, because the psyche of modern man has changed radically in 2500 years. Archaic man was not ‘individualistic’, according to mythologist Joseph Campbell. At least, not beyond the egocentrism of early childhood. Ancient man was socialized into an archetype that would serve the tribe. “And it was precisely in the rites of initiation,” says Campbell, “that his apotheosis (from person to status of god) was effected.” The childhood psyche required an intense experience to cause it to disintegrate – followed by a meaningful ritual that reintegrated or reorganized it into a worldview that valued social duty above all other concerns. “Throughout the world, the rituals of transformation from infancy to manhood are attended with, and effected by, excruciating ordeals,” says Campbell.

There are more painful rites than acquiring a tattoo, but the person is transformed nevertheless into an indelible statement of his spiritual state. Consider the heavily tattooed Pazyryk chieftain – could he have behaved other than in a manner befitting his mystical animal totems? Perhaps the people had faith that their chief’s tattoos would elevate him to the position of trust that they required of him. We’ll never know.

Picti, Pictus, Pingere

We have hard evidence upon which to base our speculations about the Pazyryk horsemen and their fabulous tattoos, but the Celts who lived during the same era, 2500 years ago, didn’t leave us much to play with. Without the written Roman accounts that followed their invasion of Britain, we would know next to nothing. Julius Caesar wrote (in 50 BCE), “All Britons paint themselves with woad, which turns the skin a bluish-green colour, hence their appearance is all the more horrific in battle.”

Modern attempts to tattoo with woad have failed, but perhaps the experiments weren’t vigourous enough. John A. Rush in his Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History describes rendering the leaves of the plant Isatis tinctoria, a process that involves many dilutions with water and urine to precipitate the fine blue ‘indigo’ sediment. Virtually insoluble in water, alcohol, ether or diluted acids, the resulting indigo has antibacterial qualities. If the Celts didn’t prick the woad into the skin as a tattoo, perhaps the blue dye was a kind of pro-active first-aid applied in advance of combat.

In the 3rd century A.D., Herod of Antioch wrote, “The Britons incise on their bodies colored pictures of animals, of which they are very proud.” Four hundred years later, Saint Isidore of Seville described the Scots as being ‘marked with various designs by being pricked with iron needles with ink on them…and the Picts also are thus named because of the absurd marks produced on their bodies by craftsmen with tiny pinpricks and juice extracted from their local grasses.’

The name ‘Picts’ is more than enough to suggest that body modification was a national pastime. Roman soldiers spoke of a northern tribe that they termed ‘Picti’, meaning ‘the painted people’. (‘Pictus’ is Latin, the past participle for pingere, ‘to paint’.) Two hundred years after the Romans left Britain, Herodotus wrote (what were his sources?) about the Picts drawing ‘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.’ The very name ‘Britannia’ is said to stem from the Celtic word for ‘land of the painted people’. From there, the evidence is perhaps even less reliable – the lyrics of a poet writing for the Roman court (circa 400 CE):

“The legions guarding Britannia’s farthest reaches,

Reigning-in the barbaric Scots,

Saw on the bodies of the dying Picts

Crude images cut with iron.”

Or does ‘Pict’ derive from the name of the iron instrument with which the naked blue warriors applied their skin ink? The Picts left us with a few cryptically inscribed standing stones – and a lot of questions.

Ancient tattoos would seem to have been the exclusive domain of the warrior classes, but there is a culture where the evidence points to tattooing as an exclusively female phenomenon.

Ancient Egypt

Egypt has long been thought of as the source of our earliest evidence of ancient tattoos – mummies dating to 2000 BC. Previously, clay statuettes had suggested a tattoo culture going back as far as 4000 BC. The limbs and bodies of the small female figures were etched with what might have been tattoos. But speculation ended in 1891 with the discovery in Thebes of the mummified remains of a female displaying tattoos of various abstract geometric designs. Her tomb identified her as Amunet, a priestess of the goddess Hathor, the ‘cosmic mother’.

On her arms and thighs, Amunet displayed tattooed parallel lines, and on her abdomen, pelvis and pubic regions were elliptical patterns, which scholars didn’t hesitate to identify as ‘carnal’ in nature. Such designs were familiar to archeologists who had studied ancient figurines with similar markings, often found with bodies in tombs. ‘Brides of the dead’ they were called, some company for the deceased as they entered the afterlife, perhaps. Or to encourage the sexual energy of the deceased, ensuring his resurrection. Subsequent mummies revealed similar tattoos, mostly non-pictorial groupings of dots, dashes, and parallel lines. From similar tattoos in neighbouring cultures in North Africa and the Middle East, those seemingly random and meaningless marks have come to be identified with fertility and the primal female power of the universe. Little wonder that Amunet, priestess of Hathor, would have adopted those marks for power and protection.

Amunet was originally dismissed by archeologists as ‘probably a royal concubine’, since a tattooed woman in the West was generally classified as a prostitute. Or perhaps the tattooed amulets were meant as protection against sexually transmitted disease. A more enlightened attitude suggests a different interpretation – that the abdominal tattoos served as amulet during pregnancy and birth. Many of the female mummies reveal another tattoo on the upper thigh, this one not an abstraction but clearly an image of the demi-god Bes, a lascivious little male god devoted to women’s concerns. He appears in many ancient Egyptian paintings of dancers and musicians, who adopted him as their patron saint.

The ancient Egyptian evidence runs against the grain of most tattoo cultures around the world – that tattooing has been a predominantly male domain. It seems that in Egypt, where no male mummies have yet been found bearing tattoos, women were the keepers of the tattoo tradition. Cate Lineberry, writing for, suggests that elder women in the community would have been the tattoo artists as well, just as they were in 19th century Egypt when the process was witnessed first-hand:

“The operation is performed with several needles tied together. The skin is pricked in a desired pattern; some smoke black mixed with milk from the breast of a woman, is then rubbed in… it was generally performed at the age of about five or six, and by gypsy-women.”

Female Nubian mummies dating back to 400 BC have been found with that same ‘Bes’ tattoo. Berbers and Bedouins in North Africa hold to tattoo traditions that resemble those of ancient Egypt, and once again it proves to be a female art.

The Alaskan women of St. Lawrence Island

Further examples of female dominance in ancient tattoo art are found above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. There, the Yupik elders speak eagerly of their dying tattoo traditions.

The last tattooed woman of the Yupik people lives on a wind-blown island in the Bering Strait. Anthropologist, Lars Krutak, has been studying their tattoo art, and he tells us that here, yet again, it’s the women who have been carrying the tradition that stretches back at least 2000 years. Ancient carved figurines have been found with tattoo-like marks, which, if taken at ‘face’ value, suggest that Arctic tattooing was practiced at least 3,500 years ago. What’s unusual about the Aleutian Island tattoos is that they’re stitched in. It makes sense, since the women would have been experts in tailoring hides for everything from parkas to boat covers. Krutak writes:

“The tattoo pigment was made from the soot of seal oil lamps. The soot was mixed with urine, often that of an old woman, and sometimes graphite or seal oil was added. Next, a sinew thread from a reindeer was drawn through the eye of a needle and dipped into the coloring substance. This thread was then inserted just under the skin for a distance of about a 1/32 of an inch and after several stitches tiny dots began to form lines and other desired motifs.”

(“Many Stitches for Life: the Antiquity of Thread and Needle Tattooing”)

These unique tattoos would have served to identify family or clan membership, but they were also applied for medicinal reasons. Like the Pazyryk chieftain, who had a series of tattooed dots up the spine, the Yupik seem to have deployed a similar acupuncture practice on ailing joints. But therapeutic tattoos were likely few compared to those stitched across the face for more social purposes. A Russian priest was on the spot in 1830 and recorded his observations:

“…the pretty ones and also the daughters of famous and rich ancestors and fathers, endeavored in their tattooing to show the accomplishments of their progenitors, as for instance, how many enemies, or powerful animals, that ancestor killed.”

South American Mummies – Older than Ötzi

Mummified evidence of the stitched-in tattoo comes also from the ancient Chimú people of Peru. Excavated burial sites have proved to be almost 1000 years old, and suggest that up to 30% of the population were tattooed. Once again, it appears as if women dominated the art of tattoo. The same plant dye that served for tattooing was also applied like paint to skulls taken in combat by headhunting tribes in the region. The dye was believed to provide protection from evil spirits, and more particularly the spirit of the recently beheaded. (See, “Many Stitches for Life: The Antiquity of Thread and Needle Tattooing” by Lars Krutak.)

Not so far away, on a beach in arid northern Chile, an archeological site is home to mummies excavated in 1919. These were people of the Chinchorro culture, hunters and gatherers living from 5000 to 500 BC. In fact, the oldest mummy has been dated at 7,810 years old – the oldest example of intentionally mummified human remains.

According to Dr. Marvin Allison, who has conducted thousands of mummy autopsies in South America, at least one of the male specimens showed a small stitched-in tattoo on his upper lip – a discovery that establishes the Chilean Chinchorro example as our pre-eminent historical tattoo. This tattoo predates Ötzi the Iceman’s tattoos by 1500 years.

Notable, too, is the mummification practice of the Chinchorro – more complex than the Egyptian’s yet almost three thousand years older. They eviscerated the corpses, saving the skin and bones which they re-assembled with the help of sticks and clay. Muscles were recreated with bundles of reeds and grasses, after which the deceased was ‘reupholstered’ with his original skin. Repair work was accomplished with sea lion skin. A mask of clay was incised with eye slits and modeled to lend the impression of a person peacefully sleeping. Then the ‘sculpture’ was covered with a coat of black manganese. Indeed, some of these mummies looked like works of art. Nor were they buried immediately, but continued to hang around the village, propped up in groups. Paleopathologists like Dr. Allison at the Virginia Commonwealth University believe that the dead might have been revered as a valuable link between this world and the next.


On the Pacific coast of Canada, we encounter the most artistically accomplished indigenous people on the North American continent – the Haida. Their totem poles, war canoes, and longhouses were adorned with the totemic designs that have become so well known in the art world today. Anthropologist, James A. Swan, studying the Haida 150 years ago, noted that the Haida’s bold tattoos were similar to the carvings depicted on the monumental art that graced the home of the chief. But which came first – tattoos or totem poles? It has been hypothesized that the stylized animal totems that appear on the Haida’s famous poles, carvings, and prints actually started out as tattoos, ancient designs of family crests used for identification.

Early photo showing Masset shaman with man on right showing tattoos of the Bear on chest and a Whale on his forearm.

It is generally believed that no other indigenous people were as heavily tattooed as the Haida – and few others used red as well as black pigments. The recent discovery of a Haida tattoo kit in the basement of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, displayed residues of both colours.

“These (Haida) designs are invariably placed on the men between the shoulder blades just below the back of the neck, on the breast, on the front part of both thighs, and on the legs just below he knees. On the women they are marked on the breast, on both shoulders, on both forearms, from the elbow down over the back of the hands to their knuckles, and on both legs below the knee to the ankle.” (James G. Swan, Tattoo Marks of the Haida, 1878)

Swan was impressed with Haida tattoos for the meanings they carried, especially those on the hands and arms of the women, which advertised their family clan. He noted the bear, beaver, wolf, and eagle, and various fish including the salmon, of course. These crests recalled their ancestral creator beings (totems) and the mythological events that comprised their family history. These stories usually involved entities called ‘supernaturals’ that lived in ‘other realms’. How far back these histories go is not known, because they quickly vanish in the mists beyond memory. Asking where myths come from is to risk venturing back to a time before thought.

Plains Indians of North America

Mythologist, Joseph Campbell, suggests that rituals such as tattooing were necessary to bring the mythologies alive. He adds that “the effect was to convert men into angels.” Or, into the Greek ‘messenger god’ Hermes, who negotiated between the realms of the living and the dead. A tattoo on the body of an ancient ancestor was often a message transferring power, not just from one time to another, but from one reality to another.

The indigenous American cosmos more closely resembled an onion than a pyramid, each layer alive with spirits both harmful and helpful. Passage from one world to another could be achieved in dreams, whose images were brought to this world in the form of tattoos. In his ‘Irreverent History of the Tattoo, John Gray writes:

“Cree tattooists kept their instruments in a sacred bundle which they bequeathed to the heirs of their multiple calling: medical tattooing was a profession, decorative tattooing a trade, sacred tattooing a duty. The price of a decorative tattoo was one horse, but if the client was responding to a dream, the tattoo was administered free.”


Archeological evidence has shown that ancestors of some contemporary tribes have lived in Borneo for 50,000 years. It’s impossible to determine how long tattooing has been important to the Dayak people, but without doubt headhunting and tattooing were closely connected. Some of their myths and legends are so primal that we can’t help but imagine that they must have emerged from a time beyond any reckoning. Consider their belief in the power of the tattoo to navigate a course through the Afterlife. As the soul ventured up the river that ran through ‘Sebayan’, the Land of the Dead, the tattoo lit the way. This was a journey that only the most heavily tattooed warrior could complete. Without their tattoos, the deceased would never find the longhouse of his most heroic ancestors.

Among the Kayan tribe runs the belief that after death the completely tattooed woman will be allowed to bathe in the mythical river called Teland Julan, and to gather pearls found on the river bed. Incompletely tattooed women can only stand and watch from the riverbank, while the un-tattooed will not be able to approach the shore at all. For other Dayak tribes like the Iban, the tattoo had an equally vital function while the individual was still living – they ensured the gods would recognize him. In a jungle realm so very rife with troublesome spirits, an Iban who was invisible to his gods was virtually doomed.

In cultures without a written language, beliefs such as these are impossible to track backwards in time to prove their ancient origins. However, their stories have the power to catapult our imaginations to the very beginnings of culture, where we’re faced with the astonishing possibility that myth – emerging from mankind’s collective unconscious – might actually precede culture. If that’s true, then ‘tattoo’ and other indigenous rituals were a response to deep-seated instincts. Tattoos were a way to acknowledge the mythic realms, which, by their subtle nature could never be fully grasped. Even in our modern society, we support our ‘myths of authority’ by dressing up our priests in robes, our soldiers in uniforms, and our judges in wigs. But in primitive cultures where people spent their lives mostly naked, it’s the body that must be changed.

In the Beginning Was the Image

Where the ancients identified with an image – as the Iban did with the frog, scorpion and centipede for example – and where Egyptian women did with the god Bes – and the Pazyryk horsemen with their stylized deer tattoos – these were a form of communication with the spirit world. Pictures and symbols are an especially efficient medium of communication, since they don’t require the intellect to process them. Our dreams prove that without a doubt. In fact, we humans have such a ready stockpile of mental images, stories, memories and symbols at our disposal that it’s not far-fetched to suggest that ‘thought’ is actually built upon a much more profound domain of ‘poetic’ substance. Archetypal psychologist, James Hillman, says it best: “In the beginning is the image.”

“Man is primarily an image-maker,” says Hillman, “and our psychic substance consists of our images; our experience is imagination.” This theory challenges those who would decry everything but so-called concrete reality – but physics has shown us that hard reality is an illusion, a limited point of view. Through the ages, mystics have been preaching the same thing, trying to trick us into perceiving existence as the ‘formless’ reality they insist it is. Another exponent of the ‘imaginal’ school of thought is Roberts Avens, who adds, “It has been observed that the basic disease from which our culture may be dying is man’s disparagement, if not vilification, of images and myths – accompanied by his faith in a positivistic, rationalistically ordered and dirt-free civilization.”

Attention to this ‘imaginal realm’ has been ignored by traditional psychology in favour of studying the lower dynamisms of survival, sex, and power. Powerful instincts they certainly are, but the ancients, by virtue of their unashamed relationship with invisible realms, suggest that another instinct is at work in the human organism – the instinct for transcendence. Can we understand human behaviour without acknowledging it? Arianna Huffington, author of The Fourth Instinct, thinks not.

“(The instinct for transcendence connects) to the part of us that goes beyond our materiality and survives our death… That’s what explains our search for meaning, whether it drives us to art or to religion or to altruistic behaviour that cannot be explained purely in terms of self-interest… You could say that the fourth instinct drives the evolution of consciousness – and the evolution of consciousness is the foundation of everything.”

Tattoos in the service of human evolution, it’s a bold claim. To believe that images speak to us from our soul is wilder speculation yet. Herman Melville, the great American writer of the 19th century (Moby Dick, 1851), must have wondered about such a ‘fourth instinct’ when as a young man he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands. He found himself in one of the richest tattoo cultures in the world. Later, while creating his fictional harpooner, Queequeg, he ascribed to him a kind of transcendental tattoo art:

“And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.”


In recent centuries, no tattoo tradition developed more lush and mythic imagery than the Japanese. Heroic and religious motifs were combined with symbolic animals and flowers against a backdrop of waves, vegetation, clouds and lightning bolts. These body-covering designs originated in the wood block art traditions of the 18th century. But for a millennium before that – while Japan was taking its cultural cues from China – tattooing had become punitive, used to mark convicts and outcasts.

Chinese texts make the first mention of Japanese tattoos. From 297 A.D. comes this quote: “Men young and old, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs.” Further reference was made to a young lord who “cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. The Wa (Japanese) who are fond of diving into water to get fish and shells, also decorated their bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl.” The Chinese observers would have viewed all this very much as a sign of barbarism.

As in other cultures, the evidence of earlier tattooing in Japan is suggested in the discovery of clay figurines. These ‘dogu’ have faces painted or engraved to represent the kind of tattoo marks later found on the mouths of the indigenous women of Japan, the Ainu. So, how far back do these figurines date? The oldest of them have been recovered from tombs that date to 5000 B.C. Some would confidently extrapolate Japanese tattoo culture backwards to the beginnings of the Jomon Period, back to Paleolithic times, roughly 10,000 B.C. Although these ancient tattoo designs vanished from Japanese culture, they can be seen today in the indigenous populations of the South Pacific.

The South Seas

Archeologists can’t prove (as armchair historians claim) that the Polynesian tattoo tradition goes back to the Ma’ohi civilization more than a thousand years ago. In the hot and humid tropics where the soil is acidic, organic matter (corpses especially) decays rapidly. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have lived in Tahiti, the Marquesas, Samoa, and the other Polynesian Islands, very few skeletal remains have been found. What we have is the somewhat less perishable oral tradition – mythologies, songs, and ritual ceremonies that depict how the two sons of the Tahitian Creation God, Ta’aroa, instructed the people in the sacred art of ‘tatatau’. We can only assume that the ancient tattoos resembled the motifs seen in Tahiti’s tattoo revival, many of the designs from which were recovered from the journal entries of traders and missionaries who visited the South Seas from the late 18th century onwards. Common design elements included geometric motifs, petroglyphs, and simple depictions of men, animals, birds and other objects. Tattoos were applied by shamans, who, along with the young male inductee, underwent cleansing rituals that involved fasting and segregation from women. These designs represented a personal history, one’s island of origin, social status, or work. Or it protected against sharks and enemies. Certain mystical symbols incorporated a spiritual force called mana, which, while emanating from ancestors, remained for the individual to develop and master. As in Borneo, this spiritual power was displayed in and through the tattoo. To be without the tattoo was to be truly naked. Although the Polynesians never had a written language, their tattoos have been called a ‘language of the skin’. French writer, Michel Tournier, who reversioned Robinson Crusoe, says:

“Polynesian tattoos are also language, but primary, primordial, original language. Tattooed, the body becomes a body-sign. It is a book of spells scrawled upon the skin, it is knowledge and initiation.” (Introduction to Tahiti Tattoos, Taschen Books.)

Raymond Graffe, the “fire-walking, Harley-Davidson-riding high priest of Tahitian tattooing,” (who is also an archeologist at the Ministry of Culture), explains that “these tattoos were meant to enhance sexual attraction, to exalt the life force and to give the wearer a godlike appearance.” (Tahiti Tattoos.) Girls were tattooed earlier than boys, but the young men continued to add to their collection until they reached the age of about thirty. The names of these tattoos, and the tattoo process itself was revived in the modern era by referring to the Samoan tattoo tradition, which is unique among Polynesian cultures for its unbroken history of tattoo practices – in the face of the censures of Christian prohibition.

Samoans appeared to have adopted Christianity as a ploy to get the white man’s god on their side. After all, this god to whom they prayed had blessed these Europeans with ships that could survive a journey half way around the world. But the Samoans saw Christianity as an add-on, not a replacement for beliefs that had served them for as long as anyone could remember. Lacking evidence to date the origins of the Samoan tattoo, we are left to consider its importance to the culture. Filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, was the first to film the extensive tatau operation in 1925, and his wife’s journal sheds light on the social role it had played for up to 2,000 years.

“To the Samoan man, it is the crucial event in a lifetime, from which all other happenings are dated. Until he is tattooed, no matter how old he may be, the Samoan man is still considered and treated as a boy. Tattooing is the beautification of the body by a race who, without metals, without clay, express their feelings for beauty in the perfection of their own glorious bodies. Deeper than than, however, is its spring in a common human need, the need for struggle and for some test of endurance, some supreme mark of the individual worth and proof of the quality of the man… What is it that can keep alive the spirit of man but his own respect for what he is, the God that is within him? And so it is that tattooing stands for valor and courage and all those qualities in which man takes pride.”

The traditional Samoan pe’a tattoo covered the man’s body from mid-torso to the knees, and was inked so intensely that from a distance it appeared as a solid blue garment. The tattooist used a mallet to tap-tap-tap the teeth of an ink-infused comb into the flesh. This was an extremely painful trial of manhood, but to quit before completion was to be forever marked as a coward. From first puncture to final healing could take a year. Women took hand tattoos and designs on the thigh and genital area called malu, a less intense product than the pe’a, but no less spiritual.

Marquesan man

Nowhere in Polynesia – or the world, for that matter – was tattooing taken to the extremes that it was in the Marquesas Islands. For almost two thousand years, Polynesians built up a rich and highly decorative culture on these remote volcanic islands in the Pacific, of which tattooing was (arguably) the most significant aspect. Marquesan men of wealth and rank were boldly tattooed from head to foot in a process that wouldn’t be completed until late in life. In the late 19th century, under French military rule, Marquesan tattooing was officially prohibited, and all but disappeared. Early European visitors (including Herman Melville) made detailed notes of the elaborate tattoos before they started to vanish. G.H. Von Langsdorff, circumnavigating the globe under the Russian banner (1803-1807) made these observations:

“…curved lines, diamonds and other designs, are often distinguishable between rows of punctures… The most perfect symmetry is observed over the whole body; the head of a man is tattooed in every part; the breast is commonly ornamented with a figure resembling a shield; on the arms and thigh are stripes, sometimes broader, sometimes narrower, in such directions that these people might very well be presumed to have studied anatomy, and to be acquainted with the course and dimensions of the muscles. Upon the back is a large cross, which begins at the neck, and ends with the last vertebrae. In the front of the thigh are often figures which seem intended to represent the human face. On each side of the calf of the leg is an oval figure which produces a very good effect. The whole, in short, displays much taste and discrimination. Some of the tenderest parts of the body, the eyelids for example, are the only parts not tattooed.” (from: Tattoos From Paradise, by Mark Blackburn, 1999)

Since Marquesans were an agricultural people living in their separate valleys, anthropologists have speculated that their tattoos may have been of tribal significance. And once again, the question arises – where did the designs first appear – on their wooden implements and temples – or as tattoos? No answer has yet been substantiated. During a 1921 expedition to the Marquesas, a tattoo inventory by Willowdean Handy concluded that these tattoos were for show – on hands when a woman kneaded dough and ate her poipoi, under arms when a warrior raised his war club, on chest and arms when a man promenaded with his arms behind his back. Marquesans seem to have made a show of their tattoos equal to the sartorial displays of people in northern climes with their designer fashions.

Polynesians in New Zealand, having arrived in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ a mere thousand years ago (a theory that ignores Maori folklore, by the way), developed a complex culture that featured both fine clothing and tattoos. What most distinguished these islanders was their moko, spiral-based designs on the face that were, in most cases, chiseled into the skin. There’s no consensus on the significance of the facial markings, but the most popular schools of thought suggest that the moko was a badge of distinction and a personal signature that told of proud events in one’s life. It may have identified one’s tribe, status, and personal line of descent. How far back this extreme form of body modification goes, isn’t known, but it may not be so ancient. Only in the late 18th century did the etched designs replace the traditional Polynesian tattoo methods in New Zealand’s more populated North Island. However long the moko has been around, it was – and still is – worn with pride.

“You may lose you most valuable property through misfortune in various ways… your house, your weaponry, your spouse, and other treasures. You may be robbed of all that you cherish. But of our moko, you cannot be deprived, except by death. It will be your ornament and your companion until your final day.”

(Netana Whakaari of Waimana, 1921)

Tattoo, Tatau, Tatatau

Through modifying their skin, the ancients were conveying messages about the values the tribe held in common, the traditions, myths, and philosophy of the group. Body art was an organic facet of primitive man’s social and aesthetic outlook and to his relationship with the natural and the supernatural world. As Captain Cook’s 1769 expedition set sail for home, his crew must have been profoundly moved by their first-hand experiences with this radical worldview. Along with their cargo of breadfruits, plantains and coconuts, they were importing to the West a brand new word for the English lexicon – ‘tattoo’.

For 250 years, the word was associated with sailors and a host of transients, misfits, and mavericks. Despite British admiralty (even royalty) acquiring tattoos, the tradition in the West hasn’t until recently gained the kind of respect necessary to open minds to an appreciation of tattoo history and the spiritual role of tattoos going back all the way to ancient times.


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