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A Brief Unveiling of the Meaning and History of Sacred Tattooing

A Brief Unveiling of the Meaning and History of Sacred Tattooing

Tattoos have been around for thousands of years as a form of marking the human body for different purposes and with varying meanings. Almost every ancient culture that has walked the Earth has created and worn tattoos and body art as a part of their symbolic way of life. Tattoo history spans over 5,000 years ago and is as diverse as the people that have worn them.

The art of mehndi, temporary art done on the body with henna, also dates back about 5,000 years. Mehndi is still used in ritualistic and religious ceremonies in India, but the earliest proven civilizations to use henna are the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians. Many ancient cultures have used both tattoos and mehndi for spiritual purposes.

Permanent tattoo designs, sometimes very simple, sometimes extremely elaborate, but always with deep personal meaning, have served as amulets, status symbols, signs of religious beliefs, declarations of love, adornments and even at times as forms of punishment. There is cultural significance to tattoos that is timeless.

It used to be that the earliest known tattoos were for a long time Egyptian, dated around 2,000 BC. Many mummies, which seemed to be exclusively female, showed evidence of tattooed designs on their bodies, especially on their thighs. But the timeline has been pushed back further with the discovery of the Iceman in 1991, carbon-dated at around 5,200 years old, from the area of the Italian/Austrian border who displayed tattoos on various parts of the body. His tattoos were examined and found to correspond to stress-induced degeneration areas, suggesting they may have been applied in order to help alleviate joint pain and therefore were therapeutic in nature.

It is believed by some that the Egyptian women practicing tattooing were dubious in nature and that tattoos were a mark of a prostitute, but it has since been proven that female mummies have been found in royal and elite burial areas and that at first considered a royal concubine, they now know at least one was a high status priestess. So there is no indication that tattooing was only for the “dancing girls” as they called them. Some believe that the tattoos were not marks of a prostitute or to ward off sexually transmitted diseases, but were actually functioning therapeutically as permanent forms of amulets to aid in pregnancy and child birth, as is suggested by their patterns and placements and the addition of the God Bes, who was the protector of women in labor, amongst other things. This helps to explain why Egyptian tattooing was purely restricted as a female custom. Egyptian tattoos were usually a dark or black pigment. Brighter colors, it seems, were widely used in other ancient cultures.

The Inuits, Nubians, Scythian Pazyryk, ancient Britons, Greek, Romans, Pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile, Native Americans, Ancient Chinese and Japanese, and Polynesians to name a few are of the ancient cultures who practiced the art of tattooing for varying reasons. These included similar reasons like the Egyptian women, as a mark of nobility and high status (not having them was a statement of low birth, interesting huh?), as a mark of belonging to a religious sect or to an owner, if a slave, or to mark a criminal as punishment, symbolized devotion to a patron deity, which Roman soldiers adopted until Christianity spread with the belief that tattoos “disfigure that made in God’s image.” Tattoos were worn on every part of the body including the face, all with different meanings and significance.

The Polynesians from Tahiti give us the modern day word “tattoo” from their islander term, “tatatau” or “tattau,” meaning to hit or strike. After James Cook’s expedition there, it became fashionable amongst Europeans to have tattoos, especially men with high risk professions, in which case the tattoos carried amulet-like symbolism for protection.

Modern day tattoos are world-wide spread throughout every culture still, including Japanese, Africans, and Maori of New Zealand to name a few and of course within the Western world as well. All of the symbolisms and reasoning stem from similarities to past ancient cultures, whether we’re conscious of knowing what and why we’re doing it for or not. Some may be for new reasonings and self expression, but the foundation behind it has been passed down for thousands of years and not so coincidentally, many of us get tattoos of ancient symbols from ancient civilizations and cultures. Cross-cultural influences have continued to play a significant part in how we express and live our lives, incorporating and melding things together. Interesting how everything is a cycling circle or spiral effect, linking us all in timeless experience.