Today’s offering comes to us from SianLuc Asha Merlyn Heart, an amateur scholar in anthropology and history, interested in the history of religion and studying to become a scholar in religious history and theology at the University of New England, Australia.
One of the most unique aspects of Celtic Culture would be their famous tattoos. It is rare to find a depiction of Celts, whether they be Gaul, Briton, or Gael, that is without any remarkable blue markings staining their bodies.
However, the accuracy of these depictions are questionable. In fact, it is a hotly debated topic whether the Celts ever really tattooed their bodies, or whether this was merely a fabrication by overly excited Greek and Roman authors more interested in amazing their audiences than giving a true look into Celtic culture and lifestyle.
To begin with, one must look at the sources of Celtic tattooing in the ancient world. The most famous evidence that comes from the Celts themselves are the Pictish people and the Pictones, their names meaning the “painted people,” which can even be found in the Irish name for the Picts, “Cruithni.” The most direct of these descriptions would be Sollinus in his Polyhistor:
For the most part, Britain is held by barbarians. Even from childhood, they are marked by local artists with various figures and images of animals. When a man’s body has been inscribed, the marks of the pigment increase with growth. The wild nations in this place consider nothing to be a greater proof of patience than that through the unforgetful scars, their bodies may drink in the most dye.
(Sollinus Italicus, Polyhistor, 22:12)
This source seems to indicate a similar tradition to that of the Maori Tattoos, Ta Moko, whereby a young man is inducted into adulthood from the completion of special tattoos. The meaning of these tattoos likely held some sacred significance known to the artist themselves, perhaps functioning as another role of the Druids.
However, there are issues with Sollinus. It is likely that not all of what Sollinus reports is factually correct. Earlier, in his report of the British, he remarks that mothers fed their babies with swords and that victorious warriors after battle would drink the blood of the fallen and smear their faces with it, much like a grotesque vampire. These lurid details suggest that Sollinus embellished his descriptions to satisfy his Roman audience.
However, there is more direct evidence found among the Celts themselves. The Irish literary tradition records Fiana, bands of warriors, reaving around Ireland with a supposed “diabolical mark” upon their foreheads, which Saint Brigid changes to be instead the mark of the cross and the Christian faith. There are many theories as to what exactly this means, but Charles MacQuarry in his work suggests that these marks are a form of insular tattooing that denotes one’s allegiance to a particular warrior band or group.
In Gaul, from where the earlier Pictones hailed, there are numerous coins depicting various portraits of leaders or other people of importance. Several of these coinages can be seen to have distinct markings upon their face, including various shapes, symbols, and swirls. They go as far down as the neck and tend to rest upon the cheek of the person tattooed. These coins are one of the only possible artistic representations of what Celtic tattoos would look like, and come from a ancient Celtic source as well.
However, one must keep in mind that in general Celtic coinages had art that was far more embellished than realistic, with many of them featuring symbols and more artistic and expressive representations of the human form. Though many of the coinages feature more realistic human depictions, this heritage should not be forgotten and could provide an alternative explanation for the swirls and symbols that are otherwise absent in Gaulish depictions.
As a final note, it should be understood that the Celts would not have been alone in practicing tattooing rites. Many neighbouring cultures had a tradition of tattooing, some of which had direct contact and possible influence on Celtic culture and religion with this connection lasting into the Christian period.
The Germanic peoples, for instance, according to a report on the Rus, tattooed their bodies a dark green with various figures and animals, much like Sollinus’s report on the Gauls. The Daunians of the Italian peninsula, whom the Gauls would have met, had a strong tattooing culture, which is shown in their native artwork and statues.
However the most direct parallel would be through the Scythians and Thracians. The Celts were said to have had a very close spiritual connection to the Thracians, with ancient authors reporting on the Druids themselves teaching the Thracians, or even reports that Zalmoxis created the Druidic religion. Though fanciful in part, the Celts and Thracians likely developed alongside each other, and this connection shouldn’t be passed up.
With all of this evidence together, it can be concluded that the Celtic peoples likely did indeed practice tattooing; however there still lies some questions on how exactly the Celts tattooed and what the contents of these artworks were. The first issue concerning tattooing should be the material used, as there have been many injuries with mistaken materials and how they were applied.
Firstly, the Celts likely would have used needles as Sollinus reports, because it was a common method of tattooing in the ancient world. However the ink itself needs special attention. It is popularly thought that the Celts would have used woad, but this is extremely unlikely. Woad is an unfit material for both tattooing and body painting, considering it would merely flake off when applied as paint, along with irritating the skin.
As a tattooing ink, woad can be painful and cause injury, along with not appearing properly. To be clear with this warning, if a person were to use woad to tattoo their skin, they would be hurt, and it will be for nothing. Please do not use woad under any circumstances.
As for the correct material, given the colouration of tattoos, that being dark blue, it has been commonly theorised that the ink is made from iron. Whatever the method, one should be cautious when choosing ink and make sure that they are not harmed from its use.
As for symbols that might have been used in tattooing, as detailed in my earlier column on totemism and the work by Charles MacQuarry, the tattoos would prominently feature some sort of animal marker upon the forehead. This would function first and foremost as identification of which particular tribe or group one belongs to. It could also have the alternative purpose of giving one spiritual protection from their totem animal while in combat.
The other most common symbol is that of swirls or other geometric patterns. This can be seen upon the cheek in Gaulish coinage, but also on the body, as seen in the remains of a wagon found in the Gaulish regions of Germany. Here the pattern extends up to the shoulder down to the waist, often going out and leaving the body in an almost vegetative pattern. The meaning of these patterns, if this particular symbol had meaning in the first place, is far more obscure, though their appearance leaves much to be amazed by.
In the end, the Celtic practice of tattooing, though not found in the greatest detail historically, is one of the most unique and striking practices of the Celts, utilising not only the animals and environment of their homelands and people, but beautiful patterns and shapes that mark a stark difference to their more easterly neighbours. One day perhaps this distinctive practice of tattooing will return and this beautiful practice will be done once again.
Author’s note: More information on Celtic tattooing practices can be found in the resources linked here.
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