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The Past

What Ötzi the Iceman can tell us about tattoos in cultural and religious rites

A 5,300-year-old mummy teaches us the global history of tattoos.
A reconstruction of the head of Ötzi the Iceman.
Simon Claessen / Flickr

Ötzi the Iceman remained hidden to the world for millennia until two German tourists discovered it 30 years ago in a glacier in the Italian Alps.

This 5,300-year-old mummy is not only perhaps Europe’s most famous mummy, but also one of the most significant finds for those who study the global history of tattoos.

Ötzi was adorned with 61 tattoos that were incredibly preserved by the glacial climate.

The meaning of those tattoos has been debated ever since his discovery by the two hikers. Many of Ötzi’s tattoos were found to be lines drawn along areas such as the lower back, knees, wrists and ankles, areas where people most often experience ongoing pain as they age. Some researchers believe these tattoos to be an ancient treatment for pain. Various herbs known to have medicinal properties were found in close proximity to Ötzi’s resting place, lending further credence to this theory.

However, not all of Ötzi’s tattoos were on places usually affected by the wear and tear of everyday life on joints. Ötzi also sported tattoos on his chest. Theories of the purpose behind this set of tattoos, which were discovered using new imaging techniques in 2015, range from early acupuncture or ceremonial healing rituals to being part of a system of ritual or religious beliefs.

Of course, the idea that Ötzi’s tattoos may have held deep cultural or religious meaning for him and his people is not beyond reason. As a tattoo historian and scholar, I have seen how tattoos have historically been used for ceremonial healingreligious rites and to show belonging to both cultural and religious groups throughout the ancient world and leading all the way up to modern times.

Ancient tattoos

The mummified remains of women in Egypt shows tattoos dating back to 2000 B.C. In addition, engraved and painted figures in tomb reliefs and small carved figurines depicting women with tattoos date back to 4000-3500 B.C.

In both cases, the tattoos were a series of dots, often applied like a protective net across a woman’s abdomen. There were also tattoos of the Egyptian Goddess Bes, seen as the protector of women in labor, on a woman’s upper thigh. In both cases, these ancient tattoos were regarded as a kind of talisman of protection for women who were about to give birth.

The early Greek historian Herodotus discussed how runaway slaves at Canopus voluntarily tattooed themselves as both a way to cover up the branding performed on them by their masters and out of religious devotion.

These new marks were often used to symbolize that these men and women no longer served their earthly slave masters, but instead were now in service to a certain god or goddess.

Tattoos across many faiths

The early Christian Apostle Paul is recorded in the Bible in Galatians 6:17 as saying, “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” The original word used for “marks” was the word “stigmata,” which was often seen, hailing back to Herodotus, as the term used to describe tattooing practices.

Multiple scholars believe Paul’s tattoos were meant to show his devotion to Christ. The tattoos would also help other Christians, who faced persecution from the Roman empire, identify him as a believer.

The Māori people of New Zealand have long been practicing tattoo art. Sydney Parkinson, Alexander Turnbull Library / Wikimedia Commons

The Māori people of New Zealand have been practicing the tattoo art of Tā Moko for centuries. These tattoos, which are still practiced today, hold a deep cultural meaning and history. The tattoos not only convey social status, family identification and a person’s own life accomplishments, but also hold spiritual meaning with designs that contain protective talismans and appeals to spirits to protect the wearer.

Multiple Native American and First Nations tribes in North America have a long history of wearing sacred tattoos. In 1878, the early anthropologist James Swan wrote multiple essays on the Haida people he encountered around Port Townsend, Washington.

In one essay he detailed that the tattoos were more than ornamental, with each design having a sacred purpose. He also detailed that the ones who performed the tattoos were seen as spiritual leaders or holy persons.

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The ancient Aztec god of sun, wind, learning and air, Quetzalcoatl, is often depicted as having tattoos in ancient reliefs. The Aztec people themselves practiced religious tattooing, with their priests often in charge of various forms of body art and modification. West African nations such as Togo and Burkina Faso have used, and continue to use, tattoos and ritual body modification as sacred rites of passage.

Sacred practices

In modern times, one can still see people around the world wearing sacred tattoos with religious significance.

The oldest known living tattoo artist, Whang-Od Oggay in the Kalinga province of the Philippines, makes a traditional tattoo. Mawg64 via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

Whether it is a member of the Kalinga province of the Philippines receiving a mambabatok tattoo, a pattern of traditional designs done with a single needle, from the oldest known living tattoo artist, 102-year-old Whang-Od Oggay, to the countless crosses, Bible verses, and other symbols of Christianity that can be seen in the U.S., tattoos can still hold deep religious and spiritual meaning.

What the tattoos adorning Ötzi the Iceman’s mummified body meant to him will most likely remain at least partially a mystery.

But Ötzi is an important reminder that tattoos have been, and continue to be, a sacred part of many cultures worldwide.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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