Power, Perils and Rites of Passage – The History of the Female Tattoo
Almost a quarter of Australian women now have tattoos - a trend some attribute to the influence of feminism. What I find interesting is that the mainstreaming of female tattooing in the west has finally caught up with a practice that is thousands of years old.
Ancient Egyptian female mummies have been found with tattoos. Thracian women were depicted with “sleeve” tattoos on their arms in Greek vases from the 5th century BC. In traditional Maori culture, the eldest daughter in elite families was tattooed as part of a sacred ceremony.
I have also been researching abstract painted motifs on nude female Cycladic sculptures, which I argue are evidence that women were tattooed in the Cycladic islands in Greece in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2000 BC).
Portrait of a Maori woman, Mrs. Rabone. ( Public Domain )
In Pacific cultures, where the tattooist has traditionally been (and usually continues to be) male, ancient stories say that the ancestral gods originally wanted women to safeguard the practice and be the primary recipients of tattoos. Nevertheless, both men and women were tattooed in Maori society prior to British colonization in the 19th century.
- Ancient Tattoos: Archaeologists find Blood and Pigments on 3,000-Year-Old Obsidian
- The Tattooed Priestesses of Hathor
But the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 criminalized tattooing as one of the teachings and practices of Tohunga (Maori experts or priests). In 1962, the Maori Welfare Act was introduced in Aotearoa, repealing this act. Since then, there has been a resurgence in tattooing among both men and women there.
Let’s look at four ancient cultures that tattooed their women in more detail.
Maori (ca.1250 AD)
A Maori woman of high rank photographed circa 1908. ( Internet Book archive )
Elsdon Best was an ethnographer who gathered detailed information from the Tuhoe tribe (from the North Island of Aotearoa) in the very early 1900s. He recounts in his book, The Uhi-Maori (1904), that elite families tattooed the younger sisters prior to the tattooing of the eldest one, who was the most tapu (sacred).
The tattooing of the lips and chin of the first-born daughter of a chief was extremely tapu, and the rite was called ahi ta ngutu (sacred fire). During the tattooing, others from the tribe would surround the patient and sing specific whakatangitangi (repetitive songs) to ease the painful and highly sacred process, the song for women being the whakawai taanga ngutu.
The motifs of the tattoo would be determined by an individual’s genealogy, and the placement of tattoos on the body was significant. People without tattoos were papatea (unmarked, and thus of lower status), and to be tattooed was a sign of attractiveness and high status in the community.
Thracian (ca.500 BC)
Thrace of the Greco-Roman world existed in what we now call east Macedonia, southeast Bulgaria and parts of Turkey. Pictorial representations of Thracian women with tattoos appear on Greek red-figure vases such as the one pictured here, with a Thracian woman attacking Orpheus.
Thracian woman with tattooed arms, wearing short chiton and endromides (boots). Attic red-figure vase in the Manner of the Achilles Painter, 450–440BC in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. ( Boston Museum of Fine Arts )
Luc Renaut, an art historian, suggests that in Thrace, tattooing added beauty, and therefore value, to women in a society where they were bought for marriage (that is, they incurred a bride price). This was in contrast to the Classical Greek and Roman systems in which the bride’s family gave payments (a dowry) to the groom’s family.
Depictions of women on Classical vases (ca. 500 BC), show Thracian women with geometric and figurative tattoos. The tattoos reinforce the Thracian-ness of the woman in the scene. And indicate that she is not your run-of-the-mill Athenian lass who can’t stand the lyre.
Greek vase painting gives a visual account of the geometric and figurative motifs on Thracian women: zigzags, dots, lines, meanders, checkerboard patterns, spirals, ladder patterns, “stick-figure” animals, half-moons, rayed suns, and rosettes.
Thracian wet nurse with tattooed arms on a fragment of an Attic red-figure calyx-crater, c. 430-390BC in the British Museum.) ( CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
Tattoos were placed on the arms, legs, ankles, chest, neck, and chin. Sometimes entire arms or legs were covered with bands of designs, row upon row.
Egyptian (Eleventh Dynasty: 2040-1991 BC)
Much older artistic (and direct) evidence of female tattooing comes from Egypt. Egyptian tattoos from the late third to early second millennium survive on female mummies and were replicated on female figurines.