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.
A pair of Eleventh Dynasty female Egyptian mummies excavated at Deir el-Bahari is the strongest evidence that Egyptian women were tattooed in the Middle Kingdom.
Alastair Pharo, after Hendrix 2003. ( Author provided)
The preserved “dotted diamond” tattoo motif is clearly visible on the arm of one of the mummies. The same motif can be seen on Egyptian potency figurines from the same site and period.
The striking similarity between the painted motifs on the figurine and the preserved tattoos on the female mummy are compelling evidence that cultures that tattooed their women produced female figures with tattoos painted on their bodies.
- Leaving a Mark: Unique and Elaborate Tattoos on 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy
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Dancing girl Egyptian potency figurine. By Alastair Pharo, after Winlock 1923, Fig. 15. (Author provided)
Egyptian tattooing kits consisted of three items found in the archaeological record. These are razors, needles or pins, and small containers of dried carbon based black pigment. All of these elements of the basic tattooing kit (not just in Egypt but around the world) are multifunctional items. They could be useful for non-permanent body modification: shaping eyebrows, using black eyeliner. Needles and pins could be used to sew clothing, pop pimples, or remove splinters.
Ancient people were very resourceful, and tattooing is very basic. At the core of the procedure is pricking the skin and getting some pigment into the wound. The process of prick-tattooing by hand is reflected by the representation of the diamond pattern on both the mummified tattoo and on the potency figurine.
A woman receiving tattoos with a traditional method. ( eldestandonly)
Today the cluster of needles on an electric tattooing machine are so small that you can’t differentiate the dots: a mechanism moves the needles up and down extremely quickly. But in 2000 BC, tattooing in Egypt was done with singular pointed implements or a few pins bound together held in the hand of the tattooist, using their wrist strength to repeatedly poke a motif into the skin.
The points may have been dipped into an ink beforehand and it is likely that afterwards the whole area would be rubbed with more ink for good measure to try and get a clear, dark final result.
Cycladic (ca.2500 BC)
The Cycladic people (ca. 3000-2000 BC) colonized the Cycladic Islands. They were the first major Aegean civilization to flourish in the Early Bronze Age, until the Minoans of Crete rose to prominence with their maritime prowess in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1500 BC). The mortuary practices of Cycladic people (burial, sometimes multiple burials) and the climatic conditions of the islands, means that there are no preserved tattooed skin remains to support my argument that their women were tattooed.
However, like their southern Mediterranean Egyptian neighbors, they produced nude female figures with geometric designs across the face and body. This is where the iconographic evidence of the “tattooed” Cycladic figurines aligns with Egyptian female tattooing evidence.
Furthermore, I have identified objects in the Cycladic archaeological repertoire which are present in the Egyptian tattooing kits - small containers of preserved pigment, obsidian blades to shave the skin, and needles and pins made of bone and metal.
Tattooed Cycladic figure. By Alastair Pharo, after Hendrix. (Author provided)
These items are also useful beyond the body modification sphere too - butchering, cooking, crafting, espionage - I could go on. But my point (pun intended) is that people should include tattooing in the list of possible uses for these items.
The painted Cycladic figurines and statues that constitute my artistic evidence are probably the most well-known artifacts of this culture. However, their abstract painted decoration was not fully realized until art conservator Elizabeth Hendrix’s research in the 1990s and early 2000s. Under special photographic conditions, she found faint traces of red, blue, and black pigment (sometimes noticeable with the naked eye) were revealed to be the remains of a colorful array of abstract painted motifs. These include: dots, zigzags, stripes, eyes, and possibly linear representations of the Egyptian deity, Bes.
To me, the most enigmatic Cycladic tattoo motif is the eye. Blue evil eye charms are still a potent good luck symbol in the Mediterranean and Near East. You can see it on the neck of the example shown here.
Cycladic culture was an oral one that did not create its own script and leave any written clues per se . Instead their cultural ideas are inscribed on the sculptures. I read their designs as tattoos, which identified their bearers as women who had accomplished a certain status in Cycladic society.
- Tomb of the Tattooed Sorceress Queen, The Lady of Cao
- The Stunning Ancient Tattoos of the Pazyryk Nomads
Purposes of Ancient Female Tattoos
The power of female fertility and perils of prehistoric childbirth in ancient societies probably meant that tattoos on women conveyed certain messages. They were indicative of the passage from girlhood to womanhood, of female power and female beauty.
If I see my tattoos as permanent records of rites of passage and power over adversity, ancient women and their societies may have been doing the same - but with a more restricted range of motif options. The limited range of motifs would have been due to both social conventions, the skill of the tattooist, and the tools used to create the tattoo.
Princess Ukok/Princess of the Altai. Tattoos are visible down her arm. ( Public Domain )
Next time you see a piece written about female tattooing today, I hope you will wonder at how feminism, globalization and tattooing have taken so long to come full circle. Once again, women are now the primary recipients of this ancient, permanent body modification practice.
Top Image: “The Painted Ones” hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman who is either painted or tattooed. Source: Public Domain
The article, originally titled ‘ Friday essay: power, perils and rites of passage – the history of the female tattoo ’ by Emily Poelina-Hunter was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.