Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Beauty - Tattoos in Ancient Egyp

Tattoos in Ancient Egypt

(As the first in a series of two articles devoted to body arts in Egypt, this article is devoted to ancient and permanent body adornment. Next month we will examine the temporary- and contemporary- traditions of henna.)

Not that long ago, in Western industrialized culture, tattooing was associated exclusively with those perceived as "primitive," "marginal" or even "criminal." Sailors and convicts were associated with tattoos as were women of a certain repute and perhaps the occasional nobleman gone slumming. This attitude has changed drastically in the last decade or so. Tattooing has become popular enough among the general population as to seem virtually commonplace.

As the enthusiasm for tattoos continues to increase, so does the popularity of Egyptian motifs. Designs based on ancient Egyptian amulets are reasonably ubiquitous among Western tattoo fans: one observes quite a few ankhs, as well as djed pillars, uraeus cobras and eyes of Horus, magically reputed to protect whatever lies beneath. These designs, however, are all based on amulets: yes, these were valued by the ancient Egyptians but carved from metal or stone rather than engraved upon the flesh. As far as we know, these designs so beloved today were not used in that fashion thousands of years ago. This is particularly interesting because, also as far as we know, the history of tattooing starts in ancient Egypt.

The phrase "as far as we know" is key because body ornamentation is an ephemeral art.

Skin does not ordinarily survive in the archaeological context, with the exception of certain unique circumstances (the bog people of Northern Europe) or certain unique preservation techniques (the mummies of ancient Egypt.)

In the West, tattooing is most often associated with Polynesia because it was from there that the custom was most dramatically reintroduced to industrialized nations. However, the earliest documented evidence for the tattoo is in Egypt. Although most anthropologists believe that the eventually almost universal tradition emerged separately and individually among different cultures, those who prefer single origin theories find various convoluted routes to explain how tattooing arrived in Samoa from Egypt. Be that as it may, Egypt is generally accepted as the cradle of tattoo art as it is of so many other arts, although recent research indicates that tattooing may have actually entered Egyptian culture via Nubian influence. By the Middle Kingdom, in any event, tattoos seem to have been popular and culturally acceptable.

The earliest intimations of tattoos come from clay figurines dating to roughly 4000BCE. These female figurines are decorated with dots, dashes and lozenges. This was inconclusive evidence until the discovery and examination of preserved, mummified bodies, whose body designs closely echo the patterns etched on the figurines.

Among the best-preserved mummies is that of a woman from Thebes from Dynasty XI (2160-1994 BCE), whose tomb identifies her as Amunet, Priestess of Hathor. Sometimes described as a concubine of Mentuhotep II, tattoo patterns remain clearly visible on her flesh. No amulet designs for Amunet. Instead, she bore parallel lines on her arms and thighs and an elliptical pattern below the navel in the pelvic region.

Several other female mummies from this period also clearly show similar tattoos as well as ornamental scarring (cicatrization, still popular in parts of Africa) across the lower abdomen. The tattoos are all seemingly abstract: a series of dots, dashes and lozenges and for this reason they are often dismissed as random and meaningless. Yet in many ways the designs are similar to those sported by traditional, rural North African and Western Asian women. This strong non-representational geometric style is influenced by the precepts of Islam but also stretches its roots back farther into the past, back into the Paleolithic. Those dots and dashes, so abstract to the non-initiated, actually hold protective and fertility-promoting significance. The lozenges are anciently and traditionally connected to the primal female power of the universe, the Great Mother, so appropriate for a priestess of Hathor.

Why do people get tattooed anyway? Modern individuals may do it for all sorts of reasons, trivial or profound but ancient and traditional societies possess serious and conscious reasoning.

The traditional reasons for tattooing include:

  • to connect with the Divine.
  • as a tribute or act of sacrifice to a deity.
  • as a talisman, a permanent amulet that cannot be lost, to provide magical or medical protection.

Many traditional cultures also use tattoos on the flesh as a sort of passport to the world after death, although interestingly, with all the emphasis on the next world in ancient Egyptian culture, there is no indication that this was the case there.

Certainly, the connection between tattoos and the divine existed in ancient Egypt. Beyond the geometric designs so favored, the other designs discovered so far are intrinsically connected to religion. Mummies dating from roughly 1300 BCE are tattooed with pictographs symbolizing Neith, a prominent female deity with a militaristic bent. These are the only tattoos that at this point seem to have a link with male bearers.

The earliest known tattoo, which is not an abstraction, which is clearly a picture of something, is an image of the demi-god Bes. Bes' image appears as a tattoo on the thighs of dancers and musicians in many Egyptian paintings. Female Nubian mummies from around 400BCE have been discovered with Bes placed similarly on their flesh.

Bes' appearance leads to an interesting point. Up until very recently in the West, tattoos have been considered very macho, exclusively male. If the evidence of the mummies can be given credence, it appears in ancient Egypt, quite the opposite scenario was true. Tattooing seems to be virtually an exclusively female province. Perhaps there isn't enough conclusive evidence to report that only women wore tattoos. There are images of male figures bearing what may be tattoo marks. However, Bes as a god throws the art back into the women's camp.

Bes is a very interesting little spirit. Not a grand creator, not a giver of profound societal gifts, he is a very basic protector of the home, a little male figure devoted to women's concerns. Half dwarf, half lion, he is the only Egyptian god traditionally shown full-face rather than in profile. Bes dances and bangs his noisy percussion instruments to drive off evil spirits. Ugly little Bes was believed to have a special love for women and children, to expend his energy protecting them. A trickster and slightly disreputable, with a somewhat lascivious reputation, Bes' image was everywhere in ancient Egypt: carved onto headboards and beds, painted onto walls, worn as amuletic jewelry and tattooed upon the flesh. (Bes' presence is still reputed to grace Egypt: rumor has it that he enjoys springing out and surprising the unwary tourist at Karnak!)

What kind of protection did the women who wore his image expect from Bes? As an amulet, Bes was expected to provide easy childbirth, conception itself and to protect the subsequent children. Perhaps he was a special patron of dancers and musicians, a patron saint of sorts. Because the pictorial images of tattooed women often include dancers, acrobats and musicians, some consider that his tattoo might have been expected to protect against venereal disease or dangerous male clientele, the assumption being that the tattooed women were also prostitutes. It's very hard at this stage to determine how much of this is true and how much Western bias. Because tattoos in the West were considered disreputable, there was an automatic association among some early anthropologists that these ancient tattooed women had to be "that" kind of woman. Perhaps they were and perhaps they weren't. Because of the placement of the tattoos- on the upper thigh, over the pelvic and pubic region- there certainly seems to be a reproductive and/or erotic component to these tattoos. From our vantage point, at this time at least, it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly the nature of that component. Perhaps these tattoos did mark and protect women in certain professions or perhaps it was just considered visually erotic and seductive and nothing more than that?

Tattooing has been discouraged in conventional Islamic societies over the most recent centuries however the tradition does remain among enclaves of Berbers and Bedouins, including those in Egypt. There seems to be many similarities among the nature of tattoos among these people and those of ancient Egypt. Just as seems to have been the case in ancient Egypt, tattooing is almost exclusively female. Designs are abstract and geometric, representational and the motivation for the tattoo is virtually always a quest for spiritual and/or medical protection or a desire for some sort of reproductive faculty: conception or ease of childbirth. In general, these tattooed women of today are very traditional, rural and religious women, often pillars of their communities, not disreputable in any sense. Should an anthropologist ever solicit their opinions as to the meaning and placement of ancient Egyptian tattoo practices, their insights might be very interesting.

* Those interested in the ancient history of these geometric designs, on tattoos, artwork and in cave paintings, and in the spiritual traditions from which they emerge, will find interesting reading and a plethora of striking images in Buffie Johnson's Lady of the Beasts (HarperCollins, 1988)

A Kid in Ancient Egypt By Ilene Springer

Foods of the Gods: Part I - Wine in Ancient Egypt By Dr. Michael Poe, Phd.

A Kid in Ancient Egypt By Ilene Springer
Foods of the Gods: Part I - Wine in Ancient Egypt
By Dr. Michael Poe, Phd.
Ramadan in Egypt
By Sameh Arab
Editor's Commentary
By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets
By Judith Illes
Book Reviews
Various Editors
Kid's Corner
By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt
By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews
By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions
By deTraci Regula
Various Editors
Restaurant Reviews
Various Editors
Shopping Around
By Jimmy Dunn
Web Reviews
By Siri Bezdicek

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