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By Minjie Su
If you have ever watched Vikings or other TV shows or films that dwell on similar time periods and regions, chances are that you have seen a lot of characters heavily tattooed on face and body. Is it historically accurate? You must have wondered. How far does the history of tattoo go? How widely is it practiced and, as is still relevant today, how is it viewed culturally and symbolically?
Although the word ‘tattoo’ did not make into the English language until 1893, when Captain James Cook’s description of the tattowing of the Tahitians became accessible to the public, the history of tattooing goes much, much further back and archaeological evidence has been found that is traced back to the prehistory. The Greeks called it στῐ́γμᾰ or stigma; its root, stig-, forms a cluster of words that have to do with point, puncture, or mark. The Greeks observed this practice of painting skin by pricking among the barbarian Thracians. The Maenads, for instance, the mad women who are responsible of killing Orpheus, are often portrayed with little marks on their bodies. The term is passed on. The Byzantine Greek doctor Aëtius of Amida once recorded in his Sixteen Books on Medicine details of the practice. To make stigmata, he says, one must ‘apply by pricking the places with needles, wiping away the blood’ and then rub in an ink that, according to his recipe, has been prepared with a powder made of Egyptian pine wood, corroded bronze, gall, vitriol, and vinegar, mixed with leek juice.
Purpose-wise, though tattoo can be used religiously and, therefore, positively as a symbol of bless and piety, in many cases tattooing has extremely negative connotations and has been repeatedly banned by a row of popes. Slaves are tattooed to denote their status as property; criminals are tattooed as punishment and humiliation. Granted, some Roman soldiers are reported to have some sort of ‘military tattoos’, possibly symbol of the legion or the eagle, but it is more likely that these tattoos are used to mark out deserters, should anyone escape. They are, in a sense, like the slaves, their tattoos marking out that they are properties of the army, of the Roman Empire.
Tattoo is also a barbarian (and pagan) practice, an effective means to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘other’; it is often coupled with nudity, as if the skin can only be covered in one way. As clothing stands for civilisation, then, the tattooed or the painted body just has to be the other. In The Gallic War, book V, Caesar mentions that the Britons dye themselves in woad (vitrum), so they may appear ‘more terrible’ in battle, right after he comments on their dietary and sartorial habits (which, of course, are very different from the Romans). Herodian of Antioch describes the Caledonians as covering their bodies with tattoos of animal designs instead of clothes, which does not sound a very good idea for anyone living in Scotland. Likewise, Tacitus in Germania chapter 54 mentions warriors who paint their bodies black; it sounds more like camouflage because it enables the warriors to attack at night without been see. He also describes images of wild boars that the Aestyans or the amber-gatherers ‘wear’ to honour and invoke protection from the Mother of the Gods. ‘This alone serves them for arms, this is the safeguard of all, and by this every worshipper of the Goddess is secured even amidst his foes. Rare amongst them is the use of weapons of iron, but frequent that of clubs.’ The boar tattoo, if Tacitus can be trusted, offers an interesting comparison to the animal design of the Scots.
But did the Vikings have tattoos? The source that Vikings the TV show relies on is probably Mission to the Volga, a travel account by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who travelled to the Volga Bulghars on a diplomatic mission in 922. He reports that he has seen the Russiyyah, or the Rus’ people, during his trip along the Volga. Ibn Fadlan observes:
‘As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor caftans. Everyman wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, and daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades. They are dark from the tips of their toes right up to their necks – trees, pictures, and the like.’
What the Arabic means is unclear, as if Ibn Fadlan himself feels unsure about how these images come into being and what they signify. Professor James E. Montgomery, translator and editor of Mission to the Volga’s English version, explains in a note that, though it is widely believed that this odd sentence is describing tattoos of trees and other forms, such practice is otherwise unattested for the Vikings. They could also be painted or dyed images. The Russiyyah may have used wood ash to do this, making perhaps an ink not very dissimilar to Aetius’s recipe.
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su