The Protective Tattoo

Tattoos are markings made on the skin with indelible pigments rubbed into small punctures. In fact, the word tattoo means ‘to puncture’. Tattooing is an ancient and widely distributed custom used at some time or another by nearly all cultures. Tattoos were once universally used as charms to protect the wearer from maleficent forces responsible for illness and misfortune. This belief is endorsed by Hindu myths that recount Lord Vishnu imprinting specific designs on his wife Lakshmi’s hands to protect her from evil entities. 

Tattoos, applied as protection and to ensure acceptance into the afterlife, were found on Egyptian mummies thousands of years old. Similarly, in China, mummies dating to 1500 BCE, found in 1989 in a remote corner of the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, were elaborately tattooed. Ancient mummies discovered in Peru and other parts of South America dating to 4000 BCE, the oldest ever found, bear elaborately tattooed designs on the shrivelled skin of their faces and limbs. The interesting fact about these tattoos is that they seem to have been applied as charms to relieve various aches and pains, worn as a medical remedy and placed on specific body areas.52 The 5300-year-old Neolithic iceman Otzi, discovered in 1991 by a German couple in the Italian Alps, was found to have elaborate tattoo markings on his ankles, above the kidneys, and on the left knee. To keep away the evil forces causing pain to these body parts? 

The Arabs tattooed their fingers at the joints as protection against sprains. As many cultures shared the tradition that snakes had protective influences, tattoos often took the form of intricately designed snakes. In Burma, tattoos also functioned as love charms, and many Burmese women wear a special design depicting a triangular love charm tattooed on their lips or tongue or between their eyes. In India, tattoos were widely used as caste marks and for protection. Hinduism is a source of countless tattoo designs, such as the popular gods Siva, Ganesha, and Kali, as well as sacred symbols, such as ‘om’, adorning the skin of devout followers. 

Although tattooing had a predominantly protective function, many cultures also considered it essential for the soul’s passage into the afterlife. The Maoris believed elaborate facial tattooing gave acceptance and vision in the hereafter to find one’s way. The Dayak tribes of Borneo thought hand tattoos illuminated the darkness of the hereafter, whereas the Inuits of Alaska used such markings to prepare for death rituals. 

Tahitians claim that the gods were the first to use tattoos and that the tradition therefore dates to the times when the gods lived on Earth. Amongst those tribes, where most, if not all, people were illiterate and wore minimal clothing, tattooing provided much useful information about rank, age, and tribal connection. These markings also identified a person as a member of a specific social group. In some cultures, tattoo markings began as celebrations of maturation from boy to warrior and hunter. After every successful headhunting expedition, the young man added a tattoo mark to his chest, thereby affirming his status as a warrior within the tribe. 

Solomon Islanders punctured their tattoos with the sharp claws of fruit bats or flying foxes; Florida Islanders used the fine bones from bats’ wings, whereas Maoris made use of sharks’ teeth. Other cultures used thorns, cactus spikes, and various fish bones. Primitive tattooing was an excruciating process, and hours or even days of intense agony were spent by tribal members covering themselves from head to toe in tattooed designs. Tattooing gave the appearance of being covered without the physical encumbrance of clothing. 

Often there was no choice in the matter, as many cultures imposed punishment on those who neglected wearing tattoos. Polynesian men considered not being tattooed as unmanly. Thus, despite the painful ordeal, tattooing was common. Because it involved blood shedding, it was not only seen as a mark of courage, but also as a sacrificial gesture. Each tribe practising the art of tattooing developed its own distinctive technique and style. Some tattoo designs were truly artworks, and amongst many peoples of the Pacific Islands and the Maoris of New Zealand, tattooing reached an exceptionally high standard. 

The Christian Church banned tattooing under Pope Adrian I at the Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in 787 CE, labelling it as a ‘savage and barbaric practice’. From then on, tattoos were seen as an action of protest, opposing religious or social dictates. For sailors, however, adorning the body with many tattoos remained one of the many precautions taken to guard against misfortune. Most seafaring superstitions reflected a need for protection from the most feared mishaps while at sea, specifically being shipwrecked or drowning. In the days when floggings on board ship were still common, sailors often had tattoos depicting the Crucifixion on their backs in the belief that whoever carried out the punishment would not only be impressed by their piety, but also flinch at striking the image of Christ! 

In modern times, tattoos have increasingly become a fashion statement in some Western countries, worn by men and women around their ankles, on their chests, or on one arm and shoulder, as a decorative feature. Clan or tribal tattoo marks and tattoos still worn as protective charms are still found amongst peoples of the Middle East, the nomads of Asia, the North American Indians and the native peoples of Africa.


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