The Meaning and Symbolism of Tattoos of the Ancient World

By | January 12, 2014

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Tattoos are commonly thought of as a modern fashion trend by many people but in practice, tattoos have been made and used by the earliest humans on earth.(1) In the ancient world, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, tattoos have a cultural and religious meaning and symbolism for their peoples.

In Egypt, tattoos have been depicted through paintings on tomb walls, particularly on women’s bodies. These date back to around 4000 to 3500 B.C.E. Tattooing tools made of bronze were discovered in Gurob in the north region of Egypt. The Egyptian god Bes was frequently tattooed on the legs of women, for he was considered the protector of women and children. Rows of tatttooed dots were also made on a woman’s stomach, most likely as a symbol to protect the safety of her pregnancy and fertility. A number of female mummies have been found bearing these tattoos. In addition to the rows of dots, many of the mummies also had a lozenge shape tattooed on their stomachs, another symbol of fertility and female universal power. The lozenge shape has a connection to the mother goddess and one of the mummies found with this marking was a priestess of the goddess Hathor.(2) Male mummies dating to 1300 B.C.E. were found to have tattoos of the military goddess Neith on their bodies.(3)

In ancient Greece, persons who bore a tattoo were usually slaves or members of a religious group, such as those devoted to Dionysus. Even criminals sometimes bore a tattoo as an identifier of who they were. The ancient Romans, like the Greeks, also tattooed their slaves and criminals but it appears the majority of citizens did not wear tattoos.(4)

In Mesopotamia, women also wore tattoos, not unlike the Egyptian women. One figurine found at the city of Ur shows similar markings of dots on the stomach and shoulders. The figure dates back to 4500 B.C.E.(5) Two figures dating back to the same period, one of a head, the other of a male figure, were discovered at al-Ubaid, located in modern day Iraq. These bore markings resembling tattoos, evidence that settlers in that area also used tattoos on their bodies.(6)

Today, tattoos are used as a body ornament and not so much as a form of protection although some people might get a tattoo as a good luck symbol, such as a shamrock or horseshoe.

1. www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/10023606.html.

2. www.touregypt.net/magazine/mag11012000/mag4.htm.

3. www.vanishingtattoo.com/tattoo_museum/egyptian_tattoos.htm.

4. www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html?c=y&page=4.

5. www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/ue/uea.html

6. www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/archaeology/sites/middle_east/alubaid.html

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