Egyptian Tattoos

Practice of tattooing is a very common one in the modern day society and it has been going on from thousands of years. Tattoos are practiced all over the world as a form of expression of beliefs and opinions, religious or spiritual connections, symbol of status or class, or simply as methods of identification.

The earliest known discoveries of tattoos on human skin were made on a 5000 year old mummified body from Ancient Egypt. The mummy was found near Italian-Austrian border area, and was given the nickname ‘iceman’. The body has at least 57 tattoos on the skin.

History of Egyptian Tattoos

Apart from the iceman mummy, the oldest known examples of tattoo on human skin have been Egyptian and date back to the time when Egyptian pyramids were being built. Mummies of Egyptian women dating back to 2000 BC were found with tattoos mostly in the form of dots and dashes.

These discoveries have helped in further solidifying the fact that tattoo practice was common in Ancient Egypt. With the passage of time, research in the body art present on the mummies discovered have helped highlight the significance and symbolic meaning of the tattoos and understand the usage of these marks.

People of ancient Egypt used to have tattoos due to religious and spiritual reasons. Some of the main reasons of the ancient Egyptians to get tattoos include:

  • Improve the connection with the Divine (God)
  • Tribute to the deities they worshiped or as a holy sacrifice
  • As an amulet to have with them all the time
  • For medical or magical protection

Female Exclusive Tattooing in Ancient Egypt

The most peculiar aspect of the Ancient Egyptian tattooing is that it was done exclusively on women, as evident from the mummies found.  This led excavators to believe that tattooing was a practice done on women of lower status or class who were involved in prostitution. However, the discovery of women mummies from burial areas meant for higher class or royal families with similar tattoos signifies that tattooing in Ancient Egypt was popular among all women.

The most popular example is the mummy of a priestess named Amunet who had very prominent tattoos in abstract patterns on her abdomen, pubic and pelvic region. These tattoos were patterns made from dots and dashes and are believed to have been used as protection of fertility and reproductive parts.

Many other similar mummies have been discovered in a number of Egyptian pyramids having tattoos similar to Amunet’s. These mummies have also been called Brides of the Dead and are buried alongside male bodies.  Another belief is that these mummies were royal concubines and being bound to their masters in life. This is why they were also buried alongside them.

Symbolism and Meaning

With the passage of time, tattoos based on dots and dashes developed into more intricate designs. Few mummies have been discovered with picture tattoos on their thighs of Bes, a god in Egyptian mythology. Bes is also considered patron god of musicians and dancing girls and were mostly found on mummies of dancers.

It was also believed that a tattoo of Bes helps in making the process of childbirth easier.

Some historians are also of the belief that the tattoo of Bes was to mark prostitutes. This belief stems from the consideration of tattoos as taboo for many years which led Anthropologists to believe that the Egyptian women marked with tattoos were somehow vile and lewd.

Critical analysis, however, associates the presence of these tattoos on women as protection of their motherhood and considered helpful in conceiving and future pregnancies.

Tools Used

Soot is believed to be the ink that was used in these tattoos which was a dark black pigment entered into the skin after it was pricked. Other colors were also used in the later years for intricate details of pictures of gods and goddesses that were used as designs for tattoos.

The tools used for the purpose of tattooing are believed to be a set of prick points. A set of seven prick points were excavated during the 1880s among other artifacts. The use of these prick points is unclear, but some people believe that they were used to prick the skin before tattoo ink was inserted.

They hold a resemblance to modern tattoo needles and are widely believed to be the instrument specially used for the purpose of tattooing. The fact that the basic principle of applying a tattoo remains the same over the passage of thousands of years is fascinating.

Influence on Modern-Day Tattooing

The discovery of body art on ancient mummified bodies has increased the fascination towards the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the modern society.

Heavily designed tattoos containing pictures and symbols of popular Egyptian gods, goddesses, mythological creatures and pharaohs are gaining widespread fame among tattoo enthusiasts. The symbolization of these gods signifies a representation of a particular ability or strength that was believed to have been possessed by that particular figure.

Most common Egyptian subjects found in modern tattoos are:

Osiris/Usiris was an Egyptian god of the death, the afterlife and the underworld. In some texts he is also known as Lord of Love.

Isis was a very famous Egyptian goddess known as the mother of nature and an ideal embodiment of wife and mother.

Bastet was a woman with the head of a cat, known as the daughter of Sun God.  She was worshiped because cats in Egypt were revered.

Amun is considered as among the most powerful Egyptian gods and possessed a ram head. He’s known as the helper of unfortunate and poor.

There are many other figures popular in tattoo designs originating from Egyptian theology, each one of them holding a special meaning and value to the bearer. These symbols and figures may be of significance to a particular person because of the lore associated with it or the admiration of powers or deeds of the figure.

The intriguing history of Egyptian tattoos and its interpretation and symbolization in the modern world is a vast and fascinating subject.

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