Here is an interesting article on the subject of whether the Celts were tattooed or not.
THE CELTS WERE TATTOOED
The first thing we need to understand is that the History we have been told is not entirely true. Much of the truth in History has been erased or corrupted in order to go along with certain narratives developed by leaders, academics, archeologists and religions. The History of the Celts has particularly been erased in some areas and purposefully rewritten to hide important truths that could indeed affect the History we have been taught.
For a start… the Celts were not called Celts back in antiquity. The term Celt only came about a couple of hundred years ago to describe the many tribes of the Irish, Scottish, British and European lands.
Back then they were named as their own tribes. During the Roman Empire they were called Gauls collectively. But for the sake of a term to encompass all these peoples I’ll use Celt. I myself am of the Taexali, Ulaid and Sami tribes.
One huge misinformation we have been taught about the Celts is that they originated in central Europe and migrated West. This is not true. Although there was a migration from central Europe into the West by Celtic peoples… this was not the origin, but a migration of returning to the “homelands” in the West.
The origins of the Celts originate thousands of years before this Westward migration. Science, DNA, etymology, biology among others sciences have unequivocally proven that the Celtic peoples originate from the West coasts of Ireland, Scotland, Britain and some northern areas of Spain. These areas contain the densest evidence of DNA, language and biological makeup of the Celtic peoples, then as we look East it dilutes out the further East we go… meaning that the origin of the people originates at its most pure and dense, becoming less and more diluted as they migrated East.
The History we have been taught only goes back a fraction of the true timeline. When we look into ancient history we find a lot more and at the same time an understanding of things that leave us questioning the History we have been taught. Before the recorded History there is a rich and very interesting History of the Celtic peoples.
We find some of this information in the accounts of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Formor, the Fir Bolg along with a few other peoples who were the original and early inhabitants of the Western lands known as Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain today.
I’m not going to go too deep into who these peoples were because the point of this writing is to get to the understanding that the Celts were indeed tattooed. The reason I’m taking this back so far is to remind us that certain practices and cultural identities can be stopped, stomped out, erased and forgotten over time.
I have been tattooing since 1986… at the time of this writing I have been tattooing for 35 years. I have studied, researched and travelled the world in these years learning the history and ancient meanings of tattooing in many cultures. This has been my life… not just a hobby of interest. I have sat with elders of many cultures and listened to their knowledge passed down orally… knowledge that is not written or recorded in books.
It is evident that nearly all cultures in this world tattooed themselves or permanently marked themselves in some way. There are obvious cultures that are still practicing their tattooing or at least reviving it after its diminishment through religions and colonisations, and we only need to research some of the other European cultures such as the Croatians and Armenians to find evidence that they tattooed themselves both on their body and their face and chin up until recently. But the one culture, or peoples that have been challenged by some is that the Celts never tattooed themselves… they only painted their skin with woad. Well… why out of nearly every culture on the earth would the Celts be the only ones who didn’t tattoo themselves. We could say it’s harder to believe that they didn’t. Why wouldn’t they have? There is numerous evidence that they did… and no evidence that they didn’t. Again… we would have to ask… why wouldn’t they?
We also need to understand that in ancient times tattooing wasn’t just for aesthetics and status, the understanding that shapes and symbols produce certain energies and frequencies also plays a part in why people marked themselves with certain patterns. The lines and shapes tattooed onto the body creates resonation with properties held in the geometric shapes. Symbolic representations of spiritual, animal or nature, causes a resonation with these elements. Tattooing was an important part of our resonation with nature and the universe.
So why are we told, and why do so many believe, the Celtic peoples never tattooed themselves? I agree… there is not much evidence out there and many reasons why scholars and academics would maintain a narrative like this. But… the truth can’t be hidden forever. One of the main reasons the cultural practices of tattooing disappear from a people is through colonisation. Religion and belief systems of the colonisers have demonised, banned and stomped out the practice of tattooing in the peoples they have colonised.
One of these reasons is that the tattooed person is seen as a savage in the eyes and beliefs of the invaders. Tattooing is either banned or stopped in order to save their souls, or the people stop practicing it because it singles them out as an enemy or a lower human to the colonisers. When your people are oppressed, then sometimes cultural practices are lost or in some cases given up.
Let’s go back to the first migration of the Celtic people. The migration East from their lands in the West. During the age of the cataclysms the lands which are now Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Britain suffered heavy destruction. The ancestors of the Celts were forced into an exodus from their homeland into the East where the damage was not as severe. Leaving behind a contingent of their people to remain and heal their broken lands. Druids erected stones and built sites to help heal and balance and calm the Earth, these stones and constructions were energetic mechanisms bringing balance and healing through celestial and terrestrial connections.
The people who settled in the Eastern lands became their own tribes and remained for hundreds or thousands of years. Eventually a return to the homeland for a group of people called the Milesians took place and upon their return a battle ensued. After a long battle involving the Druids and the Warriors, the Milesians and Tuatha Dé Danann came upon an agreement and a settlement was made. But this was one of the first invasions that affected the practices and beliefs of the Celts already there. The Milesians brought with them a new religion, one that was of the solar cult and worshiping a single God as opposed to the many Gods of the indigenous Celts.
This was the first major attempt at stamping out the Druids and the practices traditional to the people. This wasn’t going to be the last time this would happen. A few thousand years later the Romans came and then the Christians, of whom both attempted to wipe out the traditional ways of these tribes, these Celts. What was left of these traditions… and this included tattooing was crushed and demonised and wiped from the ways of sacred belief. Of course being tattooed was deemed savage and evil and not to be practiced. Just as with the Native Americans later in time, the tattooing practice became discouraged so as not to attract condemnation and even death by the colonisers.
Nearly all History recorded about the Celts was written by their Roman enemies or the Christian Monks, who scribed the documentation of the lands and peoples they had moved in on, and in doing so much of the information is biased or christianised to appeal to the agenda and their beliefs at the time. A lot of true information was left out or not recorded as this was work of the devil. We find ourselves in a position that almost all knowledge of the Celts and the practices they held sacred are lost in history. But enough remains to rediscover now.
Most people now days would say or recognise any Celtic tattooing would be of knot work patterns and designs. That is not so… the knot work patterns only arrived with the monks who decorated the elaborate scriptures with the knot work designs. The tattoos of the Celts were of spirals and chevrons, later animals and elements of nature were tattooed. Evidence of how a people tattooed themselves is recorded in the carvings left behind. For the Celts it was left in stone.
The proof may lie hidden in the name itself, the Painted People (Picts), the People of the Designs (Priteni), Herodian, writing in 208, said of the Caledones, “They tattoo their bodies not only with likenesses of animals of all kinds, but with all sorts of drawings.”
Thus it is accepted that the Picts coloured and/or tattooed their bodies. Papal legates reporting a visit to Mercia in 786 told Pope Hadrian that they had to warn against the pagan custom of disfiguring the body by “hideous scars… defiling and disfiguring the body… injury of staining”. This was a reference to Mercian neighbours, the Picts.
It was F.C. Diack who in 1944 said of the carved stone monuments, that the symbols were devised from tattoos that denoted the status of the individual. The art of tattooing is at least as skilled as the art of sculpting. A good tattooist would surely find no difficulty in adapting and transferring this designs to stone.
The symbols are so honed-down, complete, finished and confident that Charles Thomas believes they must pre-date the stones. On Sanday in the Orkneys alterations to a structure were dated to the sixth century and involved the re-use of two stones, one of which bore what the excavator Dr John Hunter said to be a proto-symbol of the double disc and a snakes head. As the stone had been laid face down during its re-use, the symbol was of a much earlier date. The progression would therefore have been skin, metal, wood, and finally stone.
Not only can we see today the designs and figures that would have been tattooed on the Celts but there are numerous documentations from the peoples who encountered them through friend or through war.
T.C. Lethbridge records… Before we attempt to struggle with the intricacies of the ancient Scottish and Irish legends, the time has come to consider the archaeological side of these “painted men”. The name “Painted Men” is in itself incorrect; they were probably tattooed, for Claudian remarks on the withdrawal of “the legion which gazes on the iron-wrought figures on the face of the dying Pict”.
The description of iron-wrought tells us that the facial tattoos were of spirals and curves similar to the wrought-iron decorations. There has been a lot of misinformation exclaiming the Picts were merely painted, and yes sometimes they and other Celtic tribes painted themselves with woad. But that should not dismiss the understanding that they were also tattooed.
It was also noted… Tattooing in ancient Europe appears to have taken the form of the clan animal or symbol. Even some Greek clans were tattooed in this way. Some of the Highland clans were certainly totemic. We have the Epidii (the horse people), the Orc people (the tribe of the boar), while Clan Chattan (the men of the Cat) remains today and gave its name Caithness.
Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher and historian, spoke of the Celtic tribe the Dardanii… “In common with the Thracians (Celtic tribe) and other Balkan (Celtic) tribes, they were certainly tattooed”.
Claudius Claudianus who was associated with the court of the Roman emperor Honorius states in the withdraw of Stilicho, a military commander in the Roman army and of Vandal origins, from Britain completed about the year A.D. 400… Stilicho quoted… “Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis, Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas Perlegit exanimes Picto moriente
Figuras”. This legion, which “curbs the savage Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict”.
There is mention of meetings between the Romans and the Picts, “Mysterious emissaries landing, curious meetings of serious, shaven Roman civil servants with tattooed and bearded Pictish chiefs.”
“He (the Celt) is bearded and his face is covered with tattoo marks, in the form of stags, his tribal totem.”
Tattooing practices were known in Europe since times
of antiquity. The Greeks depicted their tattooed Thracian (Celt) neighbours, the Indo-European speaking people, on their pottery. The Picts, the indigenous people of what is today modern Scotland, were documented by Roman historians and Caesar himself as having complex tattoos. The oldest preserved tattoos come from Otzi the Iceman, a 5300 year old mummified body frozen in ice discovered in the mountains of Italy in 1991.
The destruction of these cultural practices was in part the result to “Christianise” parts of Europe by purging towns and villages of “pagan” and nonconformist, nonreligious practices… including tattooing. As Catholic Churches expanded their influence via missionaries and campaigns of assimilation beginning in A.D. 391, tattoos were frowned upon as “un-Christian”.
The Celtic cousins… the Vikings were no different in their practices of tattooing. An important account from Ahmed Iban Fadlan in 921 AD. An Arabic scholar was sent by the caliphate to Middle Volga, part of what is now Russia. Whilst there he came across a group of Northmen and it is here we have an account from history to say that they had a form of decoration on their skin.
“As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor caftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords and daggers and they 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”. This account by Fadlan would indicate that the Vikings were indeed tattooed.
The Sami are a people who live across Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Kola Peninsula. It is well established that their ancestors did, in fact, practice tattooing and also intermarried with the Northmen that we refer to as Vikings.
Across Northern Europe, tattooing was quite a common practice and indeed there have been numerous finds when burial places have been uncovered and the skin has been intact. So here we have some of the numerous records and evidence that the Celtic peoples of Europe and the Western Isles of Ireland, Scotland and Britain had a practice of tattooing in their culture, both body and facial tattooing.
The claims that the Celts were not tattooed can only be a form of denialism on the part of those who endeavour to ‘write out’ what they may deem a barbaric practice. Indeed it wasn’t, on the contrary… the tattooing of any culture… especially the head and face is considered very sacred and a practice that should be revived for the Celtic people. Reconnecting with our old ways is so important to the future of the way we live in this world.
Another disputed topic on the subject of Celtic tattooing is where on the body were they tattooed. It seems pretty clear they were tattooed everywhere. Of course not always fully covered, but it’s obvious in some tribes they were very heavily tattooed. Body, head and face. The most common facial tattoo for women in all tattooing cultures around the world is on the chin and sometimes mid forehead. We see this with Maori, Inuit, Egyptian, Berber, Croatian, Armenian, Native American, and many others. So it is safe to say the tattooing on the chin of women is not “exclusive” to one particular
people or culture, and if we follow the customary similarities over nearly every tattooed culture then there is no reason the Celtic women wouldn’t have tattooed their chins. The head is regarded as sacred in all cultures and so tattooing the face, and the different parts of the face, hold particular meaning and significance.
If we look at the fact that in most tattooed cultures the women tattooed their chins, we see a universal commonality, and this is confirmed in the Eastern Celtic tribes of the Croatian and Armenian peoples. We then can’t just rule out that the Celtic women of the Western tribes did this as well. After all… the Eastern tribes have descendants of the Western tribes. This leads us to that point again… why wouldn’t they have?
Aside from this, we should also understand that for any culture that is reviving their tattooing practice and have a significant loss of knowledge and information on this, can tattoo “their cultural designs” anywhere on themselves they feel called to. For whatever reasons and significance they deem appropriate for their lines and patterns.
For me personally, my belief in the fact that the Celts were tattooed doesn’t need to rely on the evidence above. My understanding comes from a spiritual level, an ancestral level, a cellular level. The memories are revealed to me through my DNA and through my connection to my ancestors. My “NDE”… near death experience… had my ancestors come to me to share information and guidance. During this experience a man and a woman appeared, they showed themselves as they were… tattooed. The woman showed me different symbols and patterns… throwing them towards me… spiral based patterns each containing information and knowledge. So… even if the evidence above is challenged and disputed… I will always retain my understanding that my Celtic ancestors were tattooed. I know this in my heart. I know this in my soul. I know this in my DNA, and I know this in my ancestral connection.
Sláine Mac Giolla Chuille