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The Art of Tattooing in Ancient Ireland

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  • The Art of Tattooing in Ancient Ireland

    Can anyone contribute any knowledge of tattooing in ancient Ireland? I know woad is acidic and thus was unsuitable for such purposes, but I am having a hard time tracking down what exactly would have been used, the designs, the possible symbolism, how it was done, etc. I am aware that some bog bodies found on the island had tattoos but further information is hard to acquire. Most sites online are unconcerned with the ancients in any form. I have had tattoos for relics on the mind for a couple years but wanted the process, materials, the designs, and so on to be more factual than fictional. Can anyone help?

  • #2
    Originally posted by Manannansun View Post
    Can anyone contribute any knowledge of tattooing in ancient Ireland? I know woad is acidic and thus was unsuitable for such purposes, but I am having a hard time tracking down what exactly would have been used, the designs, the possible symbolism, how it was done, etc. I am aware that some bog bodies found on the island had tattoos but further information is hard to acquire. Most sites online are unconcerned with the ancients in any form. I have had tattoos for relics on the mind for a couple years but wanted the process, materials, the designs, and so on to be more factual than fictional. Can anyone help?
    You are absolutely right with Woad being a really dangerous substance for tattooing. It in theory would be okay war paint, but you would want to clean it off yourself really quickly, otherwise your skin would start getting a bit nasty and dangerously dry IIRC.

    For actual Tattoos in Iron Age or Early Medieval Ireland, I'm not entirely sure to tell you the truth. Do you know which bog bodies have tattoos? I gave things a quick pass to see if I could dredge anything up, but nothing jumped out at me right away. If you know which bodies have tattoos, I might be able to track down some articles written about it, but at the moment I couldn't find out which have tattoos.

    Now, for the history side of things. I don't think we have any literary record of tattoos in the Early Irish Sagas. Classical sources, sadly, also tend to leave Ireland out so we don't have any period-texts discussing the Irish. However, there is some salvageable information in other texts. For example, Saint Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae, early 7th Century C.E., writes that the Scotti were preforming tattooing in black pigment with iron pins. (Page 198 if you are curious)

    As always, there is the question of, "Right, but is he correct?" and at beast we don't really know. He was trying to explain why different groups had different names, thus the text's title of Etymologiae. His explanation that the Scotti were called the Picts in their own tongue. This is entirely incorrect, at this time the Scotti (Irish invaders settling on the Western coastline of modern day Scotland) and the Picts (we don't really know to be honest, some pre-Roman people hanging out in the area) were not the same population until the 9th century when the Scotti and the Picts merge. (We think, the Picts just sort of suddenly fade away, so it looks like the two groups unified, possibly due to the threat from the sea during this period. No large scale violence, so there wasn't some massive war or anything to cause the fade) But, for the Saint's benefit, it's not a bad guess for the 6th century and being way, way off in another part of Europe. He did get the Pict - Painted Men idea correct, but it's not in their native tongue, it's actually from Latin, and the Scotti are not the Picts. But good try for him!

    What we really care about in the passage is this mention of black dye, and iron needles. Now, I don't really know what resources were floating around, or what is suitable for tattoos without your body freaking out, but black tends to be a fairly easy color to get your hands on. Burned things, oak gall (though I think that would be dangerous if used on your body) and similar things were used for manuscript writing. Iron needles would be easy enough to get a-hold of. And, furthermore, as the Scotti are actually just a Ulster-ish tribal group who invaded Scotland, this is our best guess for what might have been going on in Ireland with tattoos. We don't know for sure without some nice archaeological evidence to back up the Saint's suggestion, but, it's good enough. Especially for the Irish who are already heavily starved of textual sources.

    So then! The question is what are they tattooing? Isadore simply says, "various figures," which is impressively unhelpful. It does, however, suggest that the tattoos he believed were in use were not designs, but of people. Again, we don't know for sure, and he could be 100% wrong, but he doesn't seem to have a cause to lie, there doesn't seem to be a political reason to present this, so at best I would put my money on 'might be a mistake,' but that's the best we have got.

    So, 'figures,' not super helpful. But, best we have. Iron pins, black ink, 'figures.' Not a ton to work with, but you're used to working with the Irish, so it's not a famine of information, just leaves you a bit peckish. We don't have much of any Iron Age 2-d art from Ireland, which also leaves us slightly grasping, at least, art of figures. Lots of vague carvings, especially earlier than the Iron Age, but not a ton of outright images of people. (far more metalwork, we do get a bunch of illustrations after Christianity shows up, but they have a lot of foreign influence and we can't know how local the illustrating traditions are) I can remember some interesting carvings of severed heads and growing plantlife from a wonderful book on Iron Age European Headhunting however, can't exactly remember if it was Irish, but it could work. Animals are always popular, I probably wouldn't have an illustrated 'storyboard,' since there's already a cultural system that handles that (Bards) in theory. Maybe some good Animal, or Mystery, or War channels?

    I am having a drink with an Irish Archeology Professor later this week, I can ask him if he knows of any examples of tattooing from the Iron Age / Early Medieval Period if you'd like too!
    Last edited by Watcher; 07-19-2017, 12:09 AM.

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    • #3
      Okay, Watcher, this is unrelated but...

      Are you a professor of some kind?


      Disclaimer: I'll huff, grump, and defend my position, but if you're having fun I'll never say you're doing it wrong.

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      • #4
        Originally posted by Kyman201 View Post
        Okay, Watcher, this is unrelated but...

        Are you a professor of some kind?
        Oh, no, but you flatter me with that Kyman! I am not a Professor. I just graduated from a History B.A. and am off to the other side of the country for my Masters of Celtic Studies in September. I spent most of my Undergrad writing and researching the Irish at every opportunity, and have thus ended up a wealth of very-very rarely relevant information.

        I am always incredibly excited to get to help other people approach the Irish, or any other cultural group though! So I like to hang around and give whatever hand I can to people.

        Hopefully one day I will be a Professor though! That's my end goal.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Watcher View Post
          I am always incredibly excited to get to help other people approach the Irish, or any other cultural group though! So I like to hang around and give whatever hand I can to people.
          If I have questions to enrich the backstory of my Son of Manannan mac Lir, I'll hit you up!


          Disclaimer: I'll huff, grump, and defend my position, but if you're having fun I'll never say you're doing it wrong.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Kyman201 View Post
            If I have questions to enrich the backstory of my Son of Manannan mac Lir, I'll hit you up!
            Oh, absolutely! Manannan graces our games with his presence frequently, if you are ever for want of something, Birthright ideas especially, I have many a thing!

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            • #7
              Thank-you Watcher, that was incredibly useful thank-you. Now this was in a novel I read so it is fiction, but do you think thorns could have been used for ink-pricking. Obviously these couldn't be blackthorn since the tips frequently break and can cause sepsis, but do you think other plants would be usable?

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Manannansun View Post
                Thank-you Watcher, that was incredibly useful thank-you. Now this was in a novel I read so it is fiction, but do you think thorns could have been used for ink-pricking. Obviously these couldn't be blackthorn since the tips frequently break and can cause sepsis, but do you think other plants would be usable?
                Thorns can absolutely be used for tattooing, I believe Maguey thorns are suspected as being a tool for tattooing in the Central American region. I'm not entirely sure what the plantlife situation is for Ireland short of, 'Lots of oats, and trees' but you are right that you would want something fairly sturdy. Trying to find a list of all thorned plants in Ireland is also proving somewhat tricky, teasel, and holly both seem like they would be too small, but I don't have any basis for what is good and what is bad for using as a tattoo tool.

                If you're looking for a Relic for a Scion, you could probably go with blackthorn thorns despite the real-world danger of such. In the hands of one of the Sidhe, or similar, I'm sure they could handle things with exceptional care while tattooing a Scion.

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                • #9
                  There are blackthorns and hawthorns in Ireland but I doubt they'd be used. They have a tendency to have the points break off in flesh leading to cases of sepsis. As such they are typically used in witchcraft for cursing.

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                  • #10
                    I don't believe any Irish bog bodies yet discovered were tattooed, but I would be very excited to be proven wrong.

                    If you want to draw inspiration from *ancient* Celts, Caesar does describe Gaulish warriors "painting themselves the color of the sky," though whether this describes tattoos or body paint is questionable.* There are also some depictions of men's facial tattoos on Gaulish coins.

                    *Caesar's commentaries had lots of details that were provably false (just copied from other historians without original research, like describing a Gaulish unicorn, or a deer with no knees), but on matters of war he's fairly reliable (likely only exaggerating his enemies' numbers).


                    @CaryKingdom - Writer and Ne'er-do-well
                    Deititian at Scion: Second Edition
                    Everything is subject to change; all opinions expressed are solely my own or those of my houseplants.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Watcher View Post
                      'Lots of oats, and trees'
                      Haha Ireland has very few trees actually
                      https://foresteurope.org/wp-content/...-spotlight.pdf

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