Monday, May 23, 2011

Tattooing in Ancient Egypt

Long have the artwork and hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt inspired and influenced modern tattooing but the reality of tattooing in the ancient culture is little known. Contrary to popular belief, the Ancient Egyptians were not known for tattooing images of heiroglyphics and depictions of their many gods on their bodies as they did in such infinite detail on everything from the simplest objects of their everyday life to the walls of their burial chambers and their layered sarcophagi.

Geometric tattoos on lower abdomen of Amunet
 Tattooing was practiced in Ancient Egypt but was an exclusively female practice. It was previously believed that this tattooing was the mark of prostitutes and for some time, excavator would assume that mummies found with tattoos were of little importance. This theory was shattered upon the discovery of the mummified body of Amunet a high priestess of the goddess Hathor uncovered in1891 a burial at Deir el-Bahari who, due to her tattoos (series of abstrac geometric patterns comprised of lines and dots) was originally dismissed as a high ranking concubine.

Further research into other female mummies with similar markings and the placement of the tattoos suggest that tattooing was in fact performed as a kind of ritual, creating a permanent amulet for women to aid in pregnancy and birth. Tattoos created with a dark pigment, probably soot, were generally placed around the abdomen, tops of the thighs and the breasts, the pattern tattooed over the abdomen would expand with the abdomen during pregnancy much like the bead nets used in the mummification rituals which were used to "keep everything in". Images of Bes, the household protector of women in labor were found at the tops of women's thighs, suggesting that he would protect the child in the womb and safeguard its birth.

Ancient Egypt has captured the imaginations of generations and its associated images; hieroglyphs, the Eye of Horus, ankhs, pyramids, pharaohs and the Egyptian Gods have been a recurring theme in tattoos for many years. The richness of the culture, mythology and symbolism associated with Ancient Egypt lends so much to tattooing and to art in general, providing more than enough material to tattoo an entire torso.

Anubis - the jackal headed god of the underworld, cemeteries and embalming.

Ra - the falcon headed god of the sun.

Ankh - "the key of life", hieroglyph meaning eternal life.

The Eye of Horus - symbol for Horus the falcon sky god, of protection, royal power and good health.

Scarab beetle - symbol of the power of the sun, resurrection and the after-life.

Ouroboros - Infinity and the cyclic and eternal nature of life, creation out of destruction.

Sphinx - benevolent guard of temples witha human head and the body of a lion, generally depicted with a male head, very occasionally with a female head, depicting the goddess Isis or the reigning queen.

Source: Smithsonian, Vanishing Tattoo, National Geographic, Google Images.
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