Ancient Egyptian Tattoos
The practice of inserting ink under the skin to create a design has been around for thousands of years. Nearly every culture has examples of this type of body modification, suggesting that the art is universally applied but with different meanings behind each one.
The tattoos of ancient Egypt are particularly fascinating. This article will outline who received them, how it was done, and what the designs meant.
Tattoos in ancient Egypt date back to the Pre-Dynastic Period (6000 - 3100 BCE), over 5,000 years ago. This is possible to determine because in 1990 several mummies were discovered in the Gebelein region of Egypt - the majority of which had tattoos.
Before these remains were found, it was thought by scholars and archeologists that only Egyptian women wore body art. However, this find suggests that both men and women underwent the procedure, and the ink still visible on their preserved skin shows the earliest examples of figurative designs.
The men bore markings of beasts, with one man bearing the image of a Barbary sheep on his shoulder; this suggested he was a hunter. Barbary sheep were akin to mountain goats, very nimble and quick, and hunting them took great skill and prowess. Having a tattoo of one represented the individual's mastery of the sport and displaying it on such a visible area suggested that he wanted it to be seen and appreciated.
The image of a bull was also visible. This animal was seen as a symbol of power, showing that the motives for getting inked were not that dissimilar from modern day tattoo enthusiasts.
Many different social classes chose to wear tattoos in ancient Egypt, and it was especially common with priestesses and holy women. This is possibly the reason for why scientists thought it was only females who were tattooed, even though men also partook in the practice.
Priestesses who worshipped Hathor, goddess of fertility, were tattooed to represent themselves as such. These spiritual symbols were referred to as 'nefers,' signs of beauty and goodness, and often included images of the eye of Ra and the eye of Horus.
The priestess Amunet from the 11th Dynasty was discovered with these markings in 1891. Abstract lines were found on her arms, thighs, and abdomen which scholars and historians supposed were fertility symbols. In their culture, magic was synonymous with medicine and symbols of this sort were used for reasons other than decoration. This suggestion was emphasized by other female mummies found in the same area bearing the same kind of designs.
However, tattoos of Bes were worn by many different classes of people, including the famous dancer Isadora. Isadora of Artemisia bore the image of Bes on her upper thigh. She had no children and was not a prostitute. This may be another reason why it was assumed that only women wore body art.
Tattoos as Protection
For females, patterns of lines and dots were tattooed across the abdomen and connected around the lower back. This was done to protect against the risks of childbirth and sexually transmitted diseases. When the woman became pregnant and her belly swelled, the pattern would create a net and add symbolic protection to the unborn child.
Bes, the dwarf god of sexuality, fertility, childhood, and childbirth, was a figure often seen in ancient Egyptian tattoos. Women chose to put his image on their bodies to protect their unborn children, to aid in childbirth, and to improve their fertility and libidos. The tops of the thighs were common areas for his likeness to be tattooed on, as it was said he could easily oversee birthings from there.
Spirituality symbols were popular as well. The images of lotus blossoms in bloom were often seen on temple floors. Women would mirror this sacred symbol on their bodies, with the legs and hips being common areas.
Prostitutes would wear tattoos based off of images from the Turin Erotic Papyrus, a document that dates back to the New Kingdom, the Ramesside Period (1186-1077 BCE). Interpretations of the images suggest they depict a brothel, or represent the sexual practices of the gods.
The colors used for these tattoos were dark pigments of black, blue, and green. These hues carried important significance and represented life, birth, resurrection, the heavens, and fertility. It was often older female seers who practiced the art on others. This was done to offer protection to the individual through the symbols tattooed into their skin.
The practice of tattooing in ancient Egypt was primarily done for spiritual protection, both for the wearer and any unborn children. Therefore many women wore these designs although the practice wasn't exclusive to females. Many men wore tattoos to display feats of strength or power, not dissimilar from modern day tattooing.
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