Personal Symbols In Ancient Europe

There are historic links between the Celts and the Scythians, and Scythian elements appear in the early Celtic art of the La Tene period. During the same period, aristocratic Thracian women were being tattooed. Thracian priestesses of Dionysos are shown with their tattoos on fifth-century bce Greek vases. Later, the sword-wielding woman attacking the bull on the base of the Celtic-influenced Gundestrup Cauldron (first century bce) is depicted with tattoos similar to those of Thracian priestesses. In the first century bce, Julius Caesar reported that the Britons painted themselves with blue woad, and this may refer to tattoos as well as war-paint. The Lindow Man, whose body was preserved in a bog, was tattooed, and the Picts were famed for the tattoos that they wore. Writing around the year 600, Isidore of Seville

Symbols Man Body

tells that the Picts were so called because their bodies were covered with pictures pricked into their skin using needles and coloured with herbs. The Celtic warriors' custom of fighting naked may in part have been intended to show off their body tattoos which served both to identify the warrior and to demonstrate his exploits.

We may have an idea of what Celtic tattoos looked like. Celtic coins found in the Channel Islands show that some Celts wore tattoos on the cheeks. The face of the sun god or Gorgo that once graced the pediment of the Celto-Roman temple at Bath has lines that may reproduce tattoos. Also, the grid markings on the Celto-Ligurian image from Roqueperteuse has already been mentioned, while a Gaulish Celtic stone image from Euffigneix, in Haute-Marne, France, dating from the first century bce, depicts a man wearing a tore. On his body is an image of a boar, the sacred beast of the god Teutates, and an eye, symbol of Taranis. The Celtic custom of depicting symbols of the gods on the body is recorded in the histories of St Kentigern. In his mission to the Cumbrians in what is now Scotland, St Kentigern condemned those people who 'disfigured' their faces and bodies with tattoos in honour of the Pagan gods. Kentigern was following an edict of the Emperor Constantine (287—337), who forbade tattoos as a disfigurement of God's image in the human form.

Contemporary Irish churchmen, too, considered tattoos to be symbols or badges of Paganism, as opposed to the tonsure of Christian monks. Later, in the year 785, the Synod of Calcuth condemned the practice as un-Christian. The Book of Kells, written shortly afterwards, shows human figures with interlace, circle and point patterns on the body. The initial page of'The Gospel According to St Mark' is a good example. Perhaps by this time, the artwork was influenced by the Coptic church, whose members were tattooed with fishes, crosses and other Christian emblems to identify themselves as irrevocably Christian. Later Celtic works do not depict humans in this way, for the practice of tattooing was proscribed in the British Isles, and those who had had them were dead.

Part of the arm-tattoos of a Scythian horseman, from a frozen tomb at Pazyryk in the High Altai Region, Siberia, preserved in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The treatment of horses, fish and other beasts in Scythian tattoos appears to be related to that of Celtic art.

Opposite: The striking gorgoneion from the tympanum of the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, Avon, western England, showing syncretism between the Celtic and Roman traditions. The lines on the forehead of the solar being may recall the sacred tattoos of Celtic Paganism.

Celtics Knot Taranis TattooPictish Celtic Tattoo

A Pictish slab from Papil, bearing images related to ancient tattoo-patterns. (Historic Scotland)

To the Pagan Celts, the multivalent deities could be symbolized both by aniconic and iconic images and by animals that embodied their character and power. In former times, it was the custom of the Celts to ally themselves with these animal powers in both warfare and spirituality. According to 'The Life of St Ciaran' (The Lives of the British Saints, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908), the Irish monk's first disciples were a boar, a fox, a badger, a wolf and a doe. This does not mean that he was some kind of early St Francis of Assisi; rather it expressed the family allegiances of his human followers. Thus, he had a disciple whose name was Tore, the boar. Another, St Sinnach, came from the Hy Sinnach, or Fox, clan, from Teffa. His badger disciple was a member of the Broc tribe in Munster, while the wolf was Ciaran's uncle, Laighniadh Faeladh, whose epithet means both 'hospitable' and 'wolfish'. Finally, the doe, whose Irish name is Os, refers to a pupil who came to him from the people of Ossory. Each of these animals was emblematical of the tribe, being also a manifestation in animal form of the tribal goddess or god.

Thus, it is quite possible that Pictish symbol-stones reproduce the tattoos that were on the body of the person whom they commemorated. It is clear that the Christian church made a successful attempt to suppress the practice of tattooing, because it was Pagan. The Pictish king became Christian in the year 710. Then, cross-slabs began to supersede the earlier picture-stones and the Pictish symbols were subordinated to the cross, finally being relegated to the back of the stones. As the practice of tattooing died out, and Latin writing was introduced, perhaps there was no longer the need or indeed the possibility to identify an individual by his or her tattoos.

However, individual signs did not die out. Though their Pagan connections may have faded, they have continued until the present as the totems and

A Pictish slab from Papil, bearing images related to ancient tattoo-patterns. (Historic Scotland)

heraldic devices of clans and families. A poem in the Book of Leinster, entitled 'The Battle of Magh Rath', copied from an earlier manuscript by Finn MacGorman, who died in 1160, recalls the noble battle banners of ancient Celtic heraldry.

Mightily advance the battalions of Congal,

To us over the ford of Ornamh.

When they came to the contest of the men

They require not to be harangued.

The token of the great warrior of Macha,

The banner of the bright king with prosperity,

Over his own head conspicuously displayed,

The banner of Scandan - an ornament with prosperity,

And of Fiacha Mor, the standard of Baedan,

Great symbol of plunder floating from its staff,

Is over the head of Congal advancing towards us.

A yellow lion on green satin, the insignia of Craebh Ruadh,

Such as the noble Conchobar bore,

Is now held up by Congal.

The standards of the host of Eochaidh

Before the embattled hosts,

Are dun-coloured standards like fire

Over the well-shaped spear-handles of Crumthann.

The standard of the vigorous king of Britain,

Conan Rod, the royal soldier,

Streaked satin, blue and white,

In folds displayed.

The standard of the great king of Saxonland of hosts

Is a wide, very great standard,

Yellow and red, richly displayed.

Over the head of Dairble, son of Dornmor

The standard of the major king of Feabhail

(I have not seen such another),

Is over his head (no treachery does he carry with him), Black and red, Cent.

The standard of Suibhne - a yellow banner,

The renowned king of Dal Ariadhe,

Yellow satin, over that mild man of hosts,

The white-fingered stripling himself in the midst of them.

The standard of Feroman of Banquets,

The red-weaponed king of the Ards of Ulster,

White satin, to the sun and wind displayed,

Over that mighty man without blemish.

This poem described, for those who did not know it, the heraldry of the monarchs of the British Isles. It is not inconceivable that such consecrated battle-standards were reproduced on commemorative stones, which originally were painted in the appropriate colours. The tattoos that people wore on their bodies, their tribal, clan and family emblems, colours and heraldry are linked intimately to the landscape from which they come. They are as much a part of the land as the rivers and hills, fields and trackways, villages and holy places that make up the traditional landscape of northern Europe. Standing stones and stone crosses do not exist separately from the landscape in which they stand. They are important landmarks in their own right, often bearing their own names which tell something of their history and meaning. Thus, stones and crosses are repositories of the local spirit of place, preserving and expressing the particular character of the land of which they are part. Crosses are always stopping-places in the landscape, places on pathways where travellers can rest, pray and restore body and spirit before going on their way. In difficult terrain, crosses mark the way, showing the wayfarer the most favourable path between villages or monasteries.

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