Tattoos and Ancient Egypt

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Analysis of the Fundamental Usage of Tattoos in Ancient Egypt Compared with that of Ancient Greece and Rome

Getting a tattoo inked upon one’s body is an extremely popular practice in today’s world. This form of bodily artwork symbolizes multiple aspects: a sort of coming of age right, rebellion against society, and, most pointedly, a clear form of individual expression. While tattooing is well practiced in the modern era, it actually has its roots in ancient culture. Ancient civilizations practiced the art of tattooing liberally and for different social and political reasons. Tattoos were an important form of cultural expression to both the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Egyptians, however, the meaning behind this artwork varied between the two societies. The Function of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt:

According to research done by the Smithsonian Institute of Philadelphia, the practice of tattooing was almost exclusively female. There have been long standing assumptions that tattoos were decorated upon the bodies of women who have been described of “dubious character”, such as prostitutes, dancing girls, and concubines; and were apparently meant to protect these women from sexually transmitted diseases (Lineberry). Cate Lineberry, a Smithsonian historian, disregards that assumption and claims that Ancient Egyptian women tattooed themselves during pregnancy for therapeutic measures due to the intense, unequivocal pain that childbirth during that time period. Lineberry’s reasoning is that there are multiple cases of tattooed tributes to Bes, an Egyptian goddess who was a protector of women in labor, and of net-like designs around the abdomen, which expanded in a protective fashion as a woman went into labor similarly to how bead nets were placed over a mummy to protect the woman and to, as Lineberry describes, “keep everything in”. The reasoning for an individual to get a tattoo in Ancient Egypt was a rather profound and serious decision, and the main reasons for one to do so would be to: connect with the Divine, provide tribute or act of sacrifice to a particular deity, and to use the artwork as a talisman to provide what the ancients believed to be magical or medical protection (Spickermann). As opposed to many other ancient civilizations, there is no evidence that Ancient Egyptians used tattoos as a symbolic “passport” to the world after death (Yosry). Indeed, there have actually been no male mummies found with tattoos to this date proving that marking ones body was a female dominated ritual (Rothstein). Women who have taken it upon themselves to get a tattoo did so under the assumption that they are seeking help from the divine, and the design must respectfully reflect the deity they are appealing to (Spickermann). Function of Tattoos in Ancient Greece and Rome:

The practice of getting a tattoo differed exponentially between Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks had learned the art of tattooing from the Persians (Pollick). The Greeks used this adopted practice as a tool to mark someone as property to either an individual or a religious sect (Pollick). Tattoos were also often used as punitive measures to mark an individual as a criminal (Sayre). These criminals were marked with a specific sign to declare their crime and also marked slaves. The ancient Greek military also used tattoos as a method of secret identification and communication between their spies. The tattoos only made sense to officials who were educated on such knowledge and the markings were also used to distinguish different rankings of Greek spies. This system proved effective because for security reasons, such information could not be kept tracked of in a different way (Spickermann). There were also a few instances of Ancient Greeks getting tattoos declaring devotion to a certain deity, such as Ptolemy IV, the Macedonian Greek monarch of Egypt, was marked with ivy leagues to show his devotion to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, who was...
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