Tattoos for healing & social signaling among the ancients

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I’ve been reading The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor as part of the research to fully develop the nomadic tribe of spider-herders inhabiting the central plain of the region my novel Civil Mage takes place in. There’s a lot of interesting information about how tattooing practices varied in the Ancient World, so I decided to head down the rabbit hole.

Fun Facts

  • Scythian animal tattoos were placed to give a rippling effect when the person flexed their muscles.
  • Thracians used tattoos as a symbol of social status: the more elaborate the tattoo, the more important the person.
  • Egypt is the only known society that practiced tattooing where only women got tattoos.
  • Persians in the 6th century BCE tattooed criminals, vanquished enemies, and slaves who tried to escape.
  • Men and women of the Xingu from central Brazil, get tattooed to honor a departed respected chief.

Early Acupuncture

The tattoos of Ötzi the Iceman, a neolithic man whose well-preserved mummy was found in the Alps, are posited to be medicinal in nature. The chest tattoos might have been intended to help with intestinal parasites. Many were located over traditional acupuncture points or diseased joints. [Read More]

Shameful or Required?

Xiongnu nomadic tribes on the western frontiers of China demanded that Chinese envoys be tattooed before meeting with their “Greatest” (chieftain). The Chinese, like the Greeks, generally considered tattooing a form of punishment, whereas the Xiongnu considered people without any tattoos to be lacking an identity. [Read More]

Safety First

Some Scythians mixed the pigment paste for tattoos with breastmilk from a woman nursing either a boy or a girl, depending on the culture. This was presumably done because of the antimicrobial properties of human breastmilk. They also sometimes mixed in tallow, honey, sap, or ox bile (to set the dye). Pigments like indigo and berry juice were also used. [Read More]

Murderer or Tourist

Before the Spanish came, the indigenous peoples of the Philippines tattooed themselves with geometric designs and omen animals after successfully killing an enemy in a raid. The practice uses thorns and hammers and soot; there is still one practitioner alive today, although she caters to tourists and young people who want to keep their traditions alive, rather than warriors. In some ways, the traditional practice wasn’t too different from modern prison tattoos.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about prisons & punishments in sff.


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