Altering the body as a means of drawing close to our gods, signaling our membership in a religious community, or communicating our beliefs has a long history. Tattooing has a proud place in human religious practices. For thousands of years we have sunk pigments into our skin in a painful, transformative process. While those of us in the West may often think of tattoos as some combination of art or fad, there have always been those who practice tattooing as part of their spirituality. And among these people, we see a rich history of women tattoo artists and Goddess imagery.
A recent issue of Archaeology delighted me with an overview of some ancient tattoo practices, including the role that women played in various cultures. I would like to introduce you to some of these ancient tattooers and their work over the course of the next few posts that I make. This will build up to the eventual discussion of spiritually significant tattooing in women's lives today. At some point, I will share with you the experience I went through adding an ancient tattoo image to my own collection of tattoos.
Amazons have long fascinated me. As a little girl, the idea of living in an all-female society (free of bullying boys) was highly appealing. I spent many summer afternoons running around my backyard or curled up on the couch, fighting minotaurs and going on grand adventures with my sister Amazons. And you can be darn sure I preferred Wonder Woman* to that silly Superman -- I mean, she was from a super secret island and worshipped the Old Goddesses! How cool was that?
That fascination remained with me as I grew up. I gravitated towards the powerful women of history (like Hatshepsut and Elizabeth I) and those women who challenged the restrictive mores of their society (Harriet Tubman and Matilda Joscelyn Gage, to name two). When I wanted to escape into a fictional world, I chose those which featured women warriors and generals and starship captains.
The question is, what are those roots? So many of us live in cultural exile as women, an exile imposed by the dominant religions, and we have been delving into our more distant heritages in search of a meaningful past. This process is a journey, along which our definitions and identifications shift as we go deeper.
I was part of the early feminist wave that reclaimed the witches, scooping that ancient word wycce up out of near-oblivion, and linking it back to women’s ceremony in an era before demonization. I found out, too, that wicca meant “male witch,” rather than being an archaic Saxon word for pagan tradition as a whole. So I opted out of using that name. But I loved learning about the Dutch cognate wickenrode, “witch’s rod,” meaning a divinatory wand, and finding an entire web of related words with animistic import. Over time I discovered other witch-names from various ethnic cultures, including veleda which belongs to a long and rich web of related Indo-European words. I reclaim its forms in both my Irish and Frisian heritages.