It’s believed tattoos were used as talismans and amulets throughout ancient history. Now that’s quite something.
The specifics varied culturally in terms of the motifs, where the tattoos were on the body, and the surrounding rituals, but the power of tattoos seemed to be almost universally recognised in every ancient human society.
Mayan mask with what appears to be tattoos : Accidental factory.
Even in China, where tattooing has always been stigmatised, a famous 3rd century Chinese history text (the Gishi Wajin Den) speaks positively about tattoos. It describes men decorating their faces and bodies with ornamental fish and shell designs for protection, and speaks of Yue barbarians whose tattoos give them the power “to avert evil influences.”
“Jedwel” is the Berber word for tattoo, which translates to “talisman.”
Tattoos were believed to protect people from evil and diseases, bring on pregnancy and good fortune, prevent accidents and injuries, safeguard men during battle, help women in labour; and give people protection in the afterlife. Pretty versatile.
In Moche society, it’s thought that tattoos strengthened people’s connection to the divine, like a type of “sympathetic magic.” “If you want the strength of the tiger get a tattoo of a tiger. This thought process has not changed since the beginning of the art form and it continues today.”
Similarly, the Mayans tattooed themselves with powerful animals and spiritual symbols. “Serpents, eagles and jaguars were favourites of nobles and warriors. Feathered serpents, a symbol of the powerful god Kukulkan, represented spirituality and wisdom. Eagles symbolized foresight and flight. Jaguars embodied bravery, stealth and power.”
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