Shamans, Freak Shows, and Sluts

Ornate Gold Frame on a Brown Wall
Amiard, Nicholas. From the series, The Art of the Tattoo.

No fur.

No claws.

No bright feathers nor exotic pelts.

No tails.

No scales.

No intimidating fangs.

Anatomically speaking, apart from a magnificently developed cerebral cortex, modern man is a rather dull creature.

Perhaps, to compensate for these physical shortcomings, men and women, spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and in some cases-pain to achieve a more alluring appearance. This quest for physical perfection is no new thing, no modern phenomena.

Questionable (if not down right deadly) cosmetic ointments, painful coiffures, cinched waists, plucked brows, tattooed flesh, and countless other rituals preformed in front of the mirror have always existed. Within their respective cultures, all humans are in one way or another subjected to the slavery of fashion. And the female body is often scrutinized to a far greater degree than her male counterpart, in our own contemporary society, as well as those of ancient kingdoms long past. 

Far outlasting sartorial fads, and starlet inspired hairdos, is the tattoo. There exists no concise history of the tattooed body or a census of what percentage of the human race had undergone some form inky manipulation of the flesh in epochs gone by (though recent polls in the United States posit that 1 in 5 Americans has a tattoo).  However, as archaeologists have found tattooing implements that are 40,000 years old, and evidence of tattooed humans on almost every continent, there can be little doubt that tattoos were no mere cosmetic vanity, but markings of extreme importance.

Epochs, types of tattooing, styles of decoration, and the meanings behind tattoos are as disparate and varying as their wearers. And no where is this more true than it is for tattooed women.


The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian “tatu,” literally meaning to mark. Ancient lore posited that the knowledge and skill of tattooing was passed from the gods to holy Tahitian shamans. The shamans alone knew not only the physical art of tattooing but most importantly the sacred meaning of tattoos and tattoo design.

A Maori girl from the 19th century bears the “female tattoo,” the moko kauae, of her people. The delicacy and symmetry of the lines trailing from the chin to the ends of the mouth gives the tattoo an undeiable womanly feel. The practice of moko kauae, unlike like the tattooing of other indigenous cultures, has continued, and can still be seen on the faces of contemporary Maoris living in New Zealand today.

Like the people of Tahiti,  many of the Pacific cultures: Hawaiians, the Maori of New Zealand etc, believed that the modification of their flesh with ink was a devotional act. Tattooing was sacred, and undergoing a tattoo was an important rite for tribal members. Tattoos for a many tribal peoples, can be interpreted as physical manifestations of their beliefs and creeds.

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Far from the warm climes of the Pacific, in the harsh country between Mongolia and Russia, scientists unearthed what appears to have been a Pazyryk shaman woman. They dubbed her, (rather ridiculously) the “Siberian Ice Maiden.” Despite having perished almost three thousand years ago the dense permafrost of Eurasia preserved her intricate tomb. In her burial place were several mummified horses as well as other goods and necessities she would need in order to be successful in her life after death.  However, the most remarkable piece of history scientists gleaned from the grave site was not the tomb, or the beautiful clothing and artifacts she was buried with.  The cold of the region not only preserved her tomb, but her ancient dermis (regard the images above).  On her arms, shoulder, and hands, are fantastical depictions of animals, both real and imagined. These magnificently rendered, creatures that canter up and down her limbs not only attest to the nomadic nature of her people (the tribes of the Steppes continue to pride themselves on their horsemanship) but to the important position and power she held within her own community.  Like the numerous horses who had been buried with the Maiden, the tattooed horses of her body are believed to be a means of transport. The Ice Maiden would ride from  death on her mystical steeds into that world of the ever after.

This belief that tattoos facilitate a peaceful afterlife is common in many ancient societies. The Lakota people of the Americas believed that their tattoos would insure that the gods would recognize them in death, allowing them to pass on and join those of their tribe who were already long dead.

But not all tattoos throughout history have dealt with the existential “big questions”: life, death, the gods. etc.  In reality, many cultures saw tattoos as performing very real,  very practical day-to-day functions.

It was believed that specific tattoos could ward off demons and bearers of misfortune and bad luck, both mystical and earthly.  Tattoos functioned much in the same way a talisman was thought to protect the wearer. Many ancient soldiers, when preparing for battle, would ink tattoos into their flesh, or at the very least apply paint in various forms and shapes, to ensure a victorious outcome. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia used specific tattoos to protect from the assault of the boomerang. Some Pacific cultures believe tattoos on the legs would ward off hungry sharks. The Snake Clan of Burma to this day assert that their tattoos insure that no member of the clan can be killed by the bite of one of a snakes. (The fact that the ink which they employ in their tattoos contains small dosages of snake venom,  slowly inoculating them to minor bites, is beside the point.)

The Ramnaamis of India belong to the lowest caste, the Untouchables. The Ramnaamis believe that by tattooing the Sanskrit name of the Hindi god, Ram,  all over their bodies, they are committing an act of faith, as well as but an act of defiance. Ramnaamis believe that by literally covering themselves in the god’s name this will serve as a visual reminder to the Brahmin caste that the gods are not solely the property of the high-born, but to all.

For most of man’s history tattoos were if not universally practiced, were universally accepted. That is until the dawn of the Abrahamic religions. Like the adoption of one god and the implementation of kosher laws, the Jews, as God’s chosen people, sought to separate themselves from multitude of their tribal Middle Eastern and Levant neighbors. Tattoos were taboo, according to Leviticus,  “You shall not make any cuttings into your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you. I am the Lord.” There may also be a more practical, historical reason for the Jews’ distaste of the tattoo.  In Biblicial times the peoples of the Mediterranean and Egypt would tattoo their slaves as proof of ownership, much in the same way a brand is used by contemporary ranchers on livestock. And after generations under the yoke of Egyptian rule and slavery there is little need to fathom why Jews saw tattoos are repugnant.

Christians would also adopt this belief. And slowly as the “one God” spread through Europe, by mission or by war, tattoos increasingly were as uncivilized heathen practices. Undesirable manifestations of untamed paganism.


In the 1800s and 1900s improvements in science and travel facilitated a boon of exploration in the name of the capitalism, the “Fatherland,” and Christianity (in that order). Adventurous imperialist leaders partitioned those untamed part of the globe between themselves. But when they landed in those far-flung territories there came a cultural exchange that was anything but smooth.

In colonial Africa, Europeans were shocked by the languages, hair styles, clothing, foods, and customs of the peoples of the “Dark Continent.” But perhaps the most jarring to their Victorian European sensibilities was the practice of what the peoples of Mozambique refer to as tinhlanga, or ritual scarification.

Instead of filling the dermis with ink,  the skin would be deftly cut to create a pattern of keloid scars. Tinhlanga was, and in some areas is, especially important to the women of southern Africa. Not a religious act, nor talisman, nor a mere vanity,  the manipulation of the skin was seen as an important act of female bonding.  Women would admire the designs of a friend or in-law and have similar marks made on her own body. To do this, women would excitedly plan a ritual. Small groups would meet before dawn, far from their villages, in the bush, away from the prying eyes of husbands and fathers, and  receive their tinhlanga by a well practiced woman. And while many of their husbands delighted in their wive’s intricate patterns (the prevalence of scars applied specifically to the pubic region and inner thighs are undeniably sexual) the delights of their mates was secondary, it was themselves, as women, they wished to please.

Winston Churchill’s socialite mother, Jenni, was known to have a small tattoo on her wrist. Tsar Nicholas II had a rather large tiger along his forearm-a memento from a trip to China. And it was rumored that Queen Victoria herself had a tattoo of a ferocious bengal attacking a snake.

Near the turn of the century tattoos, despite the condemnation of religious devotees, there was a growing interest in tattooing in high society Europe.  It was de rigueur for society ladies to have small tattoos inked on to their skin, which was then hidden beneath the heaps of fabric which covered their bodies. This was a small rebellion, a thrilling act by those who had been raised by the repressive generation of Old Victorians.  However much it excited society debs, this fad, was short-lived.

An example of one of the many “tattooed ladies” who traveled around the world with such troupes as Barnum Bailey.

Desperate times do in fact lead to desperate measures. Following a rather terrible economic depression at the turn of the century,  desperate for money, some women in America decided to cash in on their bodies. If the grandees were so entranced by a woman bearing a single tattoo, imagine the attention a woman sporting hundreds of tattoos could garner? Image the numbers of tickets it would sell? Income was king and thus the “tattooed lady” was born. Joining the wildly popular circuses and freak-shows which traveled not only in the US but across Europe as well, women converted their flesh into living canvases, and for a fee allowed paying show-goers to ogle for as long as they pleased.

Circus poster of La Belle Irene, one of the first “tattooed ladies.”

But the dawn of the television and cinema in the 1950s would be the death knell for the traveling circus, and by default the tattooed women they employed.

It may have been the end of the tattooed woman but it was only the beginning for the woman with a tattoo.

The shock value of the tattooed woman lessened for the Baby Boomers, and their offspring of Gen-Xers and Millennials. Today’s culture has come to regard tattoos not as something exotic, but rather commonplace. That is not to say that contemporary women with tattoos are not scrutinized and judged for their skin manipulation. Judgement still exists but it employs a new vocabulary, a new slang. Take for example the women who in early 2000s went under the needle for a tattoo on their lower back. These tattoos were quickly dubbed “tramp stamps,” a term which can leave little doubt as to how the tattooed woman is viewed in terms of her sexuality.


So if contemporary religion derides tattoos, modern scientists dismiss the talismanic power of ink, and money cannot be had for donning them, are tattoos important anymore?


Are tattoos no longer sacred? 


Have they lost their magic?


Has their cultural significance faded from history?


Can we compare the powerful ink of the ancient priestess to that of a teen’s drunken decision to tattoo her flesh during Spring Break in Cabo?


Are marked women only able to exist under one label: shamans, rebels, freak-shows, or sluts?

A contemporary Maori girl following in the traditions of her people by sporting a moko kauea.












Gengenbach, Heidi. “Boundaries of Beauty: Tattooed Secrets of Women’s History in Magude District, Southern Mozambique.” Journal of Women’s History 14, no.4 (2003): 106-132.

Huehnergard, John and Harold Liebowitz. “The Biblical Prohibition Against Tattooing.” Vetus Testamentum 63 (2013):59-77.

Scheinfeld, Noah. “Tattoos and Religion.” Clinics in Dermatology (2007):362-385.

Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. Juno Books: New York, 1997.


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