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The Henna Page Journal
New Woad
Catherine Cartwright Jones
Page 3 of 6

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Julius Caesar’s “The Gallic Wars” described Roman period Celts living in the British Isles as having blue body art:
“Of all the inlanders most do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh and clothe themselves in skins. All the Britanni paint themselves with woad, which produces a bluish coloring, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”

The verb Caesar uses to describe the process of woading is “inficere”, to paint, stain or dye. The mummified Lindow man had dyed skin, which would support tribal Briton woading during the Roman period (Pyatt et al, 1991: 61-73). Britons woaded to create temporary patterns, though the appellation “Picts” appears to be related to the Latin “punctus”, a reference to the pricking method required for permanent tattooing. Other Roman authors such as Solinus, Herodia, and Claudian refer specifically to tattooing among the Celts living in the British Isles. Isidore of Sevillle claimed that the Picts, Scots, Irish and Britons were tattooed, and that tattoos were used to mark high social status (Lindsay, 1911: XX, sect. XIX; 23, 7; IX: 2, 103). William of Malmesbury described the pre-Norman British tribal tattooing traditions in the 12th century:
“In general, the English at that time wore short garments reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cropped; their beards shaved; their arms laden with golden bracelets, their skin marked with punctured designs (picturatis stigmatibus cutem insigniti); they were accustomed to eat excessively, and to drink until they vomited.” (Stubbs, 1887, book III, part 245, p. 305).
Contemporary descendants of Britons, who enjoy many of these same ancient traditions on weekends, may also enjoy wearing their appropriate body art heritage, at least until the following Monday.

During the Medieval period, Saint Birgit was said to have miraculously removed “wicked tattoos”, “stigmata diabolica” or” stigmatibus malignis”, from Britons converting to Christianity, and the description indicates that these were facial tattoos (Cramer, 1993: 41). Other references describe Britons wearing leg and arm tattoos. “Lebor gabala Erenn”, “The Book of Invasions of Ireland” (Macalister, 1938 – 41: V: 225), indicates that Irish tattooing may have illustrated Irish legends or recorded indigenous knowledge through visual symbolism. The phase “sages, righteous men, men of learning and historians” had their knowledge written on their knees and thighs, and frequent references to leg tattoos may be interpreted to mean that the Irish applied instructive pictorial tattoos. Irish body art may then may have been a cultural carrier, and similar to the other artwork of the period.

Elizabeth Sutherland (1995) proposed that Celtic tribal patterns in the British Isles may have resembled the pictorial elements on Pictish standing stones and other indigenous art, which is supported by classical references to the Caledonian boar as a facial tattoo. Certainly, other tribal groups who have a symbolic imagery in one medium frequently include the same imagery in body art. Pre-Christian Celtic Art was composed of the visual symbols and artistic style of the indigenous tribal groups, so reconstructions of their body art probably included those symbols and elements. In that case, an artist wishing to create neo-Celtic body art may plausibly use motifs from Irish standing stones, Bronze Age Briton shields, mirrors and horse trappings, and the Book of Durrow. Material for reconstructing body art from traditional tribal Celtic art listed below in “Celtic Art Resources”.

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