I’m deathly afraid of needles but I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo, so for my 22nd birthday, my now-husband surprised me by paying for my first (and currently only) traipse into the world of permanent body art. I stressed for weeks as I figured out what I wanted, then worked for about an hour with a tattoo artist to create the perfect design. I twisted my fingers as I waited for my turn, maybe did a nervous shit (ha!), and finally lay down as the artist gave me both a piece of art to last a lifetime and an incredibly adrenaline rush to boot.
The inspiration for my tattoo came from my Pagan journey so far and my thoughts on how I’ve changed over the years. To many people, my tattoo is a simple Costa Rican tree frog; to me, it’s a symbol of evolution, of transformation, of growth from a baby Catholic tadpole to the mature Pagan frog I am today… an identity which continues to grow as each layer of skin is shed to reveal a new, more enlightened frog. I prefer to see my frog from an Olmec point of view: The “God of rebirth”, reborn after consuming itself and thus caught up in the never-ending cycle of life and death.
And it’s no coincidence that early Christianity often referred to frogs as the “witches’ familiar”.
Like many body art enthusiasts, my tattoo was a deliberate chosen act, meant to be representative of a certain point in my life. Tattooing is much more than an art form, exemplified by its roots: A Eurasian practice since Neolithic times, tattoos have been used for purposes in medicine, war, power, criminal punishment, respect for the dead, growth and maturity, and other applications, with different cultures often having different significances and stigmas attached to the practice.
A Brief History of Tattooing in 150 Words (no less!)
The first recorded application of tattoos was on Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified body from approximately 3300 BCE found in the Ötz valley in the Alps. He had approximately 57 carbon tattoos consisting of simple dots and lines on his lower spine, behind his left knee, and on his right ankle; it’s surmised that these tattoos were used as a form of healing as their placement resembles acupuncture. Mummies dating from the end of the second millennium BCE have been discovered all over the world.
The history of tattooing is far too extensive to ever put into a blog post, so I urge you to check out ways in which different cultures use tattooing. For sake of brevity, I’m going to skip over a few (hundred) generations of this history and arrive to present-day tattooing and applicable religious connotations.
Today’s tattooing practice has origins in Polynesia; Europeans discovered the Polynesians’ art forms and mimicked their practices, which attracted much interest at exhibits, fairs, and circuses in Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tattoo “parlors” started to spring up all over the world, and the invention of the first electric tattooing instrument in 1891 made the practice really take off.
Tattooing and Religion
While many ancient religious and cultural groups encouraged tattooing for one reason or another, there are a few that abstain from and even abhor the practice as it lends to a decidedly Pagan bent. Then there are others that encourage the practice, deeming tattoos to have magic(k)al or spiritual origin and meaning.
Leviticus 19:28 prohibits getting tattoos: “Do not make gashes in your skin for the dead. Do not make any marks on your skin. I am God.” While the ancient practice of rubbing ashes of the dead into cut skin is an obvious interpretation of this halakha (Jewish law), modern tattooing is included in other interpretations by Orthodox and Traditional Jews.
The Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, known as the Code of Jewish Law and a compilation of halakha by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, also prohibits markings on the body beyond the ancient practice in 180:1. Conservative Jews point to the subsequent verse, which states that “[i]f [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless”, to say that tattooing yourself is different from obtaining a tattoo, and therefore the latter is acceptable. This is rejected by Orthodox Jews, however, reading instead that this refers to forced tattooing as was done during the Holocaust; due to its forced nature, it would not be considered a violation of Jewish Law on the part of the victim.
To disassociate from other religions, Judaism also prohibited tattoos since it was common practice for ancient pagan worshipers to tattoo themselves with religious iconography and the names of gods.
While having a tattoo does not prohibit participation in most sectors of the religious Jewish community, the Modern Orthodox community accepts laser removal of a tattoo as teshuvah (repentance), even when removed post-mortem.
Then there’s Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, which neither condemn nor condone tattooing.
The same Leviticus verse is often cited by Christians to prohibit tattooing, while those Christians that have superseded the Old Testament with the New sometimes still find explicit or implicit directives in scripture, ecclesiastical law, or church-originated social policy against tattooing.
As Christianization spread among aboriginal and indigenous people, a decline in tattooing also occurred simultaneously as the practice was considered to be a “pagan” or “heathen” activity and was forbidden.
Catholic teachings regarding tattooing are actually rather interesting: There are no prohibitions, and the act of getting a tattoo “for the sake of God”, as the Catholic council of Calcuth stated in 786 CE, was commended as praiseworthy. (This is probably why my parents didn’t spazz too much when they discovered both my sister and I were tattooed.)
Tattoos are forbidden and even considered a sin in Sunni Islam pursuant to the Sahih Bujhari, as it changes the creation of God: “The Prophet forbade [...] mutilation (or maiming) of bodies.”
Sak Yant Temple tattoos, inked by Buddhist monks, Brahman priests, and Ruesi ascetics, are made of Sak Yant designs to carry protection. This practice is done in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Some Thais believe that protection against enemies is imbued within you when done by a Buddhist monk.
The tools are not at all comfortable; in ancient times, monks used a very hard Rattan tree thorn sharpened to a point and measuring up to three feet in length, while modern tools include sharpened umbrella spikes and coffin nails picked up after a traditional cremation, each of which would be sharpened and attached to the end of a stick for use. These practices vary from temple to temple and with each Yant master.
The inks also vary, from the ancient use of sap from a rare tree found in the east area of Thiland muxed with a small amount of snake venom and cooked to a black pigment, to the use of Chinese ink mixed with aromatic oils and whiskey.
After the tattooing, during which a unique design, method, and meaning is imprinted into the skin, the monk provides a particular kataa, or prayer, to accompany the work. The monk speaks the kataa so that the words blow over into the newly inscribed tattoo, awakening the power within it. The Sak Yant is then said to become alive and to continue growing with its owner for the rest of his life.
I won’t lie, the practice makes me cringe and gives me other visceral reactions, but I completely respect its background, reverence, and spiritual meaning behind these ancient tattoos.
Tattooing, Magick, and Modern Witchcraft
Many Pagans are fully aware of the power of symbols, having used them in their rituals, worship, and magick. Chances are, you’ve come across people in the Pagan community with at least one tattoo adorning their body, whether it is a pentacle, crescent moons, Celtic knot work, a representation of the Goddess or Green Man… the list goes on and on. There are also the less Pagan-identified tattoos such as my own, where totem animals, flora and fauna, ankhs and other Egyptian designs, and other symbols are used.
These tattoos are chosen with purpose, of course, knowing that their symbolism is not only representative of their faith, but of their personal views on that faith, too, to represent one’s growth and experience in one’s Pagan journey. Their permanence lends another story, one which exemplifies how permanent one’s decisions can be in one’s life, including the decision to follow a certain religious or spiritual path.
The actual act of getting a tattoo can be a magickal experience in itself, not just what the symbol means to a person after the fact. Consider for a moment a few things when obtaining a tattoo:
- Pain is inevitably involved, which is a useful way for you to attain a trance-like state for magickal workings. (If getting a larger tattoo, you might want to consider a friend driving you home…)
- Shedding blood is also inevitable; as the needle pierces through several layers of your skin, droplets of blood appear on the surface, a symbol of your connection to life.
- The tattoo is “anointed” afterward with water to cleanse it and begin the healing process. If you desire, you might ask the artist to allow you to bless the water beforehand, thereby additionally charging the tattoo with your energy.
Do you have a tattoo? What meaning does it hold for you?
- Animals and Witchcraft: Frog and Toad
- Ask the Rabbi: Are Tattoos Forbidden?
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Tattoo (Body Decoration)
- Finding My Religion
- Sacred Skin: Tattoos in Modern Paganism
- Sak Yant Thai Tattoos