Historical references to Pictish Tattooing

assembled by Craig Low

Tattooing. Among the Pretani.  “ People of the forms.”

The Proto Celtic word Kwrit- “shape, form” gave rise to the name of a culture that swept Britain between the 5th to 3rd century BC, the Pretani replacing the older Albioni.
A driving force for this change was the collapse of the old Celtic trading empires of central Europe, due in part to the expansion of the Persian Empire. The subsequent rise of a new warrior aristocracy in Northern France and the Low Countries foraged new trading links to their south with the Greeks, Etruscains, free Thracians and the Mediterranean world. The new culture termed today the La Tene unifed the tribes of eastern Britain and the Low Countries into one cultural sphere. This culture then spread to the rest of the island. By the time of the voyage of the Greek explorer Pytheas in around 320 BC the Pretani controlled most of Britain and were pressing the tribes of  Western Scotland and the Hebrides, reaching as far as the Moray Firth dominating North Eastern Scotland. This situation would remain almost unchanged until the arrival in the Island of a new superpower: the Romans.

Mid 1st c BC Julius Caesar:  "All the Britons dye their bodies with vitrum which produces a blue color, and this gives them a more terrifying appearance in battle."

25 B.C. Ovid, Amores:   "I can’t think this is my home, this healthy Sulmo, my birthplace, ancestral countryside, but wastes of Scythia or viridesque (vitrun blue) Britain or the wild rocks Prometheus's red blood dyed."

1st c B.C. Propertius, Elegies:  "Do you still in your madness imitate the painted Britons, and play wanton with foreign dyes upon your head? All beauty is best as nature made it, Belgic color is shameful on a Roman face. If some woman has stained her forehead with azure dye, is azure beauty on that account to be desired?"

43 A.D. Pomponius Mela, de Chorographia:  "Britain bears people and kings of people but all are uncivilized, and further away they are from the continent the more they are acquainted with its other blessings. So that rich only in livestock and their territory it is uncertain whether as an embellishment or for some other reason they tattoo bodies with vitrum."

98 A.D. Martial, Epigrams: "Claudia Rufina, though she is sprung from the sky-blue Britons, how she possesses the feelings of the Latin race."

98 A.D.  Martial  speaks of “ Caledonian Britons”, and in later passages, “Painted Britons.”

98 A.D.   Tacitus, on the Caledonian war:  “All the young men and famous warriors whose old age was fresh, and green every man bearing the decorations he had earned."  (It is in this passage that some see the use of the word "decorations" as implying tattoos.)

"Aestii, who have the same customs and fashions as the Suebi, but a language more like the British. They worship the Mother of the Gods, and wear, as an emblem of this cult, the device of a wild boar, which stands them in stead of armor or human protection and gives the worshiper a sense of security even among his enemies. They seldom use weapons of iron, but clubs very often. They cultivate grain and other crops with a perseverance unusual among the indolent Germans. They also ransack the sea. They are the only people who collect amber - glaesum is their own word for it - in the shallows or even on the beach. Like true barbarians, they have never asked or discovered what it is or how it is made."

1st c A.D. Pliny, Naturalis Historia:   "In Gaul there is a plant like plantain called glastum; the wives of the Britons and their daughters-in-law stain all the body and at certain religious ceremonies march along naked with a color resembling that of the Ethiopians."   (By which he meant the people of the kingdom of Kush ethnically related other North Africans, Berbers etc.)

238 A.D. Herodian:   "They tattoo their bodies with colored designs and drawings of all kinds of animals."

250 A.D. Solinus:  "The realm is partly inhabited by barbarous people, who even through their childhood have shapes of diverse beasts cunningly impressed and incorporated into their bodies, so that they are engraved into the bowels. As the man grows so grow the marks painted on him, neither do these nations count anything almost to be a greater token of patience than the bodies should by manifest scars drink in the deepest color."

415 A.D. Britain:   "Clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast her cheeks tattooed. This legion which curbs the Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict."

468-80 A.D. Oppian:  'These (hunting dogs) the wild tribes of Britons with their tattooed backs, rear and call by the name Agassian."

560-653 A.D. Isidore of Seville:   "The race of the Picts are so named from their bodies because a craftsman works on them with the point of a needle and the juice of a native wild grass, so that the scars are left as signs. Even those of noble birth are disfigured by painted limbs. Both sexes may display the custom, so that it is a mark of rank to cut-off excess hair….

The race of Picts have a name derived from their bodies. These are played upon by a needle working with small pricks and the squeezed out sap of a native plant, so that they bear the resultant marks according to the personal rank of the individual, their painted limbs being tattooed to show their high birth."

Late 6th c Taliesin:  "He is well known in Prydyn…."    (An example of the Brythonic term for the land of the Picts, it is based on the earlier Pretani “people of the forms”).

750 A.D.  Canterbury School:   "Stigmata (tattoo) that is put various pictures on your bodies of dragons or serpents as many people do."

785 A.D.  Synod of Calcuth:  "The Pagans (Celtic Church, Christians, Picts, Irish) by inspiration of the devil introduced (diabolo instinctu) most unseemly scars agreeable to what Prudentius says in his Erchiridon. Verily if anyone for God’s sake were to undergo this blemish of staining he would receive great rewards; but whoever does it from the superstition of the gentiles it does not avail him to salvation."

786 A.D.  Papal legates to Britain:  "Hideous scars defiling and disfiguring the body, injury of staining .… however young warriors may join mercenary bands called fianna, earning experience and wealth. Everyone is a fian member until he comes into estate.
To join the fian there was an initiation ceremony in which solemn oaths were taken. Irish monks called them the “sons of death” who took a “vow of evil” and wore “diabolical tattoos”.

8th c   Rand glossary:  "Stigmata (tattoo) put pictures on the body as the Scotti do."

late 8th c   George, Bishop of Ostia:  Sent by Pope Hadrian to Northumbria in 786,  condemned the pagan practice of disfiguring the body with horrible scars and the injury of dyeing human skin.

9th c Irish scribe:  "...that he may receive stigmata (tattoos) signs of the cross for Christ’s sake."

9th c Cormac’s Glossary:
Crechan: The action of metal on skin or flesh tattooing
Cartait / Catil In the speech of the Cruthnech a pointed implement that sows /implants
Doniad crecad glas ar na roscaib   “Who produce a blue/green tattoo on the eyes (eyebrows)"
Feirenn: id bi sim colpa niad in cuius uicem crechtir id crecdha, im colpa fer    “A tattooed band between the knee and ankle on the leg of a champion."
Feirenn: idbus im colpdai fir in cuis uice crechtir id crechtha in cholbdu amal nobith dinindile comdascach   “A tattooed band between the knee and ankle on a freeman.”
Fireann: idh bhios im cholphta deaglaoich    “A band between knee and ankle on a good warrior."
Ac snas chuiledh colpthadh     “Mark/tattoo the back of (wrong doers) legs."

9th c   O Dav. 518:    Corr-crechda :ainm do cnoc bis a n-etan na n-amatan    “Some tattoo artificially made on the idiot's forehead that he might be known as such."

A crechad maille iarand dearg    “A good iron tattooed ring.”

9th c anecdota from Irish manuscripts:    Amargen: glungel gairglas gl. Icata in colpa glas iarna crechad     “Amargen, Blue/Green from ankle to knee tattooed with an iron implement."

9th c Irish anecdota: Glasen:   Blue/Green dye extracted from plants.

10th c manuscript now lost, quoted by Duald Mac Firbis in the 17th c:    "The Cruthneach (Picts) is one who takes the Cruths or forms of beasts, birds and fishes on his face, and not on it only but on the whole body."

The Caldron of Poesy:    "I being white–kneed, blue-shanked, grey breaded Amairgen."

Lebor Gabala Erenn   The Book of Invasions of Ireland:    "They (Cruithne) went afterwards over Roman territory to Frankish territory and founded a city there, called Poiters: derived from pictis from their rintaib (tattoo mark)."

"The Scots are the same as the Picts, so called from their painted body, as though scissi (cut), in as much as they are marked with an impression of a variety of devices by means of iron needles and ink……Let anyone who reads this sweat."

Traditional storytellers:   "It is scribed upon their  knees and thighs and palms, so that it is corrected in the hands of sages and righteous men and men of learning and historians, and it is upon the altars of saints and righteous men from that day to this; so that the authorities stitched all knowledge down to this."
(In the section about a Cruthneach named Tuan mac Cairill who lived through many ages in the form of different animals and related the story of the invasions of Ireland that were scribed (tattooed) on his body to the Christian monks to be written down and added to religious books, corrected to fit the Christian tradition.

Vita Sanctae Brigitae, Life of Saint Brigit:   "A renegade king named Conallus and his gang of men are marked by stigmatibus malignus (wicked tattoos).  He asks St Brigit's blessing for a raid they have planned against neighboring enemies. Brigit refuses to sanction their raid and instead she informs them that she intends to petition God that they neither harm nor be harmed by anyone. Further she hopes God will make it possible for them to remove their diabolical signs.
Her petition is granted and she helps remove the tattoos by adding holy signs so as to protect them and others from them by God.  

Another group of men with stigmata diabolica on them approach Brigit and seek her blessing for their plundering. She refuses and asks them to cease and desist. They reply they can not remove their tattoos hence can not stop the plundering. In the end thanks to the power of God and Saint Brigit effaces the tattoos.
The signs associated with laicus and diberg are not specified but were part of initiation into the life. Murderous raids outside the tribe required a religious leader to bless. For this reason Bridget the daughter of a Druid was sought out."

12th c  Chronicles of the Kings of England:  "In general the English at that time wore short garments reaching to the mid-knee, they had their hair cropped, their beards shaved, arms laden with golden bracelets, their skin marked with punctured designs…."

12th c  Caesar:   calls the Britons Picti because they tattoo their faces with bhod and bhadar.

12th c Lebor na huidre,  The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel:  "The two surfaces of the blue sea that you saw those were his eyebrows matched exactly on his handsome ruddy countenance."

1996 Greep, Finds at Dragonby:    "Mirror, razor and a bone needle stained blue-green."