Ötzi the Iceman remained hidden to the world for millennia until two German tourists discovered it 30 years ago in a glacier in the Italian Alps. This 5,300-year-old mummy is not only perhaps Europe’s most famous mummy but also one of the most significant finds for those who study the global history of tattoos.
Ötzi was adorned with 61 tattoos that were incredibly preserved by the glacial climate.
The meaning of those tattoos has been debated ever since his discovery by the two hikers. Many of Ötzi’s tattoos were found to be lines drawn along areas such as the lower back, knees, wrists, and ankles, areas where people most often experience ongoing pain as they age. Some researchers believe these tattoos to be an ancient treatment for pain. Various herbs known to have medicinal properties were found near Ötzi’s resting place, lending further credence to this theory.
However, not all of Ötzi’s tattoos were on places usually affected by the wear and tear of everyday life on joints. Ötzi also sported tattoos on his chest. Theories of the purpose behind this set of tattoos, discovered using new imaging techniques in 2015, ranging from early acupuncture or ceremonial healing rituals to being part of a system of tradition or religious beliefs.
Of course, the idea that Ötzi’s tattoos may have held deep cultural or religious meaning for him and his people is not beyond reason. As a tattoo historian and scholar, I have seen how tattoos have historically been used for proper healing, religious rites and to show belonging to both cultural and religious groups throughout the ancient world and leading up to modern times.
The mummified remains of women in Egypt show tattoos dating back to 2000 B.C. In addition, engraved and painted figures in tomb reliefs and small carved figurines depicting women with tattoos date back to 4000-3500 B.C.
The tattoos were a series of dots, often applied like a protective net across a woman’s abdomen in both cases. There were also tattoos of the Egyptian Goddess Bes, seen as the protector of women in labor, on a woman’s upper thigh. In both cases, these ancient tattoos were regarded as a kind of talisman of protection for women about to give birth.
The early Greek historian Herodotus discussed how runaway slaves at Canopus voluntarily tattooed themselves as both a way to cover up the branding performed on them by their masters and out of religious devotion.
These new marks were often used to symbolize that these men and women no longer served their earthly slave masters but were now in service to a particular god or goddess.
Religious meanings of tattoos
The early Christian Apostle Paul is recorded in the Bible in Galatians 6:17 as saying, “From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body.” The original word used for “marks” was the word “stigmata,” which was often seen, hailing back to Herodotus, as the term used to describe tattooing practices.
Multiple scholars believe Paul’s tattoos were meant to show his devotion to Christ. The tattoos would also help other Christians, who faced persecution from the Roman empire, identify him as a believer.
The Māori people of New Zealand have been practicing the tattoo art of Tā Moko for centuries. These tattoos, which are still practiced today, hold a deep cultural meaning and history. The tattoos convey social status, family identification, and a person’s life accomplishments and have spiritual sense with designs that contain protective talismans and appeals to spirits to protect the wearer.
Multiple Native American and First Nations tribes in North America have a long history of wearing sacred tattoos. In 1878, the early anthropologist James Swan wrote numerous essays on the Haida people he encountered around Port Townsend, Washington.
In one essay, he detailed that the tattoos were more than ornamental, with each design having a sacred purpose. He also described that the ones who performed the tattoos were seen as spiritual leaders or holy persons.
The ancient Aztec god of sun, wind, learning, and air, Quetzalcoatl, often has tattoos in ancient reliefs. The Aztec people themselves practiced religious tattooing, with their priests often in charge of various forms of body art and modification. West African nations such as Togo and Burkina Faso have used, and continue to use, tattoos and ritual body modification as sacred rites of passage.
Tattoos in sacred rites
In modern times, one can still see people around the world wearing sacred tattoos with religious significance.
Whether it is a member of the Kalinga province of the Philippines receiving a mambabatok tattoo, a pattern of traditional designs done with a single needle, from the oldest known living tattoo artist, 102-year-old Whang-Od Oggy, to the countless crosses, Bible verses, and other symbols of Christianity that can be seen in the U.S., tattoos can still hold deep religious and spiritual meaning.
What the tattoos are adorning Ötzi the Iceman’s mummified body meant to him will most likely remain at least partially a mystery.
But Ötzi is an essential reminder that tattoos have been, and continue to be, a sacred part of many cultures worldwide.