Tattoos: Between the Tribal and the Universal
to ward off evil spirits, embellish themselves, and enhance their fertility.
Sometimes even the men tattooed themselves. Although this practice is
slowly disappearing, it can still be observed amongst the elderly women of
In his essay “Tetrabiblon”, 6
century CE Byzantine physician Aetius
describes the tattooing method; and even provides recipes to prepare
pigments and ways to remove tattoos, for instance in the case of released
salves with facial tattoos.
When Christianity spread into the Mediterranean Basin, missionaries
began to work in ancient pagan communities with tattooing practices.
This led to an ambivalent stance towards tattooing in Christianity. During
century CE, Christian monks began tattooing Coptic symbols
on their bodies, probably under the influence of their Ethiopian Coptic
neighbors, who tattooed their face and arms.
Pilgrimage tattoos is a manifestation of devotion and religious
affiliation. Furthermore, these tattoos most likely expressed a symbolic
identification with the
. The pilgrimage tattoo is a phenomenon
that is particular to Eretz Israel and its method is also unique. The tattoo
was transferred to the skin through beautifully designed wooden stencil
blocks with complex images of Christian iconography. Stencil blocks from
this period teach us which images were most favored amongst the pilgrims
(the traditional tattooing images still exist today, even after manual work
was replaced with the modern electronic tattooing machine).
The earliest documentation of a Jerusalem Cross tattoo dates back to
During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, German knight, Friedrich-
Carl Rabe von Pappenheim was tattooed on his arm by an Arab from Jaffa
in exchange for “one
”. The Dragomans (guides and translators),
who lived in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, usually also worked, especially
during Easter, as tattoo artists for pilgrims. The Jerusalem tattoo became
famous already in the 17
century, and it appears in the travel literature to
Eretz Israel. Historic documentation dwindled down in the 18
however testimonies from the second half of the 19
century, are again rife
with descriptions of missionaries, pilgrims, and travelers who witnessed