Ellen Lloyd - AncientPages.com - Archaeologists have found evidence that people in almost all corners of the world practiced tattooing for thousands of years. Ancient tattoos served diverse purposes. They could be protections symbols, religious icons, medical treatment, social identifiers or simply cosmetic enhancements.
Left: Viking warrior. Credit: Discovery Magazine - Right: Vegvisir, one of the oldest and sacred Norse symbols used for protection.
Anyone who visits Scandinavia today will find that both men and women are very fond of tattoos and gladly cover their bodies with various symbols of all sizes, shape and color, but what attitude did Norsemen have towards tattoos? Did ancient Vikings wear tattoos and if so, why?
Is There Any Evidence Of Norse Tattoos?
We do know that the Celts and Northern European tribes, such as the Picts, which literally means “painted people,” all practiced some form of tattooing, but the subject becomes more complex when Vikings are concerned.
As previously mentioned on Ancient Pages, men and women were vain and very clean during the Viking Age. Scientists have discovered tweezers, combs, razors, nail cleaners, ear cleaners and toothpicks inside Viking tombs. All these Viking artifacts show that people of the Viking Age took great care when it came to personal grooming.
However, whether Vikings also wore tattoos remains uncertain. So far archaeologists have not discovered any ancient remains of Vikings who covered their bodies with tattoos. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that Vikings didn’t bother with tattoos, but there is simply no conclusive evidence this was the case.
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The problem with investigating the history of ancient tattoos is that skin is so fragile, and rarely survives in burials. Just like most of Viking clothes have rotted away and disappeared by the time archaeologists excavated their tombs, the same applies to finding traces of ancient tattoos.
Also, we shouldn’t forget that Viking funeral traditions and rituals were very complex. Not all Vikings were buried. A great Viking warrior received a ship burial. This involved placing the deceased on the ship, sail him out to sea and set the ship on fire.
The only ancient account indicating that Viking enjoyed tattoos comes from al-Tartushi, an Arabic emissary who visited Hedeby in the tenth century.
Hedeby, market center in Viking Age.
Hedeby was a prestigious trading center and one of the largest Baltic Sea ports in Viking Age.
al-Tartushi documented his travel experiences and encounters with the Vikings. Unfortunately, his work did not survive in its entirety, but excerpts from it have been preserved in Arab geographical collections. From one account we learn that al-Tartushi noticed that Vikings wore artificial eye makeup that never vanished. This made them look younger and more beautiful, he said. He also wrote that Vikings had tattoos on their arms and chests. These tattoos were strange patterns and symbols resembling animals and trees.
It’s an intriguing observation. Ancient Egyptian men wore eye makeup for a number of reasons, but that use of such cosmetics was practiced by males in the Viking society has never been confirmed. Archaeologists have never discovered any eyeliner or mascara in Hedeby.
No other ancient sources have confirmed al-Tartushi’s claims.
So, we can conclude it still remains unknown how common or uncommon tattoos were in the Norse society.
If Norse people used tattoos, then perhaps they picked one of the most popular Norse and Viking symbols we described in our previous article - 10 Viking And Norse Symbols.
Written by Ellen Lloyd – AncientPages.com
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About the author:
Ellen Lloyd – is the owner of AncientPages.com and an author who has spent decades researching history, ancient mysteries, myths, legends and sacred texts, but she is also very interested in astronomy, astrobiology and science in general