Some tattoos, ancient and modern

My daughter wants a tattoo. She’s three. The pirates in her sticker book have them, so does Charlotte at pre-school. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but Charlotte is a grown up, she’s your teacher. You have to be a grown up to have a tattoo.’ Abject disappointment.

My favourite reference to tattooing in the ancient world is by Virgil in his epic the Aeneid.

It’s an interesting reference because it subverts expectations. Aeneas in Book 4 is being likened to Apollo, a beautiful and generally well behaved god, but Aeneas is about to be poorly behaved. He is about to embark on an ill-fated love affair with Dido, queen of Carthage in North Africa, when he should be heading off to Italy where he will become the founder of the race of Romans. The subversive reference to Apollo describes a beautiful god striding across mountain ridges, but it uses language and imagery more usually associated with the much naughtier god of wine, dance and general debauchery, Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek). There is a line describing the peoples attending Apollo, ‘Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi’ which can be translated as ‘The Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar’. It is the tattooed Agathyrsians who first piqued my interest — it is for one thing so pleasing to say aloud — picti Agathyrsi: they were a tribe from the Black Sea coast, far away, with outlandish practices such as colouring their hair blue and tattooing their bodies. Annoyingly, however, ‘picti’ might not actually mean tattooed but just painted. At any rate, the reference is to a foreign, strange tribe, who do un-Roman things with their appearance. We should beware this lovely looking god-like man, then, for he is about to associate himself with an un-Roman liaison which will certainly not end well. Nothing associated with Bacchus ever ends that well, in fact people frequently get torn limb from limb by their own mothers. In short, Dido falls terrifically in love to the neglect of all else, but the gods remind Aeneas that he should be on his way. He leaves without so much as a by-your-leave. Dido, in a fit of rage, burns all his stuff, then throws herself onto the bonfire too. Aeneas sees the smoke from far out at sea and hopes all is well. So much for the association with Bacchus.

Sticking with ‘picti’, you may be thinking that this word sounds a lot like what we call the folk who lived in the north of Britain around the time the Romans were building Hadrian’s Wall, and you would be right. The Picts were the inhabitants of what we would now roughly call Scotland. However, once again, whether or not they were tattooed or merely painted themselves blue (blue again!) is a moot point. The word ‘picti’ comes from the Latin verb pingo, pingere, pinxi, pictum, meaning to paint, but also to embroider, embellish, stain or tattoo. It is a bit interesting to note that while embroidery and tattooing require different media for their colours, both require a needle to apply their colours. Again, the Picts of northern Britain were an outlandish people who so resisted Roman attempts to civilise them that a wall had to be built to keep them out of the way.

Another Latin word which has been taken to mean tattooed is ‘stigma’. In English we understand stigmatised as meaning marked with something somehow downgrading. Annoyingly, Lewis and Short (as mentioned in a previous post, THE Latin dictionary) only gives its meanings as ‘A mark burned in, a brand, impressed on slaves as a mark of disgrace… a mark of disgrace, a stigma…’. So not necessarily a tattoo at all. However, when we look further afield than Classical Latin, we find fourth century references to soldiers being tattooed with pin pricks after having proven themselves fit enough to join up, and also sixth century Latin recipes for tattoo ink, where the word ‘stigma’ definitely means tattoo. Hurrah!

What at all these references to painted, branded and tattooed bodies in the classical world have in common, however, is that the practice was most associated with foreigners, slaves and soldiers. Not suitable, then, for daughters of teachers and accountants, regardless of age. Sorry, Daughter Dearest!

Further Reading/ Viewing

Here is a link to a history of tattooing.

EDITED to include this link to a fascinating article by Sarah E. Bond on tattooing for religious reasons.

My very talented cousin Laura is a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon; here is some of her beautiful work, just because I like it.

Ingo Gildenhard has written a study guide to Aeneid Book 4 which has a neat discussion of scholarship on the Apollo simile. Other booksellers are available.

This is the Latin passage of the simile from Aeneid IV, lines 143-50, with my translation.

qualis ubi hibernam Lyciam Xanthique fluenta
deserit ac Delum maternam invisit Apollo
instauratque choros, mixtique altaria circum
Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi;
ipse iugis Cynthi graditur mollique fluentem
fronde premit crinem fingens atque implicat auro,
tela sonant umeris: haud illo segnior ibat
Aeneas, tantum egregio decus enitet ore.

Just as when Apollo leaves wintry Lycia and the flowing Xanthus and arrives at maternal Delos, he renews the songs and the Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar as they mingle together around the altars; he himself strides over the mountain ridges of Cynthus and smoothes his flowing hair with gentle leaves and dresses it in gold, his weapons clang on his shoulder. Aeneas walked no less lightly, such goodliness shining from his beauteous face.

Wikipedia has an interesting discussion of the Celtic etymology of the word Pict here.

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Burglar alarms and crepitu alarums

I bravely saw off a burglar last night. I glared at him through my bedroom window and he stopped trying to steal my bike, which pleased me. The sophisticated alarm system which alerted me to the attempted pillaging of property was my squeaky front gate. Ancient Roman alarm systems relied on something only arguably a touch more sophisticated: the flappability of their geese.

It is the early fourth century BCE. Rome is under attack from Gauls. The Roman infantry have fought as hard as they can, but the night watchmen have failed in their duty. The Gauls, under cover of darkness, believe they are heading up the Capitoline Hill to the Roman citadel and an easy victory. But a Gaulish invader puts a foot wrong: he disturbs a goose.¹

My favourite thing about this story of the geese saving Rome is not the geese per se, but rather the vocab surrounding the geese. Livy tells us that it was the ‘alarum crepitu’ of the geese which roused the Roman commander Manlius just in time for him to see off the wrong footed Gauls and save the city.² This phrase translates as ‘by the beating of the wings’, alarum being the word for wings. Whilst alarum has come to be a perfectly good English word for an alarm or call to arms, it has also lost a vowel to become the word — have you guessed it yet? — alarm!

So, whilst I have no sophisticated anti-bike-theft alarm system, if a wing beat was good enough for Ancient Rome, then a squeaky gate is good enough for me. And perhaps an extra chain on my bike.

¹ Not just any old goose, but one of a gaggle sacred to Juno.

² Livy Ab Urbe Condita V, 47.