As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the earliest known tattoos were often religious in nature – images of worshipped animals, symbols representing gods, and designs intended to ward off evil spirits are incredibly common in numerous cultural histories. But what about more recent times? Any of us that grew up in Christian environments have likely had Leviticus 19:28, the verse in which “cutting or marking the flesh” is strictly forbidden, quoted to us more than once. It is this verse that has led to the belief that tattoos are not permitted in many religions. Biblical scholars, however, argue that it is not tattooing itself that is forbidden, but a specific kind of ritual in which tattoos are employed. In fact, many Christian groups throughout history, such as the Knights of St. John and the Montanists, used tattoos to show their allegiance, and more recent groups, including Croats and Coptic Christians, tattoo themselves as a form of protection and declaration of faith.
In Hinduism, tattoos are not only permitted, but often encouraged. Markings on the forehead are thought to enhance spiritual health and open chakras. Women tattoo their faces with dots around the eyes and mouth to ward off evil, and men will tattoo Aum on their hands and arms to improve their karma. Several Hindu deities are portrayed with tattoos and other similar markings.
Neopaganism, an umbrella term for various forms of witchcraft, new-age spiritualism, and traditional belief systems, has no single policy on tattooing, but it’s safe to say that it is not generally frowned upon. In fact, many pagans utilize tattoos to memorialize their spiritual journeys or declare allegiance, often adorning themselves with their chosen gods and goddesses, pagan symbols, and sacred geometry. Others use tattoos as part of their private rituals, getting fertility symbols, images of talisman and amulets, or scenes from favourite myths. Gerald Gardner, a well-known figure in paganism and Wicca, had several tattoos depicting what he considered magical symbols, including a dagger, snakes, dragons, and anchors.
These are just a handful of spiritual paths that allow and encourage tattoos – there are many more, including traditional Japanese, Egyptian, and African religions, many Buddhist sects, and more progressive sects of Islam. On this Easter weekend, perhaps we can all take a few moments to appreciate the interconnectedness of symbolism and body modification throughout the world, and its history.